Monday 15 June 2020

Is the age of Aquarius finally dawning?

I’ve got history with Edward Colston. Sort of. Colston Hall was where I was supposed to be one evening in the summer of 1970. I was 16. With my younger brother Wilf, I was on an orchestral course based at Bristol University. The National Youth Orchestra were in town for a concert at Colston Hall so we were all given the evening off to attend. But on the way, I saw a poster for an American show called Hair at the Bristol Hippodrome, so I sloped off and saw that instead.

I’m sure the National Youth Orchestra played well. Wilf, who was more talented than me as well as being more dutiful, would later join them for a couple of years and go on to study music at Cambridge. But I think I had the more memorable evening. 

Now Colston Hall is being renamed and Colston’s statue has been pulled down from its plinth and dumped in the Avon. History is being erased. It’s like 1984 all over again. Which is strange because it seems as if, right now, a lot more people know who Edward Colston was than did a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it worked that way when Winston Smith pushed a newspaper cutting tainted with thoughtcrime down the memory hole. So erased isn’t the right word. Rewritten is what I mean. History is being rewritten

Which would definitely be a bad thing if the existing version of history were beyond improvement or dispute, the work of historians finished for good, no more writing needed. Bewigged, frock-coated Colston was “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of the city, according to the plinth. It didn’t mention that he made the bulk of his fortune from the slave trade and rose to become Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly in England on the transport and sale of African slaves. That inscription needed some rewriting. 
Ann Yearsley, by Joseph Grozer, after  Sarah Shiells - NPG D4452But is it fair to judge poor old, rich old Edward Colston by today’s standards? This would be a good question, if we were going to dig up his bones and put them on trial for crimes against humanity. But this is just a question of who goes on the plinth, who, out Bristol’s countless sons and daughters, should be elevated in bronze. Surely, no one is entitled in perpetuity to loom above us in the public square. 

How about giving Ann Yearsley a go (pictured above), a self-educated milkwoman and author in 1788 of A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade? Or Paul Stephenson, Bristol's first black social worker, who organised the 1963 bus boycott to lift the bar on non-white drivers and conductors? Or Jamaican-born Princess Campbell, who studied nursing in Bristol and fought discrimination to become Britain's first black ward sister in 1974?

When I took down my poster for Hair at the Hippodrome from my bedroom wall, I wasn’t erasing history, just making space for something I liked better.

Portrait of Ann Yearsley by Joseph Grozer, after Sarah Shiells mezzotint, published 1787 
© National Portrait Gallery, London

I wrote four years ago about the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford