2007 - 2021

A Matter of Black and White

I appreciate that some readers may disagree profoundly with my approach to this problem. The editor of Bella Caledonia completely disagrees with my views on this, but has nevertheless allowed my article to be published, in the spirit of free and open debate. This, for me is what makes Bella Caledonia special, and I commend him for his gracious response to an article from me that he was disinclined to publish.
I am not one of those who claim to be disturbed by the removal of the Colston statue; it is an event that will no doubt acquire iconic political and cultural significance, and he will not now return to his pedestal; point made. On the whole, I prefer such things to remain; as a reminder never to forget, as information, and in the belief the penny will drop, and it will stand as a retributive public embarrassment; because the alternative is, save with a rare Colston moment, erasure and amnesia. My preference for such artefacts is the Glasgow public’s response to the Wellington statue in Glasgow , complete with a pyramid of traffic cones, and one for the horse; because that image is emblematic for me of the spirit that explores the meaning of statues and the public response in real time, in my home city; it is the greatest work of found, public Art in Glasgow, for it lives, breathes and changes in front of us – earlier this year the traffic cone was painted in EU blue and gold in another public comment on contemporary events; right in front of GoMA.
Scotland’s indefensible statues are a fish in a barrel target for critics, but we are much, much better at destroying our history, burying it or hiding it than remembering it; we have been as effective in removing it from awareness as Scipio Africanus was in destroying Carthage, to the last stone standing. The Enlightenment did its own kind of expunging of Scotland’s past and Britain’s present, even from itself. We are very good at burying our history in Scotland, but it is how we keep it in view, or recover what is buried that matters. Earlier than the Enlightenment, Scotland carried out perhaps the most thorough and comprehensive Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth century. Whatever you think of that event, what interests me is the history, which seems straightforward until you try to find it. The Reformation recorded itself, but understanding it is much more elusive, because so little of the past it superseded survived the event. 
It is fortunately not my period of study, and that is just as well, because much of it is a desert, so effective was the destruction. The irony is the Reformers carried the thought and intellectual methods of the culture they destroyed in the form of the metaphysics of the mediaeval scholastics like Aquinas or Duns Scotus with them, and in spite of themselves, into Reformation theology and into the future; what they destroyed was our ability to understand properly why it happened and even why the reformation was so thorough in destroying the evidence; including some of the finest buildings, artefacts, books and manuscripts created in or brought to Scotland over centuries. We changed by destroying our capacity to understand. They created a desert, and called it ‘peace’. Then they fell out over the Reformation itself, principally over Erastiansm. We do this kind of destroying, hiding or burying regularly in Scotland; we have form.
I prefer the kind of response to statues that the Glasgow public found when they were confronted by Wellington’s statue: unanswerable mockery. What people do not realise is that it sits in front of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) and there is much more to that building than Art. This building was originally the house of William Cunninghame of Lainshaw (1731 – 1799), a Tobacco Lord and sugar merchant; a man who made his fortune from slavery. This is completely unnoticed. The statue attracts the attention, and the popular critique. Cunninghame is both right before us; and completely forgotten. There is the irony of making gestures around statues. We are sleekit. We hide much better than we recover: or wish to find.
I have little problem with the BBC disposing of out-of-date material, but I am more concerned when effectively the Corporation is removing from history its association with difficult issues, that it suits the Corporation if we do not any longer associate with the BBC’s somewhat over-inflated view of its own virtues; the BBC is thus allowed to present itself as living only in an ever contemporary, unflawed present, save when portraying its own past virtues; usually from the Second World War. It was, however the BBC that decided to make the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’, and renewed the show for over twenty years (1957-78); before it buried it. I am not comfortable that this is too conveniently forgotten; because such matters tell us a great deal about both the public and BBC values and social attitudes of the time; which is, ironically just around the time of the Windrush Generation settling in to welcoming Britain; perhaps it should have been a clue that the ‘Mother Country’ was quite capable of letting them down.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the ease with which the BBC has buried its long and deep association with Jimmy Saville, and others. ‘Dame Janet Smith Review Report: The Jimmy Saville Investigation Report’ (2016.) provides the painful and awful story. It simply is not possible here to do justice to this vast report, so I have selected one single statement by Dame Janet Smith to stand for all – my selection, not of course hers: “I have concluded that, during the Saville years, the culture in the BBC and the BBC’s management style did not encourage the reporting of complaints or concerns. Given the hierarchical structure, the impracticability of complaining to anyone other than a line manager and the weakness of the Personnel Department, the only option for a victim of inappropriate behaviour during the Saville years was to put up with it or leave. By and large, they chose to stay because, in many respects, the BBC was a wonderful place to work.” (Dame Janet Smith Report, Ch.1, Para., 9, p.42). 
We do not perhaps forget Saville easily, but it is remarkable with such facility after the report was written and published, nobody very important in the BBC was taken to task, no plaster fell from the ceiling; no walls cracked under the strain, the signal continued to be transmitted. Somehow it could be attributed to a kind of vague, common non-specific institutional failure; not really much to do with the BBC at all. Nothing to see here. Move on. We moved on. The deed somehow died with the evidence. Yet the BBC Charter was renewed shortly afterwards. How bad would it have to be before the BBC would have to pay the penalty for such an abject failure over so long? What could be worse than Saville and all it implied? I do not believe that the BBC charter renewal should have survived Saville.
I rest my case.

