Healing the scars of our colonial past

Many questions arise from the events in Bristol over the weekend. Should demonstrators have free rein to take part in criminal damage? No.

Am I delighted that the statue of Edward Colston now lies at the bottom of Bristol harbour? Yes, absolutely!

While I don’t condone the criminal damage I can certainly understand why it takes place. However, while I can empathise, I am not in a position to fully understand the pain that the honouring of such a person causes to people whose race and ancestors suffered and died through his actions. Many trials have not gone ahead due to not being ‘in the public interest’. I suggest that a similar line should be followed in this instance of ‘criminal damage’. Further, I won’t accept the hypocrisy of people such as Home Secretary Priti Patel, who condemn the ‘lawless’ behaviour of those who pulled down a statue while at the same time supporting a hostile environment for immigrants.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer has been criticised in some quarters for saying that it was ‘completely wrong’ for the statue to be pulled down. However, this is a selective quote as he continued by saying it shouldn’t have taken down in that way and that it should have been removed many years ago. Do we really expect the leader of the government’s opposition to condone criminal damage? Apart from being a highly unlikely position from a former Director of Public Prosecutions and a gift for a rabid right wing media desperately looking to pull him apart, it’s difficult to draw a line in the sand when you have backed a criminal act, no matter how justified the reasons. You can watch the full interview here: https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/special-shows/call-keir/keir-starmer-protesters-were-wrong-colston-statue/

While legally the action was a breach of the law, morally the removal of the statue was long overdue. The scars of slavery and colonialisation will never heal as long as we celebrate the lives of slave traders and don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering inflicted by our past actions. One small step, even if just purely symbolic, should be a review of the continued presence of any statue of people that directly benefitted from slavery. Of course bad people also do good things, but the honouring of slave traders is completely unacceptable, no matter how many almshouses they built.

I believe we must also look at some form of reparations for the descendants of slaves. £20 million was paid to reimburse slave owners through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, around £17 billion in today’s prices. It was such a large amount that the UK government’s debt to fund these payments was only cleared in 2015. This means that British residents, including descendants of slaves, paid off the debts caused by payments to slave owners. Not a single pound was ever paid to the people the British enslaved, or their descendants. There are precedents for these reparation payments. Since 1952 Germany has paid more than $70 billion to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime and in the United States people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War 2 each received $20,000 dollars and a formal apology. While the process of reparations will be a challenge and could take a number of different forms, it is not an insurmountable one, as shown by a number of institutions that have already carried out this process.

The call for reparations was most recently dismissed in 2015 by David Cameron in a visit to Jamaica where he declined to apologise and urged Caribbean countries to “move on” (where have we heard that recently?!) from the painful legacy of slavery and build for the future.

We also need to rectify a political system that permits the injustice suffered by those of the ‘Windrush’ generation and other ethnic minorities and permits the casual indifference and callousness of the bureaucracy that sits underneath the policies created by government.

Finally, I believe we need to re-examine the effect that our colonialist past had on the people who we oppressed during the years of the British Empire, and as a part of this educate ourselves about this part of our history. One of the recommendations of the Williams Review into the Windrush scandal (full link below) was that all existing and new Home Office staff “learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history”. Britain’s role in colonialism and slavery must be included in school curriculums, in the same way that every student in Germany has to learn about the holocaust. This should include the huge debt Britain owes to colonised people in terms of their sacrifice in both World Wars and how Britain was built on the backs of colonised people. Only by learning the lessons of the past and providing an honest account of the British Empire will we enable the deep scars of prejudice to heal and set a foundation to reduce racial inequality in the UK.

Below is an incredibly powerful video from Kimberley Jones that explains structural racism in the United States. Strong language, but an even stronger and more important message.

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Angela Davis

Julian Vaughan 8th June 2020 – amended on 18th July to remove a link to content that was behind a paywall.

Further reading:

Windrush Lessons Learned Review – published 19th March 2020


Legacies of British slave ownership – University College London


When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? – Guardian article March 2018


Recommended reading:

‘The Windrush Betrayal” by Amelia Gentlemen

“Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge

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