Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What of Magna Carter? Did she die in vain?

"(Bristol Music Trust) acknowledge that not everybody agrees with (changing the name of Colston Hall). Well that's very magnanimous of them, isn't it? But it doesn't begin to remotely acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of Bristolians are totally and completely against any name change. I know of literally nobody who is in favour of it. 

The trust is insulting generations of Bristolians by instructing us to begin viewing Colston in a totally different way from the one we have all grown up with. 

The Colston Hall is part of Bristol's historic fabric. We've lived happily with it for centuries. We have no problem with it. The tiny majority that do, presumably not Bristolians should obviously clear off and go and live somewhere else...

There is therefore only one that the decision to change the name of the Colston Hall can be reversed, and that's by replacing the present Bristol Music Trust with a board of true blue Bristolians who value their city's heritage and will forbid any change...#

Bristol, speak up! Make your voices heard by the council and put a stop to this preposterous nonsense once and for all. 

if you don't then I'm afraid you deserve everything you get." 


Edward Colston did much to improve the lives of those living in Bristol in those very different times (no welfare state) and...he shouldn't be judged by today's standards.... 

No reasonable person could condone slavery, but you can't change history by changing a name....

(Slaves) were captured by their fellow countrymen and sold in chains, hundreds at a time, for money or trade goods. Without these slavemasters as they were called, there would have been no slave trade. So who was to blame?

P Collins


Mike Taylor said...

The one interesting aspect of this is the idea that Colston should not be judged by modern standards.

I am not completely unsympathetic to that. For example, George Washington owned slaves, and plenty of them; but no-one thinks that for this reason the USA should rename Washington DC, Washington state, George Washington University, etc. The perception in America is that Washington, while living in a way that we would find abhorrent, do so at a time when it was normal -- and, crucially that he did a lot of good for the country. So the question becomes: did Colston in fact do a lot of good for Bristol? If so, then there is some kind an argument for the name of Colston Hall being reasonable. (But no excuse for the way the people you're quoting in these posts are viewing the argument.)

See also: should we judge the early C. S. Lewis for sexism? Or G. K. Chesterton for racism? Should we modify their books?

(To be clear, I don't have good answers to those questions.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: The Green Incas say, over and over again, that we should not judge Colston by the standards of our time. They also say, over and over again, that although he kidnapped people and sold them to be used as livestock, he also paid for the education of poor people. But hang on! The standards of our time say that kidnapping and enslavement is wrong; but the standards of our time also say that the charitable funding of education is good. Why is it okay to judge Colston by the standards of our time when he pays for a school, but not okay to judge him by the standards of our time when he engages in human trafficking? If we think that people in the olden days might not have known that putting people on disease ridden ships where many of them would die was a Bad Thing, how can we be sure that they knew that opening schools was a Good Thing?

2: It is very possible for a person to be a Good Thing in some ways and a Bad Thing in another way. I retain my belief that Sun Arise and The Ride of the Valkyrie are very good tunes, even though I also believe that Rolf Harris and Richard Wagner were very nasty people. I see no problem with saying "Enid Blyton has given joy to millions of children, but incidentally she was horrible to her own kids" or "George Washington was a fine soldier, an inspiration to his troops, and an honourable first president of America, but incidentally he owned slaves." It is much more problematic to say "Colston was a rich man who gave lots of money away, but incidentally he got rich by kidnapping black people."

2b: Put another way, C.S Lewis's sexism is a bug, not a feature.

2a: I wonder what the Green Incas would says if there was a lovely stained glass window in York Minister, with a lovely picture of Jesus blessing the children, with a lovely inscription saying "Paid for by the family of John Smith" and it then turned out that John Smith had made his money selling child pornography? Or if there was a lovely statue of Joe Bloggs, one of Bristol's finest sons and an inspiration businessman, and it then turned out that Joe Bloggs's business was drug-running?