Comments (21)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Squigglypen says:

    What an excellent article.
    I knew nothing of the Tobacco Lords and what they did cos it was not in our history books. Then I saw a program about the Scottish part in slave trading and was sick.
    Head to tail( you get more slaves crammed in that way)..if sick you heaved them over the side…sharks got to know so followed these boats…….the Holy Willies who built these mansions in Glasgow went to church….pillars of the Establishment…looked up to….while sick black people were being munched by sharks. We have to acknowledge our guilt and how we profited. What to do? Stick up a big plaque on the statues or beside street names admitting what happened ..whatever we do it has to be dragged into the light screaming and kicking….

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Mr Warren, thank you for this piece and thanks, too, to Mr Small for publishing it despite your claim that he ‘completely disagrees with your view.’ I have read his recent articles on this issue which were written in his customary, well-informed, nuanced style.

    I am in pretty strong sympathy with much of what you have written here, but I also found much that I agreed with in Mr Small’s pieces.

    In discussion with others, I, too, used the example of the Duke of Wellington statue and the cones as a good example of using humour to prick pomposity and to direct attention to the entire life of the great saviour of his country – no mention of his Irishness , nor of the role played by the “North British” Dragoon Guards (the terms, ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’ having been proscribed, nor of the decisive role of the Prussians under Bluecher. I have visited GOMA/Stirling’s Library over many decades since I was a schoolboy and, undoubtedly benefited from what they offered. Despite its provenance GOMA provides a service to the people of Glasgow and it would be vandalism were it lost. I think it is important that generations of citizens benefit from what it now provides. It can be enhanced by a permanent display describing its history. This history is part of Scotland’s history and the histories yet to be produced or to be given greater emphasis.

    I support, strongly, what Black Lives Matter has unleashed and that view was strengthened this morning as a cycled through George Square and witnessed the baleful, overwhelmingly male middle-aged, self-proclaimed ‘guardians of the statues’. These are the same people who caused the riot in the Square in September 2014 on the day after the referendum. These people’s thuggery was, shamefully reported by BBC Scotland as a riot by independence supporters. Another example of that organisation’s perfidy.

    An anecdote to finish: my daughter is the archivist for a long-established third sector organisation dating from Victorian times. Over recent years, she and her colleagues have unearthed huge amounts of contemporary materials, most of these reflecting the idiom and dominant attitudes of the time. However, the archive also shows how that idiom and attitude changed over time as people learned more about what was happening. The archive is now formally recognised as a valuable resource, particularly of the Victorian era , and she and her colleagues have presented at various university conferences. At one, she was berated by a writer, who claimed to write ‘historic’ novels, but which were a rewriting of ‘history’ to show’ what people’s views ‘ought to have been’, rather than what they actually were. In fact, she ‘condemned my daughter and her colleagues for perpetuating these ‘appalling attitudes’ and demanded that they be destroyed because they would have an adverse effects on public attitudes, today. My daughter’s response was that she was pleased that the woman had found the archive useful, but that whatever the woman was writing could not be considered to be ‘historical’. As you can imagine, there was no meeting of minds!

