Editing the past to tell some stories while silencing others is exactly what public commemorations do—even in the 19th century, the campaign to commission the Colston statue was met with a distinct lack of interestby Emily Manktelow / June 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
History is not neutral. Public history is even less so. As Colston toppled and people around the country began challenging their own monuments, Boris Johnson took to social media last week to warn that “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past.” This week, writing in Telegraph, he has doubled down on that message, insisting that we cannot “re-write the past” nor “edit or photoshop the entire cultural landscape.” Yet, in castigating anti-racism protestors who are engaging with history in real time, it is the prime minister who is censoring history in the present. The removal of and debate about historical statues is making history in itself. After all, history as a discipline is not static, but rather a fluid appraisal of the past refracted through the present. Protests and protestors are not always right, but they are always a part of history in the making.
Statues and other parts of our built environment are not neutral artefacts of a fixed past. Their creation and display reflect the values of their time—crucially, they reflect the time of their creation rather than the time they portray. The Victorians were prolific public space makers and invaders. They bequeathed us many of the public spaces we celebrate today. Their choices about who to commemorate were no more neutral than our choices about which commemorations to maintain. Their agenda was an imperial one— their monuments stage-managed the values of race, class and gender that underpinned Victorian society. More often than not, statues were erected by a handful of white men on local city councils.
In the 19th century, the campaign to commission the Colston statue was met with a distinct lack of interest—even within Colston’s own Victorian fan club. The statue creation was the brainchild of one man, Mr J. W. Arrowsmith, a book printer and member of the Colston Fraternal Society. His initial attempts to fund the statue by appealing to the various Colston philanthropic societies of Bristol fell on largely deaf ears. As the Bristol Mercury of 1895 tells us, both the first and second appeal were so unsuccessful that the statue was created instead as part of a…