Opinion: Afua Hirsch on controversial chapters in British history
Rather than simply tearing down the statues of problematic historical figures, it is more useful to have a wider, more honest debate about controversial chapters in Britain’s history
Growing up as a mixed-race girl in Britain, I never read names that resembled mine in blue plaques marking sites of heritage or historical interest. I didn’t see statues of people who looked like me, nor streets named after people who had African roots, like I did. I was not particularly perplexed by this fact. It was obvious that such people had not existed in Britain’s past – or if they had, they had made no contribution worth remembering. Black people were, after all, ahistorical, colonial subjects or slaves. The glorious statues I did see in our great towns and cities commemorated men – they are almost all men – who had nothing to do with any of that part of my heritage.
I believed this messaging that I had received both subtly and subconsciously – and sometimes explicitly and overtly – for the majority of my life. So when I began to learn the true dishonesty of these messages, I was moved to write. I could not reconcile this country I loved with the lies and half-truths it had told me, obscuring the fact that black people have been in Britain for thousands of years, some of them shaping the nation in the most significant way imaginable. I could not continue to celebrate the heroes portrayed as figures distant from any of those vague, problematic events in our past – Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Robert Clive, Lord Kitchener – without correcting the one-sided version of their lives that’s widely communicated and accepted.
I chose Nelson as an example of this pattern of erasure, amnesia and denial. When I wrote last year, in a column in the British newspaper The Guardian, that Nelson was a supporter of the transatlantic slave trade and should be remembered as such, it triggered a tsunami of debate and, in some cases, outright hostility. Yet this anger was directed not towards Nelson for the position he advocated, but instead towards me for highlighting it. That refusal to engage in matters of historical record was, ironically, the best example of the problem I was raising.
But it certainly started a conversation. I went on to make a Channel 4 documentary, The Battle for Britain’s Heroes, examining the ways in which we remember Nelson and two of our other great heroes, Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes. In that programme I called not for statues of these men to be pulled down, but for them to be remembered in a more thoughtful way. I travelled to Berlin, where statues of key figures from the German empire of 1871–1919 – whose removal was demanded by the Allies following the Second World War – have been placed in a museum at Spandau Citadel. Rather than simply tearing them down – an act of plain destruction – the statues have been carefully restored and placed at ground level, where visitors can engage with them, think about their legacy and learn lessons for the future. This is a far cry from the indifference with which we walk past our pigeon-poo-stained relics in Britain, which seems to me to be the worst combination of ignoring them while simultaneously glorifying them.
The long-running conversation about such statues in Britain has progressed throughout the past year. In Bristol, the name of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston will be removed from the hall that previously bore it, while there are calls for his statue – which stands in a prominent position in the city – to be removed altogether.
In Edinburgh it’s been announced that a plaque will be added to the statue of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, explaining that the politician successfully delayed the abolition of the slave trade, allowing for the enslavement of an estimated 630,000 people who might have been spared had it not been for his efforts.
Calls to recognise the full picture of history are not just about changing the way in which we remember, but also about introducing the forgotten. To that end, in October it was announced that a new plaque would be unveiled at the address in central Edinburgh in which famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived. The University of Glasgow, meanwhile, published a detailed report on the extent to which it had benefited financially from gifts and support from people involved in the slave trade.
Glasgow’s report, in particular, goes into unflinching detail about the gruesome details of the institution’s past. Plantations in the West Indies preferred “to work the enslaved to death and purchase replacements from Africa rather than devote resources to improving living standards and the quality of life amongst those who worked”. The profit that eventually benefited the university was derived from a regime in which a quarter of children died before reaching adulthood. Half of those who survived died before reaching the age of 40.
Former student Robert Cunninghame Graham used his Glasgow University education to become Jamaican Receiver General of Taxes, marrying the sister of Simon Taylor, one of the most powerful English slave-owners in the Caribbean. Both men conceived children with women on their plantations; the nature of those relations is unknown, but the power balance between slave owners and enslaved women was notoriously and extremely imbalanced. And in a final twist, Graham – who went on to become rector of Glasgow University– donated part of his wealth to establish a biennial prize for the best student work on the theme of ‘political liberty’.
All of this is depressing. Yet, at the same time, simply knowing about it is progress. Glasgow University seems to understand that, in order to erode what it describes as “the legacies of slavery and racism”, it must first face up to them. It’s a lesson that other British institutions could do well to learn.
So it’s ironic that critics accuse the movement to challenge our monuments of seeking to erase history. On the contrary: developments over the past year have shown that it only in asking these questions – painful and difficult as they may be – that we are able to truly remember. And it is only by remembering that we can build a future identity as British people – one built on integrity and wisdom, rather than denial and lies. Events of the past year have shown how far we have come – but also just how far we still have to go.
Afua Hirsch is a journalist, broadcaster and former barrister
This article was first published in issue 13 of BBC World Histories Magazine in 2018