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Letter to Editor: Leading Harlow historian looks at the Black Lives Matter and Statues debate

History / Wed 17th Jun 2020 at 11:26am

BLACK LIFE MATTERS AND STATUES

Dear Editor,

I am writing to you regarding the recent Black Lives Matters (BLM) campaign to remove various statues as a direct response to the recent death of George Floyd in the United States of America. The removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol has quite rightly led to a debate about statues, memory, history and other aspects of culture.

I would like to contribute to this, here are my thoughts for you on this subject.

Statues were put up to commemorate and celebrate the individual’s character and achievements throughout their whole life, not just certain parts of it.

Statues do not tower over us nor look down over us. We look up at them in a physical not in a condescending and reverent fashion. Statues inspire us, educate us and encourage us to learn more about the person and their historical era.

The logic of mass removal of statues will be the dearth of empty plinths. In thirty, forty- or fifty-years’ time, no-one will know who these people were.

Statues if they are removed, they should be placed in museums where they can be interpreted and understood alongside documentation, archives and artefacts. History is after all open to interpretation all the time, hence the numerous books and films about the Second World War.

I have heard that the film Gone with The Wind has now been banned because it portrays slavery. I agree with the historian David Olusoga. He says it is important that people understand the past through history and museums.

I think as a historian that you cannot and should not apply a 21st century mindset to a person from the 19th or indeed any other century. Times, attitudes, customs were all quite different.

In discussions of this sort certain individuals such as Winston Churchill are often quoted. You must look at the whole person’s character and not cherry pick.

Churchill had racist attitudes towards India, in his early life, he believed in eugenics which were popular in the 1920s and into the 1930s.

Finally, from 1940 to 1945 he was our brilliant wartime leader, national hero and international icon.

A parallel can be drawn across the Atlantic. Presidents and founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both slave owners. They are remembered for other reasons than that.

I would like to give you an interesting example. In Tallinn, Estonia there is The Museum of Occupations. Estonia was part of Russia gaining its independence in 1918. There then followed periods of occupation by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Estonia regained its nationhood in 1992. When you descend by steps to the lower floor you pass soviet flags and approach various sculptures. You then find yourself among many full life size sculptures or busts of various Estonian soviet socialist republic leaders. The location is very apt adjacent to the public toilets!

I will conclude with two local examples nearer to home.

Bishop’s Stortford’s very own Cecil Rhodes. Working at the Rhodes Museum, I was told that Rhodes was and is a controversial character and if I should encounter any visitors who were upset or angry, I should contact the museum curator immediately.

Today on BBC Look East, an item informed me that 2,500 people had signed a petition for the Rhodes Centre to change its name. One campaigner was quoted saying “He was a dictator, wanted to rule all of Africa”. Oriel College Oxford has been subject to the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign for the last four years. I visited South Africa last year. I saw several sites relating to the man, the authorities have done a good job in terms of telling the whole story of the man and his legacy.

Here in Harlow we have a few connections to the Slave Trade. Edward Parson of Upper House, Little Parndon made his money by owning sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Hester Woodley was one of several slaves were brought over to England. Looking through the Altham family records for Mark Hall manor you find the following. Peyton Altham’s servant baptised ‘Mark Hall’ in 1740. Richard Nicholl’s servant is baptised ‘Kent Latton’.

Harlow is known as “Sculpture Town”. We must be careful how we proceed. I feel that we need to act in a positive and democratic way. It is particularly important, as a historian, that everyone can learn and educate themselves about the past and that we cherish it and protect it.
Thanking you for reading this. Best wishes.

David Devine
Former Curator, Harlow Museum

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2 Comments for Letter to Editor: Leading Harlow historian looks at the Black Lives Matter and Statues debate:

DagenhamDave
2020-06-20 16:35:00

I have often complained that our colonial history has been whitewashed, but I do not agree with pulling down statues. A better way to educate people is to leave the statues in place and attach a brass plaque that sets the record straight. Slavery is the ultimate form of capitalist exploitation of labour and greatly utilised by fascist regimes. In 2015 a book titled 'KL: I have often complained that our colonial history has been whitewashed, but I do not agree with pulling down statues. A better way to educate people is to leave the statues in place and attach a brass plaque that sets the record straight. Slavery is the ultimate form of capitalist exploitation of labour and greatly utilised by fascist regimes. In 2015 a book titled 'KL: A history of Nazi Germany's concentration camps' stated that the concentration camps had generated a net value of around €125 billion at current prices. What concerns me is that the economic and class interests that drive slavery are ignored in favour of a morality issue. I would be much more impressed by the current Black Lives Matter protests if they went on to campaign against modern slavery, which is ever present in our communities at-home and abroad.

MickyB77
2020-06-23 06:03:59

No one ever mentions the ' press gangs ' associated with our navy !

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