Back in June a cancelled graduation had me packing up all of the possessions that I’d accumulated during my time at university, as I waved goodbye to my King Street flat and solemnly boxed up all the posters, gig tickets and other wee trinkets that I had hoarded to remind me of my years as an undergrad.
I’ve always been a bit of a sentimentalist; I think I get it from my mum. For as long as I can remember she’s meticulously stored away artefacts from my childhood so I can take a trip down memory lane as I get older. In theory that’s all very heartfelt but in practice it has meant three below-bed storage boxes packed to the brim with everything from my first pair of shoes to my P4 maths jotters. Moving back home with all my new items of nostalgic importance, I decided a clear out was probably long overdue.
Around the same time as I moved back home, our country was convulsed by far more embittered arguments over what and how we choose to remember. The Black Lives Matter movement, which had first emerged in 2013 in reaction to grotesque police brutality against black people in America, rose once again in outrage against yet another cold-blooded murder of an unarmed black male at the hands of the police: George Floyd. The footage of Floyd’s final moments, as he lay panicked, gasping for air and crying out that he couldn’t breathe reverberated around the world – propelled by its sheer horror and shocking people out of the complacent belief that issues of race in America had been resolved in any meaningful sense.
Though it might be hard to draw concrete conclusions about its long-term impact (especially when protests and campaigning are still very much ongoing and are likely to be for some time to come) it seems in these early stages that this new wave of the BLM movement has succeeded in two very crucial aspects. The first is that it has placed the onus of responsibility for solving these issues squarely in the lap of the people who lie at the root of the problem, which is to say white people, and secondly what started in the UK as a sincere expression of solidarity with people of colour in America has swiftly brought into focus our race relations in the U.K. and Scotland, specifically as they relate to our role in the colonial past.
Such discussion has provoked a lot of pushback, and this could possibly be attributed to how incredibly uncomfortable these conversations prove to be for ordinary Scots today. This is a notably more common reaction of older people in particular, yet by no means is it exclusive to them. At nearly all age ranges within the UK more people believe that the British empire was generally a good thing than believe it was bad – only amongst 18 to 24 year olds will you find that this attitude begins to change.
This post would be far, far too long if we were to unpack the reasons why that majority opinion is deeply mistaken, however the reason I have referenced it is to show the immense disparity that exists between Britain’s perception of Empire and the reality of its racial brutality. This failure is rooted in our history curriculum’s glaring omission of Empire and reinforced by a culture of misplaced pride. In the face of these misperceptions, exposing just how embedded racial injustice and historical wrongdoings are in our institutions and in the fabric of our society is always going to be difficult, but it’s a conversation that must take place.
Such a national conversation on how we atone – or even if we should atone at all – for our past colonial crimes reached a fever pitch when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol and rolled into the harbour by protesters. Colston’s bronze likeness had long been a source of controversy in the city. A slave merchant, he profited from the oppression of black people and funnelled some of this money back into the city in the form of philanthropy: building schools, hospitals, and funding housing for the poor. Calls by the black community for his statue to be removed had been ignored in Bristol for years. The event prompted outrage and ignited a national debate which both inspired and angered the divided public: a debate which rippled outwards across the country and forced us to re-examine how prevalent such statues and references to our slaving pasts are in British public spaces.
Such a symbolic moment drew the sort of classic objections you would expect from those who disagreed with the statue’s removal: that we should not attempt to erase the past. The idea that the past (or indeed, the knowledge of it) is inherently bound up in these objects is clearly silly. Nothing we can do now will change the fact that slavery happened. We can’t erase the memory of it, nor should we even want to. We do however hold it in our power to choose how it is represented, and how it will be represented to future generations. The act of Colston’s removal from Bristol city centre has forced that conversation right into the mainstream.
Here in Scotland in the wake of the event, attention turned to our own testaments to these slave traders. The commemorative statues, titles and plaques that were mostly erected in the Victorian era are all around us, if only we care to look. Glasgow’s street names are full of subtle nods to men who made their fortune off the backs of enslaved blacks in the Caribbean. Glassford, Oswold, Dunlop, Buchanan, Ingrim: all merchants implicated in the systematic abuse and enslavement of West Africans in the name of profit, all names of streets where Glaswegians live, work and shop.
So ingrained are these commemorative titles in our daily lives that they’re practically a part of the furniture in our city centres: hardly ever noticed let alone considered in a historical context. Nobody ever questions the number of streets named Jamaica in this country – to quote Frankie Boyle “it’s like people think maybe Peterhead had a really thriving reggae scene or something”. And the North East is hardly innocent here either for that matter. Aberdeen has a Virginia street down by the harbour, right where The Sugar House company once processed the raw product harvested by slaves in the Americas.
