Watching the news about the Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol and seeing the statue of philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston hauled down and thrown into the river set us thinking about another controversial historical figure – Captain James Cook – and about how in general we might learn the lessons of the past to construct a new, harmonious future.
Was James Cook a brilliant navigator, explorer and sailor? Or was he a colonial barbarian pillaging and murdering his way around the southern Pacific? There are certainly those who come down hard on one side or other of the debate. But, as uncomfortable as it might be for either camp to accept, the fact is he was both.
Both Colston and Cook brought terror and misery. Colston was in part responsible for the transportation and enslavement of around 83,000 people from the African continent, and for the deaths of approximately 19,000 of those. Cook, as captain of HMS Endeavour, was responsible for murder, theft and colonial land-grabs in the South Pacific, the memories of which are still carried by indigenous peoples there today.
Both Colston and Cook brought hope and enlightenment. Colston endowed schools, hospitals and more in Bristol, raising the living standards and prospects of many of the city’s inhabitants. Cook made breakthroughs in the theory and practice of navigation in the northern and southern hemispheres, and his discoveries helped build a fuller picture of the world.
To talk of Cook’s “discoveries” may seem problematic. After all, the inhabitants of the lands he “found” already knew exactly where they were, as had many generations of their ancestors. Yet to dismiss this concept of “discovery” as something born of white, male Euro-centric privilege would be to miss the point. That privilege defined the world in which Cook (and Colston) operated, underpinning their actions, both fair and foul. What took place in the name of such privilege was undeniably terrible at times, and all who attempt to eradicate that particular philosophy of world order are unarguably contributing something overwhelmingly positive to human progress. But none of this changes the fact that this was how the world was ordered then. It was white. It was male. And it was Euro-centric. “Discovery” meant questing for new lands far from Europe (at a time when none from far-flung cultures showed any inclination or ability to “discover” Europe unless they were brought there by force). Cook and Colston were men of their time and of their culture.
Today, we have the choice to embrace a much different and greater form of privilege, which is not bounded by sex, skin colour, origin or ethnicity and is entirely based on the shared experience of being human. We can acknowledge that misdeeds and achievement are not mutually exclusive in the life of any one person or nation, accept that we cannot change the darkness or light in our past, and understand that, just as we should not let bright glories blind us to dark deeds, neither should we allow the darkness to subsume the light as we seek to shape a new future.
We are still faced with slavery in various guises. We now call it a crime and strive to eradicate it and bring those responsible to justice. We fail, often, but we try. Likewise, the violent annexation of lands and slaughter of ethnic populations. As with slavery we are both intolerant of this and often ineffectual in its prevention. Yet, again, we try. What has changed is our consciousness of these evils, our almost universal acceptance that they are evils and must be challenged.
So let’s not take down statues to the likes of Colston and Cook, whose misdeeds were no less heinous than their achievements were magnificent, and whose legacies live on in both respects. Let’s leave those monuments where they are, contextualise them through education and, where necessary, protest, and draw some hope from the fact that, awful as we still are to each other in so many ways, we have made at least a little progress because we no longer tolerate such naked brutality that Cook and Colston displayed alongside their virtues. Let’s continue to reach for a more enlightened philanthropy that is not funded by blood or oppression in any form, and set sail for new horizons with gifts, not guns, in full awareness that we must move forward, and under no costs return to where we once were.
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