Should historical place names be changed to fit modern values? Historians debate

Following the news that Bristol entertainment venue Colston Hall is to be renamed in order to remove its association with a 17th-century slave trader, we asked three historians for their opinions on the removal of historical monuments and place names that clash with modern values…

Bristol concert venue Colton Hall. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

In April 2017, it was announced that Bristol concert venue Colston Hall will be renamed, after the decision was made to drop the association with a prominent slave trader.

Edward Colston was a 17th-century merchant who made his wealth through trading in slaves, cloth, wine and sugar, with a significant proportion of his wealth coming directly or indirectly from the slave trade. 

While some civil rights campaigners and a number of music artists, including the band Massive Attack, have welcomed the change, there are still many other prominent buildings, schools, streets and places named for Colston.

Louise Mitchell, chief executive of the Bristol Music Trust charity that runs Colston Hall, told the BBC: "The name Colston does not reflect the trust's values as a progressive, forward-thinking and open arts organisation.”

However, in echoes of the 2016 debate over whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist, should be removed from Oriel College, Oxford, the continued use of Colston’s name has divided opinion. The decision was called “an abject betrayal of the history and people of Bristol” by Bristol Conservative councillor Richard Eddy, who told the Bristol Post: “The latest clamour for change represents an attempt to selectively air-brush history away and betrays absolutely no awareness of the huge debt we still owe to this great Bristolian. Even in the early 21st century, the inhabitants of our city still gain immeasurably from the housing, healthcare and schooling legacy of Colston.”

Here, three historians consider the issue.
 


 A significant proportion of Edward Colston's wealth was made directly or indirectly through the slave trade.
 

Cheryl Hudson: “Monuments or street names shift through time and space but it is problematic to try to engineer those changes, even for a good cause”

Liverpool’s famous Penny Lane was named for James Penny, a slave-trader and an outspoken defender of the slave-trade who was intricately entwined with the city’s financial interests. Paul McCartney may or may not have known this when he penned his pop song, but the meaning of the street for the thousands of people who visit it each year is now entirely divorced from the commemoration of slavery. Penny Lane’s heritage is still intricately entwined with the city’s financial interests but in an entirely different context and frame of meaning.

This is one of many examples of how monuments, despite carrying a clear and direct message, often have that meaning subverted: the manner in which the message is received and understood varies according to the audience and their frame of reference. The meanings of cultural symbols such as monuments or street names shift through time and space but it is problematic to try to engineer those changes, even for a good cause. Still worse is to fail to recognise the shifts that have already taken place. No, South Africans and Oxford students do not revere Cecil Rhodes for his imperialist adventures. South Carolinians don't share Dylann Roof's construction of the meaning of the Confederate flag, and residents of New Orleans no longer hanker after slavery and Robert E Lee's leadership. Monuments signify existing rather than historical social relationships. Indeed, Brazil’s interracial Confederados community hail the Confederate flag as a symbol of family, unity, fraternity and friendship. 

Cultural symbols are open to changes in interpretation as part of an organic social process but it is wrongheaded to hand down changes as a form of collective cultural therapy. The built environment can’t operate as if it were a therapist’s couch or a group form of cognitive behavioural therapy [a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave]. Removing uncomfortable reminders will not – and arguably should not – alleviate the suffering and conflicts stirred by our traumatic past. Whatever good intentions are involved, to attempt to mobilise the production of heritage to eradicate past sins, assuage our guilt and dump the excrement of the past in a memory hole, only ultimately harms us. The damage is done by using the past as a mirror to reflect back into the present only flattery and self-love; it suggests a narcissistic neediness of a culture ill-at-ease with itself. Forgetting slavery is not a tonic for the anxieties of the present.  

Perhaps it has become a cliché to cite Orwell but his dictum that ‘he who controls the past, controls the future’ is too often read as a manual for action rather than a warning against authoritarianism.

People who lived in the past, indeed including Edward Colston, had complex, even contradictory, motivations and purposes. To whitewash our cities or adjust our collective memory to suit current tastes and predilections flattens out history and memory; it is a sinister undertaking. It is one thing to undertake a project of forgetting if you are moving on to do something else but to shape an urban environment into an inoffensive prophylactic only turns diverse and interesting cities into bland, beige, dull and faceless entities. The danger of commodifying the past, wrapping collective memories in consumer-friendly packages does a disservice to our cities, our publics and to history itself.  

Dr Cheryl Hudson is a lecturer in American History at the University of Liverpool and is former director of the academic programme at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the histories of race, reform and political culture in the US.
 


There is continued debate over the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist, at Oriel College, Oxford. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
 

Edson Burton: “The Colston debate and the slavery discussion replays the historical divisions of class, resource, and power”

Edward Colston initially appeared on my radar through public lectures or through lectures I delivered in support of Black History modules, and later through Bristol's major slavery exhibitions, the first at the City Museum (1998) the second at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum (2007). Alongside these encounters, I was aware of growing protest against Colston in line with the city's recognition of his role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Layers of inscription and finely wrought white marble contrast sharply with his now blemished image. Colston is a cause célèbre because he is the most prominent and the most adored of Bristol's city fathers. Adored not for his slave owning but for his philanthropy, it is this Janus-faced social role which has created the fissure in Bristol. 