    1. John S Warren says:

      I am glad to hear about your daughter’s efforts. There is so much to be discovered. It is an illusion to be believe that we possess all the facts. What your daughter is doing is real primary research. As for the lady novelist, unfortunately she does not understand the nature of history, which is to understand and the past and more adventurously, explain it, but not to reform it; in case she had not noticed, as a matter of plain fact the reformation of the past is out of reach. One day our own times will come under scrutiny, and history may not choose to be kind to us, but I expect old-fashioned anachronisms like the lady novelist’s ill-judged expectations of history, are themselves ‘history’ by then.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Meanwhile according to slavery international 9.2 million black people are currently enslaved by their fellow black africans and all we seem to be bothered with is pulling down the statues of long dead white people.
        How about doing something about people currently enslaved? i.e do some actual good rather than talking about it.
        It appears now that Robert the Bruce was a ‘rascist’ King, its only a matter of time before he’s written out of the history books. White/privileged/rascist/homophobic/anti trans etc etc……

        1. John S Warren says:

          A fair point. I would plead a vested interest in history; my only excuse. What you are saying also implies that perhaps beyond scrutiny of the past, with slavery still a major international problem; there is perhaps a mote in our eye, not only in our ancestors.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            History is the study of the past…….it is the current and future that we can influence what has gone before us is of academic interest but cannot be changed as there all dead.
            9.2 million black people currently (men/women/children)enslaved in black africa by black people………….I look forward to the protest marches .

          2. John S Warren says:

            Ah, the arrow of time. It points to the future; but it came from tha past. We are the product of the past. It made us. In order to understand us, you need to understand it.

          3. Alex Kashko says:

            John Learmouth:

            The past, history, is a textbook which, properly interpreted can save us from future mistakes.

            Another view: History is the log of past projects, some of which show us what not to do in the future and some show what might be a good idea.

      2. Josef Ó Luain says:

        John S Warren

        “We do this kind of destroying, hiding or burying regularly in Scotland; we have form.” There is, of course, agency at work in this process of “destroying, hiding or burying”. That apart, for me at least: you make an extremely important point.

  3. James Mills says:

    Excellent read ! I don’t see where the problem would be in publishing such a view on Bella . It vocalises what I would surmise are the thoughts of quite a few people .

    I completely share Mr warren’s view of the BBC and its magical ability to shrug off the fallout ( was there any ? ) from the Saville years . Would any other publicly funded organisation survive intact such a damning episode ?

    1. david j black says:

      A fair minded analysis – I don’t imagine many disagree with the points raised. The Virginia Dons were a reprehensible breed, obviously, but are now safely dead and don’t pose a threat to anyone. It’s the living we have to deal with, and that almost certainly includes FSB ‘disinformation’ operatives who are masters of stirring up trouble in the social media, and give alt-right propagandists like Carlson Tucker a free ride. Matters of whether statues are, or are not, appropriate should be properly considered by academics and historians, rather than baying lynch mobs, of whatever stripe. Robert Peel, by the way, got rid of the Corn Laws, which were causing starvation in Britain’s industrial city – just saying. Trump’s personal approval ratings had crashed into the low 30s thanks to his Covid lunacy, but are now back over 40! Guess why.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    The phrase “our history” is used a couple of times. Perhaps that is the problem. The solution may involve some form of denationalization of history.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Interesting point. I used the phrase twice: here, “we are much, much better at destroying our history” and here, “We are very good at burying our history in Scotland”. It is ambiguous who “we” are, except that it applies to the people of or in Scotland, but with the implication that it applies specifically to those who do the burying. This is history, so it would be a mistake to assume that it applies only to contemporary Scotland; those who do the burying may have done it long ago, or it may have begun as unconscious inattention rather than deliberate purpose; the past is simply forgotten with remarkable speed. Or it may be contemporary in so far as there are those who wish either to keep our history in some matter buried, or who refuse to believe there is anything to dig up.

