Tuesday 9 June 2020
Although I studied a little bit of history at tertiary level, and have taught it from time to time, I hadn't heard of Edward Colston until this weekend. I've known since childhood of course that William Wilberforce of Hull, and therefore a Yorkshireman, led the movement to abolish the slave trade.
I've also known since childhood that:
"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue"
and so "discovered" America. I've only realised this weekend, by coincidence and from the book I am reading at the moment,* that he too was a slaver. I presume there are statues to him in Genoa, and probably in the Americas too.
So one of the lessons of the weekend is that we need a thorough revision of our school history syllabuses to include at least some of the "bad " bits as well as the "good" bits.
This is easier said than done.
There's a lot of history and no-one's lifetime is long enough to get a grip on all of it.
A few years ago a Conservative politician (I think it was Sir Keith Joseph, not a Yorkshireman but parachuted into a Leeds constituency) argued that we should cut out the "clutter" from the history syllabuses and just teach the important bits.
He then went on to cite such as (I generalise from memory here) the battles of Hastings, Bosworth, Trafalgar and Waterloo, Henry VIII and his wives and the shenanigans of various other monarchs, much of which many social historians regarded as clutter, crowding out the time to be spent on how ordinary people actually lived and struggled to improve their conditions.
For the "bad" bits of the UK's more recent history I offer for consideration the Irish Potato Famine and the Opium Wars with China, and as questionable, management of Indian independence.
As to statues of people considered great in their time but whose activities are now regarded as unaceptable, the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union have some experience. I believe some designate an area as a history park and transfer such statues and other memorials there.
We could have several of these in the UK, and local people could debate what should and shouldn't be moved there. This should generate lively discussion contrasting the "good " things the local eminence did with the methods used to achieve them. Once a decision has been made there should be no further debate for 20 years. A democratic outlet such as this for people's feelings would avoid the need for vandalism.
Once moved to the "park" information boards could be erected near the statue with the pros and cons of the person's life. These would become an invaluable resource for the education of both young and old.
* Human Kind, Rutger Bregman, p 94