A third of all plantation owners in Jamaica were Scots, among them Hugh Fraser Leslie. This name likely doesn’t ring a bell, but if you’re a student at the University of Aberdeen or have visited the campus then you’re probably familiar with the Powis Gates. Built in 1834 and commissioned by Leslie, they’re adorned with carvings depicting slaves that serve as an acknowledgement of how he made his wealth. Today, hundreds of Aberdeen’s uni students pass under it completely oblivious, as they mill around campus or nip into Starbucks for a coffee between lectures.
It’s this obliviousness that really lies at the heart of the issue here. Each day we interact with this history without even being aware of it, pass by it but never consider its significance in the story of how Scotland made its fortune in the imperial heyday. This brings us back to the national debate at hand here: how can Colston’s toppling possibly have been historical erasure when the history itself has been brushed under the carpet in our society and obscured behind these statues and street names that openly glorify the men who perpetrated these crimes against humanity? It’s little wonder that they have endured for so long in our town centres unchallenged when the wider public still clings to the belief that Britain’s empire is something that we should be proud of.
I would go further than simply arguing against the Colston event being an act of historical erasure. It’s pro-historical. How many of us can say we would’ve even heard of Edward Colston and his crimes had it not been for the protesters toppling his statue in such dramatic fashion? I can only speak for myself when I say I have been incredibly humbled by the event, as it has directly inspired me to look further into Scotland’s own testaments to slavers as well as our extensive historic role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I would go even further still in saying that the event was history itself. Already plans are being drawn up to place the statue (finally retrieved from its watery grave in Bristol harbour) in a museum, complete with the graffiti that protesters had covered it in and accompanied by BLM placards and oral histories from those who were there that day. I can’t think of a more fitting example of history-in-the-making. Sometimes destruction can lead to more remembrance, not less, as it forms part of the ever-evolving story of our country and its relationship with the black people who call it home.
Photos by Jack Fraser (instagram: @jackufraser)
Sometimes in our role as historians we forget that we are active participants in history itself: heritage is so often thought of as what is left to us by previous generations, yet it is also what we actively choose to leave for future ones in the here and now. Memorialisation isn’t really about the past at all, it’s about the present. What should we choose to memorialise? What does that say about our society now and its values? How should we engage with our troubling past? There are no clear-cut answers to any of these questions. In Scotland at least we need to engage with them openly and honestly where we haven’t before and place black voices right at the heart of all discussions on what to do with these remnants from our dark past.
As far as my own engagement with the past goes, I began that clear out of my memory boxes the day after I moved back home. I indulged my nostalgia while I sifted through all the junk that had been stored under my bed for so long, practically forgotten about but still there. Some of what I found was great and definitely deserving of its place back in the box: a letter from a Sri Lankan pen pal I’d written to in primary school, old photographs and such. But a lot of it was just rubbish: brochures for zoos I’d visited, a shite photo on the London Eye, homework diaries.
I guess my mum took the view that it was better to store away everything and let me decide for myself what I wanted to keep when I eventually looked back through it. And maybe what I want to keep will change in years to come, and that’s okay too. The point is that the act of remembering is a continual process of renewal and revision. Just because something is an artefact of the past in no way obligates us to keep it. We need to open up these vaults from time to time and review what really matters to us – we need to take a look at what’s under the bed.
Words by Charlie Forbes
Cover photo by Jack Fraser (instagram: @jackufraser)
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
YouGov – Poll on attitudes towards the British Empire:
BBC News – ‘Edward Colston statue: Protesters tear down slave trader monument’:
Jonathan Jones in The Guardian – ‘What Bristol should erect in place of the toppled Colston statue’:
BristolLive – ‘Priti Patel says toppling of Colston statue is ‘utterly disgraceful’ – but Piers Morgan hits back’:
Frankie Boyle’s Tour of Scotland S1.E4/BBC:
John M. Corrall – Aberdeen Streets:
Excellent Resources on Racism/Colonial History in Scotland:
This superb post by Sarah-Louise Takahasi:
Big reading list compilation that I have been sent:
Academic articles which inspired this piece:
R. Harrison – ‘Forgetting to remember, remembering to forget: late modern heritage practices, sustainability and the ‘crisis’ of accumulation of the past’:
C. Holtorf – ‘Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage’: