EVIDENCE AND TRUTH.

Judge not a man by the answers he gives, but the questions he asks”.

SIX HONEST SERVING MEN.

On 7 June 2020 a statue was toppled, defaced, and pushed into a harbour. Time to call yet again on Kipling to be reminded of the right questions to ask... “I keep six honest serving men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.”

Thus in terms of this incident... Why that particular statue? Who was responsible? What was their motive? What were the causes of their anger? The statue was of an Edward Colton. Who was he? When did he live? Where? Why was his statue the target of so much animosity? Was the action of the apparent vandalism of those responsible unopposed? Where is the statue now? What are the options for it future fate?

PRODUCT AND PROCESS

Knowing the right questions to ask, draw a distinction between the “product” of history (what we think we know but which is in fact only provisional and incremental) and its “process” (the academic disciplines that enable us to provide the best possible version of the truth (and which incidentally are directly transferable to every day life).

 EVIDENCE

Recognise the many forms that evidence ...documentary, photographic, architectural, artifacts, (even statues) etc.can take, but that they all fall into just two main categories Primary,- from the time in question or Secondary, from any time after. The next stage is to examine each source for reliability by clearing the mind of cant and going through systematic channels of investigation.

THE A.B.C.

First revise the “A.B.C. Accept Nothing, Believe Nothing, Challenge Everything, in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of Affirmative Bias, Availability Heuristics, Framing and Fallacy. (Put simply, the Atticus Finch approach to the reading of newspapers-”Cross out all the adjectives and you will be left with something approximating to the truth.”Thank you Scout!)

 FACT v OPINION

Now to practicalities. Using the principles above, are there any incontrovertible facts on which all sides of opinion must agree, bearing in mind Kipling’s advice?

 

Where and When did the incident occur?

On Sunday June 7, 2020, a statue was toppled, defaced and pushed into Bristol Harbour. The plinth was also covered in graffiti, but left remaining in place.

 What of the Statue?

It was made of bronze and cast in 1895 by John Cassidy and designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977.

 Who or what was its subject matter?

The statue is of Edward Colston (1636- 1721).. He had been a Bristol merchant at the heart of its Establishment, generous philanthropist and Tory member of Parliament. He was held in such respect that even in 1895 when his bronze statue was cast he was chosen as a symbol of civic virtue.

 On the other hand…

Although he began his business career trading with European ports in wine, fruits and textiles, he choose to branch out into the West African slave trade. In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the west coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from1662. By 1689 (to 1690), Colston was deputy governor of the company, his association with it ending two years later. This “Slave Trade” as he knew it, consisted of vessels leaving an English port like Bristol stocked with cheap wares and bound for West Africa. Having made landfall the goods were exchanged for people who were then shipped across the Atlantic in the most appalling conditions. During Colston's involvement with the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692 it is estimated that the company transported over 84,000 African men, women and children to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, of whom 19,000 died on their journey. Survivors were sold for labour on tobacco, and increasingly, sugar plantations for a huge profit. Empty of human commodities, the slavers were restocked with the produce of the plantations that in turn fetched even more incredible profits on the English market.

 Who was responsible for the damage?

Supporters of “Black Lives Matter” while on the other were those of the “Save our Statues and the Culture they Represent” school of thought.

 What were the causes?

Long Term

The whole of slavery and its ensuing 350 years of discernible institutional racism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Medium Term

the whole Civil Rights Movement since the 1960s and the growth of Black consciousness. In the case of the Colston statue for example, although designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977 the statue has been subject to increasing controversy since the 1990s, when Colston's prior reputation as a philanthropist has come under scrutiny due to his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

Short Term

Protests at the brutal killing of George Floyd, an African-American man on May 25, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was caught on camera. After his death, protests against police violence towards black people quickly spread across the United States and internationally by both blacks and white sympathisers. Seen by protestors as a symbol of the Slave Trade - the source of so much subsequent evil, the statue of Edward Colston in the slaving port of Bristol presented a target against repressive racism too good to miss.

 MOTIVES

What were the motives of those who participated or opposed the demonstration? As ever, political, economic, social, cultural and/or religious varying in strength and combination from individual to individual, conscience to conscience.

 VALUE JUDGEMENT.

So much for the available documentary evidence supplied by Wikipedia a using the same unbiased techniques available to all sides in the debate over the future of the Statue (presently in the safekeeping of Bristol City Council since its 11 June 2020 recovery from the harbour). With all factions having thus crossed out the same adjectives, the difficult part can begin- forming a consensus – remembering that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

 FINAL QUESTIONS FOR YOU

Having carried this article so far I now feel entitled to provide not answers but further questions for you, my reader. Must not the fate of the statue surely depend on the life and works of the man it represents...Edward Colston. and whether he is worthy or not of being so represented as an example of civic pride and virtue? There is little doubt that a variety of good causes as well as his native city of Bristol itself, certainly benefited from Colston’s wealth, but is it not vastly less commendable than how that wealth was accrued...the buying and selling of fellow human beings?

 In so doing was he or not in flagrant breach of what we now recognise as Universal Human Rights. Of course they were not officially formulated until 1947, over 200 years after Colston’s death but as a practising Christian could he possibly have been ignorant of the precept “Treat others as you yourself would wish to be treated?” Would he have voluntarily crossed the notorious “middle passage” of the Atlantic in the same conditions in the hold of a slave vessel as his “black gold”? Why not? In this respect, would not members of any institution that has benefited from Colston’s wealth have done no more than live off the immoral proceeds of crime? Do white as well as black citizens of Bristol really consider this worthy of commemoration in the form of a statue dedicated to a master slave dealer?

 THE FATE OF THE STATUE?

So what should happen to it? Restore it? Melt it down and expunge its memory? Hide it from public view? Replace it with something else? OR choose another alternative? … Why not transfer it in its present defaced state to a museum as a permanent reminder of Colston in particular and the Slave Trade in general? (How and why attitudes have changed; Causes and Effects down to the present day; Empathetic Understanding from the perspective of black participants; how and why interpretations of evidence vary; even how  to detect bias in source material?

Who knows? Edward Colton might yet make amends, albeit post-humorously from the other side of the grave..