Last weekend a statue of Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was involved in the Royal African Company, which during the 17th & 18th century had a monopoly on the English, and later British, slave trade. During the time he was involved, from 1680 to 1692, the company transported 84,000 men, women and children from Africa to the America’s. It is estimated that over 19,000 died on route. Between 1662 and 1731 the company transported a total of 212,000 people, 44,000 of whom never made it across the Atlantic.
On Tuesday the University of Liverpool made the decision to rename one of its halls of residence, which had been named after William Gladstone, four-time Liberal Prime Minister of Britain. Viewed as one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers, Gladstone is being cancelled. The argument is that Gladstone’s father was a slave owner, therefore he benefitted from the family wealth it provided. Also, in his maiden speech in the House of Commons on June 3rd 1833, he voiced support for the ‘interests’ of slave owners. While he didn’t support the continuation of slavery, nor did he support its immediate abolition. He preferred a slower moving approach, and in particular compensation for slave owners. Compensation was included in the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and while morally repugnant today, and obviously benefitting Gladstone’s father, it could also be argued that it helped get the legislation passed and the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. A similar compromise had been undertaken in order to see the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It was reluctantly seen by many abolitionists as a first step towards eventual abolition.
I am biased, as he is my political hero, but William Ewert Gladstone is no Edward Colston. For myself, the great story is his transformation. From a young High Tory, seen as the future of the Conservative Party, he became one of the greatest reforming and radical Prime Ministers Britain has ever seen. After leaving the Conservative party in 1846, in support of Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws, he became one of the founding fathers of the Liberal Party. He was Prime Minister four times between 1868 and 1894, finally leaving the House of Commons in 1895 at the age of 85. His various administrations introduced landmark legislation on universal schooling, union protection and reform, electoral reform including the introduction of the secret ballet, reform of the judiciary, civil service & military and land reform in Ireland. His support for Home Rule in Ireland was to lead to a split in the Liberal Party and the collapse of his third administration. Compared to his Victorian counterpart Benjamin Disraeli he was also often less gung-ho about the Empire and imperial adventures. For example, he strongly opposed the two Opium Wars with China.
For me one of the positives about Black Lives Matters is that it has gone beyond a criticism, indeed condemnation, of how African Americans are treated by the Police and other US law enforcement agencies. In many countries across the world it has also initiated a long overdue discussion about racism. In particular, many European countries are being forced to look at their colonial pasts, really for the first time. I was going to say that they are being forced to re-evaluate their colonial history, but that would be far too generous. In most cases there never was a first look. This week in Antwerp a statue of King Leopold II, the Belgium monarch who ruled the then Belgium Congo as a private colony and fiefdom and where genocide was committed in his name, was removed.
Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is one of many stains that the British Empire left behind. Much of the wealth of Georgian and Victorian Britain owed itself directly and indirectly to the Empire and to slavery. Cities like Bristol and Liverpool, as well as London gained much of their wealth from the slave trade. But much of that wealth was hidden away. One of the fascinating insights I’ve had from living in the US for the last four years is the different attitudes to race and specifically to slavery. Slavery was never legal in Britain itself. Therefore, because it happened elsewhere, in foreign lands, the brutality and inhumanity of it, and the wealth that it created for merchants, plantation owners and investors, could be hidden in plain sight. In contrast, you can’t escape it in the United States. It happened on American soil. More so, a civil war was fought, at least in part, due to the issue of slavery. It is nothing but good that Britain, and other former colonial powers are having to look more honestly back upon their history.
It is inevitable that in this debate lines will have to be drawn. Which historical figures need to be re-examined? Which buildings and streets are to be renamed? Which statues are to be removed? For myself, the arguments with the likes of Edward Colston, and probably Cecil Rhodes are pretty clear. But it quickly gets blurred. I think that to condemn a man, Gladstone, for the actions of his father and his own words as a young man of 23 is a step too far if you ignore the change in his attitudes and views and his actions over the rest of a 60+ year parliamentary career. Simply put, if the line is in such a place that Gladstone is cancelled, then the line is in the wrong place. Yes, let us be open and honest but let us avoid going from one extreme to the other. Let us avoid seeing historical figures in simplistic good or bad ways. Nobody is perfect or entirely bad, especially when looked at through the lens of history. Maybe I’m also biased in that my years in Ireland enhanced my affection for Gladstone due his sincere efforts to resolve the ‘Irish problem’. However, I know that that there are many more British politicians that most Irish people would like to see cancelled before Gladstone. Let’s start with Oliver Cromwell and work our way from there.
An article from The Guardian in 2015 highlighted the degree to which financial interests in slavery permeated British society in the 18th and early 19th century. Before I go on I want to make clear that I’m not being facetious, just highlighting that where that line may be is not that simple. Let me give you two examples. To begin with let’s stay in Liverpool. If Gladstone is to be cancelled as the son of a slave owner, then what about James Penny. He was a major 18th century slave trader and slave ship owner. In Liverpool there is a street named after him; you’ve guessed it, Penny Lane, yes that Penny Lane. If we’re going to consider, as has been the case with Gladstone, how people have benefitted from family wealth that was accumulated due to slavery then what about Eric Blair. You may know him better as George Orwell. His Great Grandfather was compensated the equivalent of £3m following abolition. The ancestors of Elizabeth Browning, Graeme Greene and George Gilbert Scott also received compensation following abolition. Samuel Pepys and John Locke, in addition to Charles II and James II, were among the shareholders in the Royal African Company, alongside Edward Colston. James II is also, by the way, whom New York is named after. He was the Duke of York prior to succeeding his brother to the throne.
Does Britain, together with other countries, need to look at itself in the mirror and honestly reflect on its history? Absolutely. By the way that doesn’t just centre around the abomination that was slavery, but also the treatment of indigenous people. However, it would be a total cop out if we as a nation simply took down a few statues and renamed a few buildings and streets to make us feel better. It needs far more than that, far more than virtue signaling to give us a warm feeling inside to reduce the guilt. It needs a sincere and meaningful conversation and how, looking forward, we can learn so that the future can be changed for the better.