June 8, 2020

The dead are troublesome. Long after we have abandoned their beliefs, we still have to work out what to do with all their stuff. Some of it — our great-grandmother’s engagement ring, the Arnolfini Portrait, Tintagel Castle — is a happy inheritance. Other heirlooms – the Parthenon marbles, the Oriel College statue of Cecil Rhodes, the sieg-heiling Hitler action figure that belonged to Philip Larkin’s dad — occupy an itchier category.

The citizens of Bristol have been arguing for years about what to do with the statue of Edward Colston, a big noise in 17th-century mercantilism who built schools and almshouses with the cash made in the slave trade, converting one form of property — human flesh and souls and sinews — into another.

In 2018 Bristol City Council agreed to the addition of a panel explaining the source of Colston’s wealth. Nobody could concur on the wording. Then, last month, a white police officer in Minneapolis exerted nine fatal minutes of pressure on the throat of a man named George Floyd, and the decision became academic: Black Lives Matter supporters in southwest England responded by dragging Colston’s effigy to the pavement, rolling it towards St Augustine’s Reach and pitching it into the docks. Another white police officer, Superintendent Andy Bennett, watched the statue swallowed by the water. “I do understand why it’s happened,” he told a BBC reporter who asked him why he did not order his officers to intervene. “It’s very symbolic … there’s a lot of context that sits around it.”

The context, however, is not just that of the 17th century. The Colston statue is not the Cenotaph. It is not the statue of Churchill in his greatcoat in Parliament Square. It was not built by Colston’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries. It was erected over 170 years after his death, thanks to the efforts of James Arrowsmith, a Bristol businessman and Colston superfan whose fundraising campaign didn’t reach its £1,000 target even after the statue was unveiled in November 1895. (Having failed to guilt-trip Bristol’s inhabitants into coughing up, Arrowsmith seems to have stumped up the last £150 himself.) The message inscribed on the plinth — “erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city” — does not speak for all those citizens.

Bristol in the early 1890s was not a city at ease with itself. On Friday 23 December 1892 it was the location of a “March of the Workers”, held in support of the women of Sanders Sweet Factory on Redcliffe Street — who were employed on such bad terms that they were nicknamed “Sanders’ White Slaves”. (If they tried to join a union, they received their cards.) On the day of the demonstration, the dragoons steamed in. Two hundred mounted officers tried to split the march. At the end of the night, 57 demonstrators and 51 police had been injured. Those present on that day might have taken a sceptical attitude to a public artwork celebrating Colston’s philanthropy. Their ideas about how to alleviate poverty in the city had been answered with violence.

So it would be wrong, I think, to read the Colston statue as an embodiment of civic or imperial confidence. Better, perhaps, to see it like one of those Porsches bought by men in the thick of a midlife crisis — a gleaming expression of self-doubt and anxiety.

A world map from the 1890s shows the vermillion expanse of British Empire. But in the year that the statue went up, a strong note of pessimism had already entered the culture. HG Wells published The Time Machine, depicting a world in which all human achievements ended, twitching in the mud. Degeneration, a doomy treatise by the Hungarian social scientist Max Nordau, had became an unexpected bestseller in England, perhaps because he argued that, having been the fastest to develop, it would be the first to decline.

The idea had already occurred to the Victorians: it emerged from the writings of thinkers pondering the implications of Darwinism. In 1880 the zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester suggested that for “the white races of Europe” evolution might be switching into reverse. “Possibly we are all drifting, tending to the condition of intellectual barnacles”. Lankester had read his Edward Gibbon, and recalled the idea that Rome had fallen because it had conquered and consumed too much. “Rome degenerated when possessed of the riches of the ancient world. The habit of parasitism clearly acts upon animal organization in this way. Let the parasitic life once be secured, and away go legs, jaws, eyes, and ears; the active, highly‐gifted crab, insect, or annelid may become a mere sac, absorbing nourishment and laying eggs.” This is the language of the lecture theatre, but these ideas were not the preoccupation of a minority of intellectuals. They had become mood music of the culture — played out most memorably, perhaps, in Kipling’s Recessional (1897) — a poem for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee that read like an elegy for a dying country.

In 2017, protesters in Durham, North Carolina, used a rope to topple a Confederate statue, and provoked both outrage and approval. But the ease with which it fell told the most interesting story. The monument was less than a hundred years old. It wasn’t erected to General Robert E Lee by those who fought beside him. It was the product of a much later moment — one in which Jim Crow laws were entrenched across the south, and the Ku Klux Klan were enjoying a boost from the success of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Colston’s toppling tells a story of similar recency.

The statue of Edward Colston is not a pure object upon which later generations have imposed an anachronistic argument. The statue is an argument. About the relationship between the individual and the state, about employers and workers, about civic responsibility and Britain’s place in the world. Its construction was a political gesture. So is pushing it into the River Avon.

The protesters of Black Lives Matter did not drag Colston’s figure out of the city and smash it to pieces. When they submerged it in the docks, they were making a decision about its proper place in the environment — a decision accepted, tacitly, by the officers present on the scene. Perhaps this was not an act of destruction, but a form of endowment. One that may bring wealth to the city far greater than the kind that can be extracted from a black body with the use of a whip.

The 19th century, however, has a caveat to add. The Victorians celebrated their record on the abolition of slavery. Mid nineteenth-century popular culture buzzes with self-regard on this issue. Charles Dickens’s American Notes (1842) railed against the “accursed and detested system” of slavery — without noting who might have picked the cotton used to make his shirts. Visitors to JR Planché’s spectacular burlesque Mr Buckstone’s Voyage Round the Globe (1854) would have congratulated themselves as they laughed at the anti-American gags in its script:

To the west, to the west, to the land of the free –
Which means those who happen white people to be –
Where a man is a man –  if his skin isn’t black –
If it is, he’s a n—–, to sell or to whack…

But a joke from a later line in this song should give us pause for thought. America, for Dickens and his contemporaries, was a zone of racial violence and exploitation — but it was also the country of laughable prudishness.

Where the legs of the table in trowsers are drest:
Away, far away, to the land of the west.

No 19th-century Briton ever covered up a piano leg for decency’s sake, but in the course of the 20th century, this fiction became one of the most tenacious exemplars of their attitudes. A smug joke that backfired.

The Victorians used American racism as a way to feel good about themselves. So do we. It’s a habit that dissuades us from genuine moral introspection. Another solid fixture we might hurl into the water.