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Black Lives Matter and Edward Colston: How We Must Learn From Our History

Updated on June 13, 2020
Black Lives Matter protests marches are taking place all around the world since the murder of George Floyd
Black Lives Matter protests marches are taking place all around the world since the murder of George Floyd | Source

Black Lives Matter and Edward Colston: How We Must Learn From Our History

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was the catalyst for a multitude of “Black Lives Matter” protest marches across the world, condemning racism and seeking equality for black and ethnic minority groups across the world. The treatment of Mr. Floyd was horrific and has been rightly condemned across the world. There is no place for racism in our modern world, or any form of discrimination for that matter. Large protests took place in cities right across the world, from America to Europe to Asia. However, people have chosen to protest in different ways.

In the city of Bristol in England, protestors tore down the statue of Edward Colston, which was located in the centre. Colston has been a highly divisive figure in the city of Bristol. It is known that Colston was a member of the Royal African Company, which was involved in the trade of thousands of West African slaves in Victorian times. The protestors argue that someone with such a murky storyline should not be worshipped in the centre of their city. On the other hand though, Colston was a philanthropist, who put most of his money into his home-town of Bristol. He founded a school in the city and his name is engrained in the very streets of Bristol – there is Colston School, Colston Avenue and Colston Street. The concert hall is named Colston Hall and Colston Tower is a prominent office block. The RAC treated their slaves terribly, branding their chests and many thousands died on voyages on the way to their new owners.

I come from Dublin, where the principal street is O’Connell Street, named after Daniel O’Connell who fought for Catholic Emancipation against the British Authorities and he is at the head of the street. If you look further down, an enormous spire stands at nearly 400 foot tall. It was erected at the turn of the millennium in order to replace the pillar that formerly held British Navy Officer Horatio Nelson. Nelson’s Column was blown up by the Irish Republican Army in the 1960s. So I can understand the point of view of those who toppled Colston and sent him into Bristol Harbour. The next debate is whether to leave him in the harbour or put the statue in a museum.

The Royal African Company committed horrific atrocities against slaves. However, slavery is something engrained in human history and I believe we need to be extremely careful that we do not look on an ancient times from a fully modern viewpoint. There are few civilisations over the course of time that have not implemented slavery. George Washington was Commander-in-Chief of the forces that overthrew the British in the United States of America and is seen as a hero amongst Americans for his actions. While uncomfortable with the idea of slavery, Washington opted to avoid discussing the issue publicly while he was alive. At the time of his death, 317 slaves were enslaved on his estate at Mount Vernon. While he did set them free in his will, this only applied to slaves directly employed by Washington and not by the Custis Estate, meaning that less than half were freed. The capital of the USA is named after him and there are countless memorials to him.

The Aztecs, the South American civilisation conquered by the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes, used slavery as a form of punishment for certain crimes and for prisoners of war who couldn’t be used as sacrifices to the Gods. The Spanish took many of the Aztecs as slaves.

The Romans took slaves from almost everywhere they conquered, and some they didn’t. St Patrick was most likely a Roman slave and coming from Britain, was unlikely to be black. The Romans also took many slaves from North Africa, who were most likely black. Educated slaves were valued in Rome, particularly Greek ones, but often times they were used simply for the entertainment of the upper classes. The Colosseum in Rome had over 7 million visitors in 2018 and was an institution of slavery, forcing gladiators to fight to the death either against each other or against animals such as imported lions. I think we can all agree that this treatment was simply barbaric. But are we going to tear down the Colosseum and throw it into the Tiber? Auschwitz saw some of the worst treatment recorded in human history against Jewish people as well as ethnic minorities. The daunting gates still stand in the region. Human hair still remains, reminding us of the people who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis in order to try and achieve Hitler's "Final Solution".

Protesting is a good thing, especially with regard to current affairs but we must remember to look extensively at history, rather than brushing it under the carpet. We need to learn from mistakes made in the past to ensure we don’t make the same ones again.

Our history is littered with atrocities committed on both small and large scales. We need to fully accept that and learn from the errors of the past.

To quote George Santaya; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Gladiators, who were slaves, fought to the death for entertainment purposes
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Gladiators, who were slaves, fought to the death for entertainment purposes | Source

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