Yesterday our Prime Minister said, “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. To tear them down would be to lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come”.
But history has always been edited and censored – then, now, always. We do not learn history from statues. Those on statues tend to be victorious soldiers or those who embody an ideal at the time – in other words, we put on pedestals those we look up to.
Times change – where now are the statues of the philanthropist, Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE, KCFG, who raised £40m in his lifetime? What Jimmy Savile did was so bad we erased all the “good works” he’d done once we found out about the bad ones. There are now no memorials to him, not even a gravestone.
Maybe we need a truth and reconciliation commission so that we can learn about those we have put on pedestals? When I was at school in England, the names of the schoolhouses were – Grenville, Hawkins, Drake and Rayleigh. We knew that Drake captained “The Revenge”, we knew that Drake singed the King of Spain’s beard and played bowls on Plymouth Hoe! We knew that Sir Walter Rayleigh laid his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth did not get her feet wet, and he introduced potatoes and tobacco to this country. I can’t remember that we ever enquired about John Hawkins – I wonder why? Maybe because in his own words, as recorded by Hakluyt, he “profited by the sale of slaves” so much that there was a slave on the Hawkins’ family crest. But not just he – all the above “Sea Dogs” made fortunes for themselves and this country by trading, enslaving and dispossession. We would not be editing or censoring history by teaching a fuller story of the beginnings of what became the slave trade.
We could teach how slave rebellions were brutally put down and we could teach that, in 1833 when slavery was abolished, compensation was paid not to those who were taken against their will from their own lands of origin and forced to work but that compensation was paid to 3000 owners for the loss of their property. That £20m loan was only repaid in 2015. Nothing was paid to or done for freed slaves – nor were they hired. Instead, plantation owners brought in “Indentured labour” from India and China.
To correct our PM’s words, “To tear them down would be to erase the lie about our history and would enrich the education of generations to come.”
PS Queen Elizabeth Community College, Crediton, Devon, changed the names of their schoolhouses in 1989 – top marks!