News in both the UK and the USA has recently highlighted demonstrations revolving around the Black Lives Matter campaign. The focus of this has been around for some time without any satisfactory resolution. The sentiment is strongest in the USA, despite the march on Selma and civil rights achieved in the 1960s, Treatment of black citizens—especially by white police officers—flares repeatedly into civil unrest there: Rodney King in South Central LA in 1991; Michael Brown in Ferguson MO in 2015; now George Floyd in Minneapolis MN.
With the continuing disparity in demographics between typically affluent white and typically impoverished black areas in many US cities, this is not about to go away by itself. The UK may have seen less violence since Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s but our problems are similar. .However justified the frustration and intractable the problem, the cause is being damaged by by some asherents using the protest to deface, damage and even destroy icons of the past, such as statues. While not taking such direct action, many more want all such idons removed because they believe they symbolise the problem . This is where the laudable Black Lives Matter movement may be in danger of losing its way, if not the support.it needs..
The phrase “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” carries a lesson here. History is full of odious figures. For every Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King,, you may choose from a panoply of flawed individuals. Regarded highly in their day, all were flawed and human, especially when taken out of their time and judged by modern ethics.
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans laid the foundations of Western civilisation, bequeathing us science, and philosophy, architecture and culture we still admire and use. But they were bloodily warlike. They all kept slaves. They were racist and sexist. But does that mean we should denigrate Tutankhamun or Alexander or Caesar because they beat up the Israelites, Trojans or Gaul? Should we demolish the Pyramids or the Parthenon or the Colosseum because they were products of oppression?
Fast forward nearer our own times. There are some pretty iffy characters cast in bronze or hewn in stone populating our streets whom we might take to task for their behaviour. But we would be wrong to judge them by today’s morals. Clive and Raffles and Rhodes may have been cheerleaders of colonialism. But they were cheered to the rafters in their day. Would you put the entire Georgian or Victorian or Edwardian population in the dock when everyone then bought into Kipling’s “white man’s burden” mission and were grateful for the hand-up out of poverty it brought with it?
Certainly, the most obnoxious aspect of all this was the slave trade. It was started by the Spanish but, from Drake on, the British made a thriving business out of it during the 17th and 18th centuries. The cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow were built on its proceeds. Though voices like Wilberforce were raised against it, everyone else from government to seaman were for it. Even the African chieftains were complicit in lining up subjects ready for sale.
There were few heroes. You can pick on Edward Colston in Bristol, or Joseph Brooks in Liverpool, or John Glasford in Glasgow,, all of whom made generous—if not entirely selfless—contributions to their respective cities. Beyond them, there were dozens of others, as well as ships’ crews, plantation owners HM exchequer, etc, who lived from the trade in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco. This catalised the British Empire as the leading power on the planet—as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all were in their time..
And, while we’re at it, why not condemn Thomas Cromwell for so enthusiastically seizing all the monasteries and abbeys for his master Henry VIII, so he could profit from his break with Rome, as well as marry his mistress? And why not the other Cromwell, who burnt the abbeys his namesake had seized? There is an endles catalogue of celebrated misceants to choose from.
Choose any era and you find the past is indeed a foreign country, whose customs, mores and morals clash violently with what you would consider civilised and acceptable behaviour today.
Condemning those who lived in the past is more likely to lead to frustration and dissent. We have no time machine to go back and correct shortcomings, even if we were so superior today that we might improve anything. Rather, we should be grateful that those who lived than—flawed as many were—contributed to the prosperity we enjoy today, where many more are enlightened and none of us are slaves.
More importantly, we should study those flaws, understand the motivation that bred them and get an insight they never had.
So that we avoid making the same mistakes as history.