3: Standards and values do change, but I think there are some things we can be a lot more certain of than others. There is a great difference between saying "Mr Smith, in common with most people of his time, believed that women should mostly run the home and look after the kids, and men should mostly go to work and earn the money" than saying "Mr Smith kept his wives and daughters chained in a dark cellar". There is a great difference between saying "Mr Jones, in common with most people of his time, believed that being gay was an unfortunate mental illness and should not be talked about in public" and "Mr Jones favourite pass time on a Sunday afternoon was find gay bars and beat up the patrons."

4: The trouble is that hardly anything is known of Colston himself. The present statues and schools were put up by the Merchant Venturers (now a sort of freemasons club for businesspeople) more than a century after he died. The Green Inkers are now using his name as a sort of symbol and surrogate for the concept that black people, intellectuals and incommers are not welcome in Bristol. The fact that people started putting up memorials to him with logos saying "go and do likewise" at about the same time that slavery was being abolished in America and England was dismantling the slave trade may suggest that that is in fact always what he represented.

Andrew Rilstone said...

5: If there had never been such a thing as blackface Morris dancing, I would not want anyone to invent it. Since it has existed since at least the time of Shakespeare and no-one means anything by, I am fairly happy for it to carry on. But the minute someone says "We have to keep on doing black face Morris in order to show that we don't care what anyone else thinks and to put the immigrants in their place" then I become fairly militantly against it. (I believe that nearly all the blackface sides have in fact started painting their faces blue or green, which is actually more fun!)

Mike Taylor said...

You make a theoretically interesting point about whether opening schools for poor people was felt at the time to be a good thing, and the inconsistency of judging that by modern standards and slave-trading by historical standards. But it's hard to believe that there's actually any doubt involved here: surely, had the school-funding not been considered A Good Thing, Colston would not have given up his money to do it?

I think you are on firmer ground with The Ride of the Valkyries and with Sun Arise (and in any case, Two Little Boys is better.)

Your point 2a is particularly interesting. But I think it conflates two issues: (I) whether child pornography and/or drug-running are considered worse than slave-trading; and (II) whether the historical distance of Colston's crime changes their nature in a way that those of the presumably modern John Smith and Joe Bloggs have not been changed. (Oddly, our media mostly seems happy to give respected figures like David Bowie and Jimmy Page a free ride on what we'd now classify as child rape, in a way that it does not with Rolf Harris. I have no idea what to make of this observation.)

Perhaps your point 4 captures the heart of the present controversy. Like Brexit, Colston may be functioning primarily as a pretext for people to legitimise prejudices they've always had.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think point 1 needs more thought. In what way might the north Atlantic slave trade be a Bad Thing by our standards, but a Neutral of Good Thing by someone else's standards? I agree that standards vary according to time and place, and that the line between "social norms" and "morals" can be a fuzzy one, and that we sometimes have to use our imagination and say "In fact, at that time, it was quite normal to get married at the age of twelve" or "In that society, people honestly were as scandalized by someone exposing their lower leg as we would be by a streaker or a flasher". But what were the norms that the North African Company believed in that we have rejected? That black people are so inferior to white people that they can legitimately be treated as objects? That the after-life is so certain that sending a few thousand people to heaven a few decades early hardly counts as a crime? That money is the only good in this world, and if you are rich you are good however many poor people you might have hurt along the way?

I can't work out any way of doing it which doesn't end up saying "His black was our white; his good was our evil; his nice was our nasty?" And once you've said that, what on earth does it mean to say that some of his actions were "good"?

(Quite likely, his motivations -- anyone's motivations -- for setting up schools was different from an egalitarian or altruistic motives we'd recognize today. Quite likely, they did it to get a few hundred years discount in Purgatory; or to get evidence that they were one of the Elect; or more practically, to teach poor people their place in the world so that they would be efficient servants; and make sure they didn't get any nasty ideas about revolution.)

Mike Taylor said...

In what way might the north Atlantic slave trade be a Bad Thing by our standards, but a Neutral or Good Thing by someone else's standards?

Indeed. One has to wonder whether, in fact, everyone always knew slavery is wrong, but consciously or unconsciously repressed that knowledge.