Dig Up the Past, Don’t Bury It

Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

A month has passed since the unlawful killing of George Floyd. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, protests have continued across both the UK and USA. The Black Lives Matter movement may slowly be relegated to the back pages of our newspapers, but at the risk of their own lives, protestors have been fighting to ensure that the cause is not forgotten. And a month allows us to reflect on what we have learnt and apply these lessons closer to home. If these protests are to be judged against past anti-racism movements, surely we judge their success by their lasting impact, that we do not once again as a nation forget nor bury the underlying cause and that we strive for change at every level of society.

Among the movement’s goals, racial equality, an end to police brutality – which any right-minded citizen would consider fundamental to a fair and just society – one has puzzled me for the disproportionate prominence afforded to it: the removal of statues of those connected in some way to the slave trade or colonialism, among them such archetypal British ‘heroes’ as Sir Francis Drake and Winston Churchill.

The first example which will come to mind for many of us is the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol on the seventh of June. It was this action which incited the demand for several more statues to fall and organizations to be renamed. Before I continue, I shall emphasize that I believe getting rid of this particular statue was the right decision. But we would be foolish to think that the matter has no nuances and draws to a close there.

Given the diverse backgrounds and the focus on social justice at Barts and The London and Queen Mary University of London, many of our students have likely been involved in some form of anti-racism activity over the past month. I have joined an anti-racism steering group within the medical school, in the belief that we must also tackle the issues rampant in our own backyard. More than once, it has been noted to replace portraits in the Garrod Building as they are predominantly white men. It surprises me how much attention is given to this topic which, while worth considering, is of relatively low priority in tackling systemic racism; an issue which – while different in nature to the US – is very real in the UK.

It is another matter entirely which led to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue. Years of disgust that a slave-trader could be so celebrated in our modern-day, civilized society, anger triggered by the government’s bureaucratic processes and meandering route towards addressing systemic racism, culminating in the overthrowing of this monument to Britain’s slave trade.

It was merited, many will argue. After all, the primary purpose of erecting such statues is to celebrate the individual represented. If the individual is no longer deemed worthy of celebration, the statue no longer has a purpose and thus surely it should be removed? In much the same way we would demolish a building that no longer served a function to the community.

Of course, there are several discussion points here surrounding how Edward Colston’s statue was removed. These Black Live Matters protests take place with the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic. Is it sensible to protest in violation of social distancing rules, potentially putting the lives of others at risk? Well, it is no less an important cause than celebrating your football team’s first Premier League title or finding a pleasant sunbathing spot at the beach. And then the argument goes, as Priti Patel would undoubtedly support, that there is a right way to go about these things. I am no advocate for vigilantism but if one were to believe that the ends justify the means, here the public forced councils around the UK to consider that such statues may possibly be wrong through a single criminal act, something which had not been achieved through years of going through the proper channels and negotiating the red tape; a sad statement on officialdom.

Again, such debates are more nuanced than how I have presented them here and are worth discussing at another time. Here, my focus is on what toppling these statues will actually achieve and how one must make these decisions.

Photo by Monjur Hasan on Unsplash

We have been swept up in the movement calling for removal of historical figures of whom we know very little and have paid little attention to before. How many people know it is Clement Attlee, one of the UK’s greatest Prime Ministers, leading the country when the National Health Service was created, who stands behind the Mile End Library. Would it colour our opinion of him if we knew he was a supporter of the British Empire? 

The decisions to remove such reminders of our colonial past should not be taken lightly. Before deciding the fate of such statues – whether to dump it in the sea is best, or whether it should be melted and sold for scrap metal to invest in the fight against institutional racism, or rehoused in a museum for purposes of education – we must first fairly conclude the public opinion of the individual in question.

It seems for me odd to make this decision by historically reflecting on people such as other former prime ministers, Winston Churchill and William Gladstone. I come to this debate with the background of a medical student, where conditions are named after those who discovered them, in recognition rather than celebration (although Stigler’s law of eponymy very much applies). What bearing does a person’s character have on this discovery?

The discovery surely stands alone. It is a case of separating the art from the artist. I am sure many will continue to enjoy the Harry Potter universe even if they are not in agreement with JK Rowling’s recent comments regarding transwomen. Whatever her beliefs, she can still be lauded for the writing of the Harry Potter books.

And even if we count the actions of the individual, rather than judge their beliefs, can any action they undertake void the discovery for which we recognize them? There are countless examples of scientists in the past who have made vast contributions to the literature but believed in outdated theories otherwise. One such example is Barts alumnus, Richard Owen, a palaeontologist who coined the term dinosaur but was a fierce critic of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet he still made important contributions to evolutionary theory which cannot be discounted. Likewise, it is difficult to discount past public figures and the good they did achieve for society, on the basis that they most likely held views (while such views were not publicly documented, it goes without saying, one might conclude) we now accept as immoral, whether they be racist, sexist or homophobic. Perhaps it makes such figures ‘less good’, less well-informed than we consider ourselves to be, but they still achieved good.

