Sunday, 7 June 2020

History is irrelevant without context.

My children are fed up with one of my favourite historiographical quotes, so apologies if you've heard this one before....
"A fact is like a sack. it won't stand up until you put something inside it." Pirandello.
Perspective is so fundamental to history, I would go even further.
Facts are irrelevant without context.

Today the Bristol Black Lives Matter protest saw a minority tear down the statue of Edward Colston, (a racist and a murderer by today's standards) and drag it to the river.

But Colston was a Bristol-born English merchant, philanthropist, slave trader, and Member of Parliament. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. His name is commemorated in several Bristol landmarks, streets, three schools and the Colston bun.

He was also a slave trader who made his fortune from the trade of human beings as commodities, and on reaching St Peter at the pearly gates, I've no doubt his deeds would have been considered carefully. In context.

Born in 1636, Colston lived at a the dawn of "Great Britain" during the reign of Queen Anne. As Wikipedia states "In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the west coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1662. Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became Deputy Governor, the Company's most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692. This company had been set up by King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, (later King James II, who was the Governor of the company), together with City of London merchants, and it had many notable investors, including John Locke, English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism" (though he later changed his stance on the slave trade), and the diarist Samuel Pepys.

Colston was a product of his time and status. And this was an entire century before the likes of William Wilberforce led their opposition to the slave trade; which was abolished in 1807.

How do you think 2020 compares with 1920? Pretty similar? I don't think so. Yet how many people think we can compare the actions of a person three hundred years ago with the moral standards of today?

You'd be surprised. The "holier than thou" attitude spreads faster than COVID-19 on social media.

Colston was actually in many respects ahead of his time - a philanthropist who sought to support his community. He was no saint, and judged by today's standards was indeed a murderer and racist - but that's just my point. We can't judge the past through the lens of today.

Churchill's statue has also been defaced today. A man who was able to see the "bigger picture", who refused to dwell on each individual airman he sent to his death helped win the Battle of Britain. The man who led an Allied coalition us to a seemingly impossible victory in 1945. He was no saint, his WW1 record was pretty shabby and his views were unpopular even during his lifetime. He was a product of his time and social circumstances - but was nonetheless a man with much to offer our nation at that time in history.
"No man is an island", as John Donne said. 
And whilst he intended this to mean that we are all interdependent, it is also true that no man exists in isolation in time.

We do not need to suspend opinion, or judgement to appreciate this - to the contrary our perspective is significant. If Churchill, or Colston were alive today, they would be viewed very differently. But - and this is key - they would probably have BEEN very different also. Just as we are products of our lifetime - our education, family, social position, geography etc, so are all men and women of history.

There is no objective history, and no objective historical individual.

What perhaps disturbs me even more than the misjudgement of men dead for centuries, is the desperate virtue-signalling which clouds people's perspective of those who lived only yesterday. Twitter is awash with clips of Muhammed Ali, repeating his scripted comments on racism. Without even a quick google search "truth" is ascertained in isolation, judgement flying out of the window.

Ali was perhaps an even more "toxic" individual than Colston. He preached strict racial segregation and advocated the lynching of mixed race couples.
“Black people should marry their own women,” Ali declaimed. “Bluebirds with bluebirds, red birds with red birds, pigeons with pigeons, eagles with eagles. God didn’t make no mistake!”
As the Boston Globe correctly recorded "Ali was many fine things. A champion of civil rights wasn’t among them. Martin Luther King Jr. at one point called him “a champion of segregation.” If, later in life, Ali abandoned his racist extremism, that is to his credit. It doesn’t, however, make him an exemplar of brotherhood and tolerance. And it doesn’t alter history: At the zenith of Ali’s career, when fans by the millions hung on his every word, what he often chose to tell them was indecent and grotesque."

So what led otherwise sensible consultants, journalists and politicians to share his scripted comments that served their purpose, whilst simultaneously applauding the tearing down of Colston's statue?


Because during a "Black Lives Matter" demo weekend all that mattered, in the heat of the moment, was being seen "on the right side"; and a black person was blindly flagged up as a saint whilst a long dead philanthropist was sent down the river. Literally.


Skin colour must be irrelevant. Our humanity is what matters - in the eyes of God, family, society and the world. Just as Osiris weighed the souls of the dead on their way to the Underworld, so must we weigh up the deeds of those we seek to glorify or destroy. And that requires perspective.

History must be in context - a human context. No one is one hundred per cent good or evil. There is no black "antidote" to slave traders like Colston. The only way forwards is education; education and action with the value of hindsight.

And hindsight is a wonderful thing - it only exists in context.

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