Musings on History

Like many people, over the past few weeks I have watched the events that have unfolded across the globe with a mix of emotions and questions swirling through my mind.

There’s sadness. From Emmett Till to George Floyd—and the thousands of black men, women, and children killed simply because of the colour of their skin—how many lives have to be lost before there is genuine change?

Anger. How can police brutality, inequality, prejudice, and racial stereotypes continue to rear their ugly head in the 21st century? Why haven’t we bothered to learn from the past? When will people realise that equality isn’t a zero-sum game—it’s not about taking rights from one group to give to another, but rather ensuring that everyone gets treated fairly?

Guilt. What to say? What to do? Race is an uncomfortable topic, and the fears of saying the wrong thing, of introducing foot to mouth, are real. I am an immigrant to the UK, which comes with its own stories*, but I will never know what it’s like to be judged by someone based not on my personality or my actions, but because of the colour of my skin. I will never know what it’s like to worry about my husband walking on his own in our community. I will never know what it’s like to feel excluded from nature itself because of the paranoia and suspicion of other people.

Then the forcible removal of the statue of Edward Colston from my adopted hometown of Bristol was seen around the world, and I watched the footage that emerged with interest but not surprise. This is an area I know well: my MA dissertation was focused on the city centre and its historic harbourside and I spent hours, if not days, walking around it to create my very first location-based guide fifteen years ago. The controversy surrounding Colston, the Merchant Venturers, and Bristol’s role in the slave trade is something that anyone studying the city’s past is familiar with.

Colston had barely settled onto the bottom of the harbour when a word began to be bandied about that I feel more comfortable talking about: history. It’s up there in my tagline, and it’s something that I still love to learn about even though my archaeology days are behind me.

I cannot add any more to the discussion around Colston specifically: historian David Olusoga and Professor Kate Williams have highlighted how activists have tried for years to either showcase his role in the slave trade or have the statue removed. But I wanted to explore the ideas around it further, especially with regards to comments I’ve seen across social media and on news articles. For example, there’s the conflation of artefacts (the statues) with history itself.

Statues aren’t history. They can be historical. Depending on their age, they can reveal manufacturing techniques, such as how bronze was cast during a particular century, or what tools were used on marble. Not too far from Colston’s plinth is a lead statue of the sea god Neptune that is over four hundred years old. It’s part of Bristol’s history and probably the most well-travelled statue in the city (I think it’s been in at least three or four locations), but the history of Bristol remains whether the statue is there or not.

Statues can be propaganda to bolster a particular faction or cause. They can represent what a particular group of people valued at a particular period of time, or who they see fit to commemorate or admire. But they aren’t the event, or even an accurate record of an event or time period. Dozens, if not hundreds, of statues of Queen Victoria can be found across the globe, but they are no more a history of what happened during her reign than my Instagram account is a history of what’s happened throughout my life.

Nor are statues intended to be permanent. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the poem “Ozymandias” in 1817, capturing the fall of the ancient Egyptian empire through the description of the “shattered visage” of the mythical king. The point he was trying to make—empires rise and fall, even the great are eventually laid low, things change—remains just as pertinent now.

Literally putting someone on a pedestal has always brought with it the risk of judgment. Romans and other ancient civilisations practiced what we now call damnatio memoirae, removing any public record of someone found displeasing the current ruler or government. Indeed, you could say that removing people from history is as old as history itself. Times of war in particular see statues fall with regularity: a gilded statue of King George III was torn down by an angry crowd of American colonists in July 1776; thousands of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler were destroyed after their deaths; the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 is one of the vivid images to emerge from the invasion of Baghdad.

Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The deceased do not have the ability to make amends, and it is up to the living to decide how to proceed once they are armed with a better understanding or new knowledge. For example, once Jimmy Savile’s crimes were brought to light, all public references to him were removed, from statues to his very gravestone. This doesn’t fix or change the hurt he caused, but it does at the very least show it was taken seriously.

Another idea that I’ve seen shouted about on Twitter is that history is being erased. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently got in on the act, writing “We cannot try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.” It’s this assertion that has perhaps puzzled me most of all.