Even if we are to say the personal character matters. How do we reach these decisions? Do we excuse Churchill for his racist views and actions which led to the death of millions in the Bengal famine of 1943, by saying he was concentrating on the more important fight against the Nazis. Do we judge people by the standards of their time? After all, Gladstone would change his position on slavery and speak against it in his later life, following the abolition of slavery in nineteenth century Britain.

From now on, it may be safest to avoid celebrating figures with statues or eponyms. Do we ever know much about their private life or how public opinion will change going forward? Even the medical field is dropping Nazi eponyms from the names of certain conditions, preferring to stick with scientifically accurate names.

While Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry fortunately does not have as controversial or deeply-rooted historical figures as they do down at King’s College London (where Thomas Guy, who held shares in the South Sea Company, comes first in the name of the medical school), we must still make these considerations when wrestling with our own past and reconciling it with how we move forward.

Do we rename the John Langdon Down House at Charterhouse Square because John Langdon Down, the first to describe Down’s Syndrome, did so in a paper entitled ‘Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots’? Down believed that we could classify different types of conditions by ethnic characteristics, referring to patients with Down’s Syndrome as of the Mongoloid classification due to their appearance being supposedly similar to Mongolian people. However, he used this interpretation to suggest that racial differences did not mean humans of different races belonged to a separate species.

Do we rename the medical school’s William Harvey Day because believing the seventeenth-century William Harvey was responsible for identifying the systemic circulation of the human body is a Eurocentric view which ignores Ibn Al-Nafis, a twelfth-century Syrian, and his description of the pulmonary circulation that Harvey may possibly have been exposed to during his time in Venice?

It is not a simple matter to decide which figures are worthy of celebration and conversely decide which figures we must abruptly cease respecting in some regard. We must do so by educating ourselves. A little learning is a dangerous thing and it would be easy to deride John Langdon Down or Clement Attlee without first doing our own research.

And then if we decide the figure is certainly not worthy of any adulation nor respect, whether or not we contemplate the aforementioned arguments, we must make a democratic decision. I would echo the words of Gladstone Library in response to the Black Lives Matter movement: “We also believe that if it is the democratic will, after due process, to remove statues of William Gladstone, our founder, we would not stand in the way. Nor, we think, would Gladstone himself – who worked tirelessly on behalf of democratic change.”

Having said all of this, Edward Colston was a slave trader, any ‘achievements’ worth celebrating are built upon this criminal act, and the public seemed to reach a consensus that his statue was surely an affront to common decency. But how many of us, outside of a small minority, knew who Edward Colston was before this statue was removed? How many more of us, in future generations, will remember Edward Colston going forward? As much as we may hate Colston, his statue reminded us of the British Empire’s past. And indeed, that was the reason we hated the statue. But removing it buries the past. And while we are right to be ashamed of this past, it is wrong to forget it. When our recommendation to those who wish to be allies to the movement is to educate themselves, these actions may be seen as hypocritical. And when our goals are to create meaningful change and to have a lasting impact, the truth is that removing statues achieves little in this regard. Like censoring old television programmes confined to the archives long ago, they afford institutions the ability to publicly display their ‘wokeness’ while making the most superficial changes. There are some who will argue that the act of toppling the statue was symbolic of toppling systemic racism within society. But symbolism is subjective, dependent upon the observer, and how long before the government seizes these gestures in a brazen attempt to cover up the past, how long before society forgets either way.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Of course, the matter of removing statues is not a binary between either scrubbing away the mistakes of our past or keeping these monuments to slave-traders. One of the goals very relevant to anti-racism campaigns is to decolonize education. But for the people of Bristol, a change to the national curriculum would disassociate Edward Colston’s legacy when it is unfortunately intrinsic to the city itself.

If you doubt this, consider this as a Queen Mary student. Four years ago, spurred on by the campaign of the moment, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, students of the Pan-African Society petitioned the university to remove the foundation stone in the Octagon Library. The stone was laid in 1887 by King Leopold II of Belgium, a Belgian King whose actions led to the death of millions of Africans in the Congo Free State. The university acceded, although it publicly credited the decision to refurbishment work. King Leopold II had no substantial connection to Queen Mary, by all accounts, he just happened to be in Mile End on the day. But by removing the plaques, Queen Mary swept any notion of imperial links under the carpet, coming out lilywhite on the other side. Demands were not met by the university to facilitate discussion surrounding the history of colonialism. And four years later, this admittedly weak but real link is forgotten by many despite its relevance.

Before we decide to remove any statues, we must consider whether such an action actually benefits the anti-racism movement.

