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Tumbling Icons

This week has seen the felling of statues and the tumbling of icons of those associated with the slave trade. Edward Colston, slave trader, in Bristol: gone - into the harbour. Robert Milligan, slave trader, in London Docklands: gone – into council storage. Cecil Rhodes, British imperialist, in Oriel College, Oxford: may be going. William Gladstone, anti-abolitionist, prime minister, University of Liverpool building: definitely going. Henry Dundas, anti-abolitionist, philanthropist in Edinburgh: rebranded. Thomas Guy, hospital founder, shareholder in slave companies: fate under consideration. The list goes on.


So after a week of iconoclasm what have we learned?

Above all, that Black Lives Matter.

That the BAME population has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

That we have witnessed a pivotal moment in the history of race relations especially in the UK and USA.

That few historical figures comply with contemporary standards of morality.

That slavers were also generous philanthropists and in them good and evil lay side by side. We are no different.

That sometimes in our history episodes of public disorder have been productive of good.

That legitimate protest can easily turn into public disorder and violence.

That we struggle to know how far back to trace the roots of evil. Many roads in the UK are named for Roman emperors who did some nasty things here and elsewhere.

That whatever privilege we enjoy now has possibly been created on the back of someone else’s suffering at some point in history.


On a personal level I have taken stock. I attended a secondary school founded in 1527 in an area of what is now east London to give a few boys from poor families the chance of an education. The founder also built some alms-houses for elderly folk without means. He was a ‘merchant venturer’. He made his money trading in fabrics with France, Spain and Portugal. There is no record that he traded in slaves. But he operated out of Bristol and I wonder if there was oppression somewhere in his supply chain. My under-graduate college in the University of London was linked to the trade in gold. And then there is the University of Oxford where I did my postgraduate work. My own college, Wolfson, was only founded in the 1960s but there is no doubt that the University as a whole has benefitted from the profits of slavery. Clearly my own education took place in institutions which were by no means free from the profits of oppression. Like most of my contemporaries, I was unaware of all of this when I was studying.


A sense of historical guilt will not get us very far. But a sense of contemporary justice will.

The greatest danger is that, we will soon forget again. Just as the media – and the public - seem now to have moved on from focusing on the injustice of Dominic Cummings’ exclusion from the rules that he had made, we will all move on again. When the next sensational injustice appears, somehow, regrettably, black lives could easily seem to matter less.

I believe that George Floyd’s murder, obscene though it was, could, must yield some good fruit. If that is to be so, we must be vigilant to oversee the growth of that harvest.

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