There are good and bad in all, so beware of rewriting history

From statues to once beloved writers, history can be rewritten very quickly in modern times, rues Trevor Laffan
There are good and bad in all, so beware of rewriting history

JUDGE AND JURY: Protesters pull down a statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in 2020

A PRIVATE school in Bristol in the UK, named after the slave trader Edward Colston, is to change its name to ‘Collegiate’ in September.

The governors decided on this alternative, after receiving hundreds of suggestions from students, parents and staff.

You might recall a statue of Colston was pulled down there during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests a couple of years ago, following the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

School leaders said that after the toppling of the statue, the name would “forever be associated with the enslavement and deaths of African men, women and children”.

After it was toppled by the protesters, it was daubed with paint, spat on, struck with implements, rolled through the city centre, and thrown into the harbour.

In the aftermath, four Black Lives Matter activists were acquitted of causing criminal damage to it.

They admitted their part in pulling it down, but not to causing criminal damage. They didn’t accept intending to damage the statue or being reckless as to whether it was damaged or not.

Their acquittal prompted a debate in the UK about its criminal justice system and the case is going to its Court of Appeal.

Everyone has the right to protest peacefully, but I don’t accept we can wreck the place in the process. I’ve seen people convicted of causing criminal damage for less.

One of the four defendants was asked what he would say to people who accused him of trying to rewrite history, and he said: “We didn’t change history, they were whitewashing history by calling him a virtuous man. We didn’t change history, we rectified it.”

I don’t understand the thinking behind this, to be honest. How can you rectify history?

Colston was a product of his time and lived in an era when slavery was accepted by many. He didn’t invent it and trying to wipe him from history doesn’t alter that reality.

Judging past actions by today’s standards, and interpreting past events in terms of modern values and concepts, is just interfering with history

I recently learned that the famous British author, Enid Blyton, was rejected by the Royal Mint in 2016 as a suitable candidate for commemoration on a 50p coin because, the advisory committee decided, she was “a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”.

That was a surprise to me because I grew up reading Blyton books and I never saw anything wrong with them. I was a child then so I wouldn’t have, I suppose, but I have been a big reader all my life and it was her books that got me started. I followed the exploits of the Famous Five and loved their adventures. Cheesy characters by today’s standards, but they were products of their time too.

To suggest that Blyton is “not a very well-regarded writer” is off the mark. She wrote somewhere in the region of 700 books in her time and sold more than 600 million copies. She was obviously well-regarded by many, and that should be acknowledged too.

It’s very easy to be critical with the benefit of hindsight, but many of us are reading today, and educating ourselves about these issues, because of her.

During my working life in An Garda Siochana, I was responsible for a community policing team in Cork. Part of our brief was to engage with members of the new communities in the city, and to work with State agencies, volunteer organisations and minority groups promoting integration and inclusion.

We were well intentioned, but if our efforts were judged by today’s standards, many holes could be found in our strategy. We made plenty of mistakes.

It was new ground to all of us back in the noughties. Record numbers of immigrants were arriving in the city from all over the world, and we were suddenly presented with different religions, cultures, languages and customs, but there was no rule book to show us how to get everyone living and working together.

We did our best and, in 2011, I accepted an award on behalf of the Community Policing section from The Integration Centre in Dublin.

‘The Diverse Ireland Awards’ were organised annually, and we were recognised for the effort we were making. We didn’t get it right all the time, but at least we were trying.

I remember being mildly chastised for shaking hands with a Muslim woman. I didn’t realise it was against her religion for her to shake hands with a man, but there was no offence intended and none was taken, and I learned from my mistake.

On another occasion, I referred to someone as a non-national, which was a term being bandied about at the time. I thought nothing of it until one man suggested the term made him uncomfortable because it suggested he had no nationality and didn’t belong anywhere.

While he had left his own country for various reasons, he was nevertheless proud of his heritage, roots and nationality. He was a ‘national’, just not an Irish one.

Fair enough. That made sense to me once it was pointed out, and again there was no offence intended or taken.

Most reasonable people understood we were trying our best, even though, looking back on it now, we were often stumbling around in the dark, but we improved with time, as did Edward Colston.

He built a school to prepare boys from ‘poor families’ for apprenticeships.

He also gave money to other schools, alms-houses, hospitals and churches during his lifetime and, on his death, he left the equivalent of £16 million to charity - but that seems to have been conveniently forgotten.

As William Shakespeare said: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Edward Colston did a lot of good work in the community, but that part of his story will remain with him in the coffin.

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