Toppling Tyrants

Toppling Tyrants

Toppling tyrants is such an obviously good idea that I find myself unsettled that I have not been sharing in the exhilaration when I see the statutes pulled down by crowds. Statutes are erected to those that we want to honour and remember, it is our way of paying homage for great deeds. It is clearly the case that if we find we have made a mistake that we should rectify this. One of the first steps that any liberated peoples do on gaining their freedom is to destroy the signs of their prior oppression. We all cheered when we saw Saddam hit the dust, and Stalin and Enver Hoxha likewise. We await the day when Kim Jong-un totters and crashes.

I’ll look forward to seeing Sir Thomas Picton’s effigy being removed from Cardiff and Wales as it is clear that he was a sadistic man. It is wrong that a statute of him remains in the “Heroes of Wales” hall; he may have been a successful military man but his admission of the torture of a 14 year old slave girl and his reputation as the “Tyrant of Trinidad” weigh too heavily, overshadow, and obliterate, any positive contributions he may have made in his life. It is similar, though perhaps less obvious, with Edward Colston who’s statue met a watery grave in Bristol this week – it seems agreed that his financial philanthropy can’t outweigh his personal involvement in the slave trade. Like many wealthy he hoped his financial largesse and benevolence might buy him some grace, and for a while his charity did whitewash his reputation. But no longer.

So why my unease ? Why am I not outside cheering ? I suppose because obvious examples are obvious, and these are not a problem. But after these come many more, much more difficult decisions. It is very hard to look back without our views being coloured by our present knowledge and culture; this is as it should be. This allows us to be wise after the event. What was once a generally accepted fact is now known to be wrong, what was once customary and usual is now viewed with revulsion and horror. But we can not rewrite history to make it look as we would have wished it to be, to rewrite it in our present image would be a mistake. We are able to learn from history, to know the mistakes we made, to learn from them and atone for them. We can only do this if we know our history.

That does not mean we need to keep all of the statues and plaques that have been raised. If they are to stand they need to be understood, they need to be seen in their historical context. We might keep the statue of a victor but frame it in such a way as to reveal their subsequent trouncing. We might use the effigy of the wealthy industrialist who sponsored charitable works to remind us that apparent breeding, obvious wealth and social acceptance do not mean that someone may not be party to dreadful deeds.

There are two aspects of statue raising that we should also consider when we are pulling them down. What is the statue celebrating ? Who decided to raise the statue ?

What is being celebrated is important. A slaver who repents in late life and donates all his money, gained through immoral means, perhaps should continue to stand as a reminder that even when society tolerated an evil some individuals did not. So it is quite conceivable that the statute of someone who benefitted from slavery should stand – the obvious case. But there will be many, many more difficult cases. Whole societies benefitted from the process of slavery and whole nations and peoples were complicit in it (some still are). Some of those individuals have have statues erected for other acts or heroism, goodness or charity. It is these acts that are being celebrated and it is right that they are. Occasionally information will be discovered hat casts a previously celebrated individual in a new light and it is felt that their behaviours were so heinous that any honours need to be removed. Another obvious case at the other end of the spectrum. But in the middle we have those whose ‘distinction’ was only the action for which they are being celebrated, in these cases we will have to weigh these on their merits. Does the statue celebrate something we still revere ? Does the memory of the individual help us understand how we should behave ? Does the statue remind us of something we should really forget ? These questions would help us decide what stands and falls. But that leads us to our second question – who decides ?

In private spaces the owner clearly decides what artwork they wish to display. It is a private matter, but, in public spaces it is a public matter and one which needs the publics involvement. However, I mean the public and not ‘the mob’. Thirty or forty aroused individuals with ropes, no matter how well-meaning, do not have the right to take that decision from us. They are no different to the soldiers of an incoming, victorious army that pull down the icons of our old leader and replace them with a new effigy for us to worship. If we are going to make public statements of what is morally correct, what we feel should be revered, what or whom we should respect then we as the public must have our say.