Statues may be a very pertinent issue for some people and I do not deny the benefit in removing them for those who see the statues as celebrations of racists. But in medical parlance, one must treat the cause, not the symptom. The statues are very much only symptoms (or perhaps, more correctly, clinical signs) of the disease of institutional racism. And while the symptoms might be what bothers us, what we seek to treat, what we show others as proof of the disease, we cannot allow the excessive focus and addressing of these issues alone to distract us from dealing with the underlying cause: systemic racism.

Not only that, but undue attention (as it may be interpreted by the outsiders if not the insiders) on statues risks alienating those who might otherwise support the overall aims of the Black Lives Matter movement (forget, for a second, the All Lives Matter brigade). For example, in the world of sustainability issues, I have witnessed green activists openly mocking those who would supposedly see the world burn because they dislike the taste of paper straws. Framing arguments in such a way is counter-productive and only builds hostility. It may be a Blairite sentiment but even where we clearly see our position as the most logical, we must offer a centrist position to persuade others, acknowledging rather than dismissing concerns. After all, if we are to move forward, we must do so together.

And even when we are all in agreement, we must take great care not to rewrite our own history. I enjoy discussing the great tales from Barts and The London’s storied past. But I am not afraid of acknowledging when we have been on the wrong side of history. We proudly proclaim Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England, as one of our own. She may have been born in Whitechapel and some doctors at The London Hospital may have helped privately tutor her. But the truth is our medical school was among the many who refused her entry. We had our chance but we are not fit to retroactively claim her as one of our own. Indeed, it would be in 1948, over eight decades after her qualification as a physician, that either of the founding medical colleges of Barts and The London would permanently accept the admittance of women, and even then only on the threat of exclusion from the University of London.

I await the next Black History Month for when we at Barts and The London will proudly proclaim Dr Benjamin Quartey-Papafio, the first Ghanaian – and indeed, African – to obtain a medical degree as one of our own due to his brief time at the St Bartholomew’s Hospital. We perhaps will not acknowledge Edward Colston’s own link to our institution. Edward Colston was a Governor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, once having a ward in the old hospital named after him. Among many generous donations, he bequeathed the land on which the West Smithfield Library currently stands. Was this article worth reading for this long to find that out?

The issue with rewriting our history – whether the UK’s as a whole or just Queen Mary’s – is it means we forget we have very rarely been on the right side of history. I will point to the issues above as a lens on the history of the medical school, which is what I know most, but I have no doubt these issues and shameful events of the past extend to Queen Mary University of London as a whole. By forgetting the roles King Leopold II or Edward Colston had in our history, we forget to do what is right before it is too late.

Just months before George Floyd’s unlawful killing, Queen Mary University of London had the opportunity to react to (former Diversity and Inclusion Manager) Sandra Brown’s resignation letter which called out Queen Mary’s institutional racism. To me, it seems that all QMUL has done since is hired a Vice-Principal for People, Culture and Inclusion who one imagines is still settling in. It is not work I have directly been involved in but for years, the appeals of Decolonize QMUL have barely troubled the university’s senior management. To sit down at one table is a dream Martin Luther King had, but it is also the most basic step in facilitating much-needed, much-delayed conversations between the university and its students.

In my opinion as a former Sabbatical Officer, Queen Mary University of London Students’ Union is not much better, responding to the above letter by attacking the university in a blatant display of sanctimonious virtue signalling, failing for months to recognize its own institutional racism and toxic work culture amongst its predominantly white full-time staff. I have recommended for three years now that Merger Cup has a campaign on racism in sport. If the annual sports competition even takes place next year, will QMSU finally be ready to jump on the bandwagon? And I have gone on already for far too long about the medical school to have the time to delve into the racism – and more importantly, xenophobia – prevalent at the Barts and The London Students’ Association. Although at least they were getting rid of statues before it was fashionable.

Wherever we rehouse these statues, it is worth viewing them now no longer as celebrations of seemingly abhorrent figures from uncivilized times but as reminders to do better while we still can. While it is a very different matter, I do not know how many readers have ever looked through the names on war memorials, such as the one at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, or on the headstones of a graveyard, such as at the Novo Jewish Cemetery at Mile End Campus. Such monuments do not act to glorify war or death, but they remind us to keep peace and to celebrate life.

I am no perfect individual. I will accept at times having made inappropriate comments and erred in issues of racism, sexism, and so on. The opinions I present in this article are formed over the past months and years and will likely develop over the following months and years. But all of this forms a part of me which I will not ignore, which I will pledge to learn from. As a society, we must do the same. We can choose how the stories from our past define us, but we cannot do so by confining them to the past. We must learn from them, to do better. And we must also allow the people to celebrate our diversity, while those in power are forced to inspect and criticize themselves. Too long it has been the other way round. Statues will always be stationary, solitary relics of the past, it is we who must move forward together.

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