As part of a historical community that has researched Bristol's transatlantic slave trade, I am aware that Colston is just one of a plethora of merchants, captains, sugar refiners, bankers, investors, who participated in the trade, and the names of some are also inscribed across the cityscape. These names are less well known to the wider public but their involvement was equally profound.

As a historian, I am concerned that the emotional engine in this campaign rides roughshod over empirical research, but more to the point, removes Colston from a context in which he is part of a sugar elite. There are signs of a wider investigation, but this too has demonstrated a detachment from a historical enquiry. 

Whether focusing on the case of Colston or looking a little wider, the question arises as to what is the purpose of the protest; what does it look to achieve? If renaming was to become more egalitarian, then we will find a great number of Bristol streets and sites become problematic, which may be to the good but would in the process exhaust the energies of all involved.

It is this point which leads to my unease over the current state of our discourse around Colston. 

Bristol is as a norm fractured by race, class and lifestyle, and the geopolitical climate has exacerbated such divisions. Our current debate about our heritage exacerbates rather than reduces tension. If we are to move towards a unilateral approach to transforming a city's identity, then we must also consider how to take much of the silent majority with us.

I continue to live and work within the inner city, I continue to enjoy complex connections with a range of Bristolians and as a result I sense that there is more at stake than the (in)justice of celebrating slavers. The Colston debate and the slavery discussion replays the historical divisions of class, resource, and power. We may achieve a degree a symbolic justice by addressing our past, but a lot more is required if we are to shift power relations in our present. 

Dr Edson Burton is a writer, historian, programme-curator and performer based in Bristol. His academic specialisms include: Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Black History in the USA, and Cultural continuities between Africa & the New World
 


There are at least 20 sites in Bristol named for Colston. (© Mr Standfast / Alamy Stock Photo)
 

Katie Donington: “An important step towards a more frank and open discussion of slavery, imperialism and their legacies”

The history, memory and representation of slavery, and more broadly colonialism, remains contested within British society. Much recent academic scholarship has been critical of Britain’s imperial tenure, although arguably this body of work has had a more limited impact on public history. A recent YouGov poll claimed that 44 per cent of Britons were proud of the empire whilst 19 per cent expressed regret, the rest were ambivalent. Critiques of Britain’s colonial past have become bound up in a discussion of political correctness, multiculturalism and national identity.

Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery brought great wealth to some individuals. That money was sometimes invested in philanthropic and cultural ventures that bought a newly-minted planter or merchant a reputation disassociated with the murky roots of the trade that had elevated them. This perhaps had more to do with a sense of class identity – the notion of the ‘gentleman improver’ – than any deep-rooted suspicion that slavery required some form of atonement. Invested in a sense of their own legacy, many powerful slaving dynasties built monuments, country houses, churches, and almshouses, as well as donating to and founding charities. Immortalised by imposing statuary, we can still find traces of these people today, even if the histories associated with them have largely been forgotten. 

The decision to rename Colston Hall has been met with a variety of critical responses; that you can’t change history, that Colston contributed positively to local life, that changing the name will lead to a loss of local identity, that this constitutes a white-washing of the past. The last argument is worthy of some consideration, although given that there are 20 sites in Bristol named for Colston it is perhaps premature to suggest that this single instance would erase this history from local memory. Arguably the controversial loss of Bristol’s Empire and Commonwealth Museum did more locally and nationally to displace this history than the renaming of Colston Hall will do.

What to do with these uncomfortable symbols of a brutal past? Students at Oxford argued that the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes should be put in a museum. Would the removal of street-level history to a museum really encourage interaction with the past? Would it be possible for new signage to be erected in situ to challenge and inform public perceptions? Walking tours provide another way to disrupt the historical narrative without enclosing the debate within the walls of a museum - a technique that has been used effectively in Liverpool. Perhaps it the process of campaigning to rename or remove these symbols that is the most effective in terms of destabilising currently uncontextualised and untroubled slaving histories. In the case of Colston and Rhodes, the protestors have succeeded in opening up a public conversation about Britain’s colonial past and the ways in which it continues to shape the present. That in itself is an important step towards a more frank and open discussion of slavery, imperialism and their legacies.

Dr Katie Donington is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham working on the Antislavery Usable Past project. Her research focuses on slavery, family, commerce and culture in the British Atlantic world

 

Colston Hall joins a number of monuments, buildings and street names to be renamed according to the values of a later time. Here, journalist and historian Andrew Robinson considers another significant instance in history when the name of a landmark was influenced by later events, when the Nazis renamed the 1920s Einstein Tower…

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