When we start pulling down statues we are rewriting our history in a deliberate fashion. They are part of our memory of what were and what we did. It needs a conscious democratic and careful act to do this. As is often the case, George Orwell knew how dangerous this can be :-

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

1984, George Orwell.

So I feel queasy when I watch a gang pull down public statues. I may agree that the statue should go, but my agreement is just chance. Next time they might be pulling down something I hold dear. Do I have to go out on the street and fight them to try and keep it standing ? This is the way of chaos. The passions of the street can be correct and seeking justice and just retribution; but they can also be the passions of the lynch mob. We skate around such things at our peril, as the great German director Werner Herzog said :-

“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”

My queasiness is the fear that I hear the sound of distant cracking.

Smaller is often better.

Smaller is often better.

A small group of folk in the town had arranged a rather unusual concert for Friday night. They had organised a fusion of Welsh Cerdd Dant and Jamaican dub poetry. This may sound an unusual mix but there was a reason for this; the group organizing the night were researching the historical links between the local wool trade and slavery.

When I lived in Scotland I was aware of the strong link between the tobacco and sugar trades and the slave trade and there were very many reminders of this in my home town. The street names, statues and buildings all bore witness to this shameful period. I had not been aware when I moved that this was also the case in North Wales, though perhaps I was rather naïve to think there is anywhere in the country, the hub of old Empire, which doesn’t have reminders to squalid aspects of our past. In any event I looked forward to this evening as it promised something different and I had little familiarity with either of the cultural forms.

But as we gathered for the evening I started to realise something was amiss. The night was cold and wet and there had been weather warnings of rain and flooding. We had noted that the town was rather quiet but, as my wife and I sat in the bar, we realised the only others there were either the performers or the theatre staff. Quarter of an hour after the due start time only three other people had joined us – we were hardly a throng being swollen. By the start of the show the audience was outnumbered by the staff and performers by a ratio of 2 to 1, but the show had to go on!

The main act was Yasas Afari. He is a well know poet but he also is a tall, handsome, striking man who has a great deal of charisma. This was a man who was not going to be intimidated by a poor turnout and was still intent of giving his performance. He delivered his poetry with gusto and verve. There was a powerful physicality to his delivery. This was made all the more potent by the fact that at times there were literally only inches between ourselves and the performer.

This evening clearly threatened ‘audience participation‘ and I was not sure my usual strategy was going to work on this occasion. Usually I adopt a pose of studiously looking at my feet, putting a glower on my face and trying to radiate an aura of “Don’t even think about choosing me, it would be more trouble than it is worth” as a protective shield around me. This usually works, but when I comprised fully 20% of the audience I anticipated that this was not going to be successful and I was correct : I had no option but to join in.

Yasus took an evening which could have been awkward and turned it into something quite special. He had us on our feet (all ten of them), we took part in the chorus, we made pledges and said oaths, we even danced along to some of the poems (Though shuffled may be a more appropriate verb than danced). He transformed an a difficult concert into an intimate gathering and we had a great night. We discussed language and culture and the links between language and political power. He made the links between the Welsh Language and Jamaican Patois clear and obvious.

We also discussed Rastafari and whether Yasus realises it, or not, he is an obviously a preacher. By the end of the night I had a much better understanding of this religion than I ever had expected. My knowledge of Rastafari had been limited to knowing some famous names associated with it (Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley) but I knew very little of the beliefs that it contained. Much is very similar to Christianity which, I am ashamed to say, I had not realised. I enjoyed his descriptions which were vivid and clear, and was struck when he said that he though many of our current problems stem from a modern mistake. The mistake, in his eyes, is to view ourselves as bodily entities having spiritual experiences rather than spiritual entities having bodily experiences. I thought this an interesting echo of the old view of the Cathars and early gnostics.

Mr. Afari really deserved a much bigger audience. If you ever have the chance to hear him deliver his poetry give it a go, you will enjoy yourself and find yourself thinking about a variety of issues. However, I am partially glad that this night was a “flop” and had such a small audience. It delivered a great deal more than it would have with a crowd and I would otherwise never had a chance to high five the poet!

James McCune Smith

I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.

James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.

He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.

Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.