Because this isn’t what’s happening. Removing a statue or changing a street name doesn’t mean that the past is being ignored or overwritten. This is not some Orwellian plot to throw things down the memory hole. On the contrary, history is being expanded and broadcast. It’s finally being recognised that the narrow view that we’ve been taught for so many years is just that: narrow. For decades we’ve been given a penlight to illuminate the past, which often reveals a showreel of the deeds of the great (usually white) and the good (often men). Now, a spotlight is being turned on, revealing those pieces left on the cutting room floor.

Isn’t it odd that we never stop to ask whose history we’re being told? Everyone has heard of Florence Nightingale and her innovations in nursing during the Crimean War. But what about Mary Seacole? The Oklahoma City bombing was recently in the news to commemorate its 25th anniversary. But what about the attack on Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma? It’s all history, but some bits have been treated as more worthy of knowing than others.

Some have said that it’s unfair to judge people based on “modern standards”. Ignoring for a moment that some stood against slavery and spoke for equality well before “modern” times, I agree that people are complicated. That’s just as true now as it was in the past. Humanity is capable of creating great beauty and making amazing scientific discoveries while at the same time treating one another and the planet itself with stunning cruelty. Showing a warts-and-all picture of those in the past is a step towards ensuring that the same mistakes don’t continue to be made in the future.

The idea that history is written by the victors is not new, but it feels that we are only just starting to come to grips with the fact that we have let this overwhelmingly biased view of history shape our opinions and beliefs for decades. And, underscoring all of this, is that everyone has their own definition of history.

Usually history is considered “the truth” or “hard facts”. History is not thought of as having wiggle room. But my own discipline of archaeology is about creating a story about the past based on evidence: there is no way to prove beyond a shadow of the doubt that this interpretation is correct. It’s educated conjecture, nothing more.

Indeed, I would argue that there are multiple levels to the past. There’s what actually happened: often messy, usually one part of a long chain of actions that may or may not be visible. Then there’s history: what has been left behind and assembled by people into a more or less coherent narrative.

Yet people shape their own reality based on their perceptions. You can see this yourself: imagine a movie that you love but a friend hates (or vice versa). The movie hasn’t changed: you both saw the exact same thing but emerged with vastly different perceptions of it. Because this view of reality is coming from the inside, determining objective truth—in this case, is the movie good or bad?—is difficult. In the same way, it is easy to see how an event can be twisted based on the point of view of those who report it.

In the US, the Boston Tea Party is taught in schools as a plucky stand against the tyranny of taxation without representation. But, at the time, it would have been viewed in the UK as a riot, as the destruction of private property. By its very nature, history is a filter, an interpretation, and a curator of reality.

In the UK, the overwhelming misconception is of a white past, with those of a different skin colour being interloping foreigners without a claim to this green and pleasant land. Yet this attitude overlooks the very history it purports to defend. In the distant and not-so-distant past, islands like Britain weren’t isolated; the sea wasn’t considered a moat but a highway that brought people from around the world to it, connecting tribes and nations.

Going even further back in time, scientific evidence has recently shown that some of the early arrivals to Britain were dark skinned, with later migrations from the Middle East. Britain has been a melting pot for thousands of years. 

What does all of this add up to? It’s worth remembering that history isn’t sacred nor is it written in stone or accurately set down in textbooks. Instead, it is constantly being revised as new evidence comes to light and as we recognise the value of allowing other voices to be heard.

Located just a stone’s throw from where Edward Colston once stood is another statue, that of former Bristol MP Edmund Burke. It is Burke who is often attributed with writing, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”. Whether he wrote it or not, it’s a good reminder that being silent—whether about evil, injustice, or inequality—is never an option.

Here’s one such story if you’re curious: I was running a litter pick at a park when someone stopped to talk to me about the problem of litter and thank the group for their help. So far, so normal. While talking to me, he clocked the American accent and wanted to speak about places he had visited in the US. That’s fine and also very normal. Then the conversation turned on a dime as he declared it was the immigrants who caused the problem with litter.

I spluttered something about littering being a complex situation (and it is!), but the implicit racism in his statement shocked me. We had just talked about me being American, but clearly I wasn’t an immigrant in his mind because of the colour of my skin and the fact I spoke English … even if it was with an American accent.

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