      I am not sure that “denationalization of history” has much to do with it. Scotland may forget or bury its own history, but if we in Scotland are not drawing attention to Scottish history, ‘the world’ is not likely to display a great deal of interest in it; save only unless it fits in, probably fleetingly with the world’s agenda.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @John S Warren, nationality makes little sense in the history of ideas. This does not stop the BBC from producing series on ‘British Science’, absurd and jingoistic as that is, and an approach that requires silencing competing narratives. For example, Andrea Wulf writes that the contributions of Alexander von Humboldt were erased from British histories of science because he was German. James Burke’s Connections was subtitled ‘An Alternate View of Change’ precisely because he was challenging the linearised constraints, distortions and outright fabrications of a national propaganda narrative. Modern popularising works like Horrible Histories rely on short segments and sketches instead of grand narratives. Neglecting extraterritorial histories of ideas might leave us Scots believing that ‘we’ invented everything (John Logie Baird was a pioneer in the field of television, not the inventor of modern television, and so on). In fact, a major distortion in the history of ideas is that recognition is so selective and prone to prop up the same Great Man (Occasionally Woman) Theory of History that our statues promulgate.

        If a section of history has been forgotten ‘here’, surely the corrective is to seek ‘elsewhere’? There is that quote to the effect that one reason the British don’t know their history is that so much of it happened abroad. In the case of Scotland, Yonder Awa. And there are almost as many cover-ups as imperial crimes.

        I don’t see History as a competition, Us Against the World. On the contrary, the more eyes and fresh insights the better, I would say. Neither does History do very well standing alone. Mary Beard has written about the benefits of multidisciplinary approaches in trying to understand Roman history, and even then so many uncertainties remain. Nor do I believe we own history, and neither that history owns us, so what can ‘our’ history even mean? Is that compatible with civic nationalism? Is ‘our’ history a form of ancestor worship? Can the world have an agenda?

        And since we are manufacturing historical records all the time these days, should we only be concerned with ‘our’ future historians, or should we be rejecting our secrecy regimes and have the moral courage to live in glass houses under the gaze of subsequent world opinion?

        1. John S Warren says:

          I did not make a general statement about Nationalism in the history of ideas. You have grossly inflated and distorted my use of the words “our history”. The only reference you made was to “our history”, and on that flimsy basis you have created a vast and wholly illusory story of ideological historiography, out of nothing. Suddenly you transport us into claims about “constraints, distortions and outright fabrications of a national propaganda narrative. ” Where is this national propaganda narrative in my article? What claims have I made about ‘history as competition’, or the Great Scientists, or the invention of TV? The borrowing from Walter Scott of ‘Yonder awa’, presumably via Michael Morris is about slavery; but what did I write that makes this a point of contention?

          Two points: first, “should we be rejecting our secrecy regimes and have the moral courage to live in glass houses under the gaze of subsequent world opinion?” If you had read my article, you would see that this was the subject of the article. Second, “If a section of history has been forgotten ‘here’, surely the corrective is to seek ‘elsewhere’? ” Perhaps you have just discovered the elsewhere, but actually that is not new; nor does it mean that we should not recover what we have buried or hidden here – because either we buried it or we are the ones not recovering it – but we have succeeded in hiding it from ourselves: “our” actually refers to the “we” who bury it, hide from it or never knew it was there and nothing more.

          As for looking elsewhere, many others “elsewhere” have already done a great deal of work. They do not bother waiting for us to come to them. Life is too short. There is no need to go “elsewhere”, for no voyage of discovery is required. We can buy it on Amazon – only few do. From Eric Williams classic, ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ (1944) a definitive early work from an outstanding black scholar; Philp Curtin, Atlantic Slave Trade (1969), with his new quantam of nearly 10m slaves shipped; Fogel and Engerman, ‘time on the Cross’ (1974), a disturbing and notorious examination of rates of return earned on slaves; Orlando Patterson, ‘Slavery and Death’ (1982), for a sweeping history of slavery over time and sixty-six societies; and Richard Dunn, ‘A Tale of Two Plantations’ (2014) which takes to a germane comarison of plantations in Jamaica and Virginia. The dates 1944-2014, and I picked just a few notable works. I am sure you have read them all.

          Who knew? Yonder is no longer far awa in the age of Google and Amazon.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @John S Warren, so what do you mean by the phrase “our history”? You used it twice in the article, then you said it was ambiguous, then you said I had grossly inflated and distorted it; yet you will not say what you do mean by it. It is a shared thing? A national thing? If so, surely it belongs in a national curriculum rather than relying on ad hoc, individualistic searches of Amazon? You claim you want a free and open debate, yet your comments suggest otherwise.

          2. John S Warren says:

            ” ‘our’ actually refers to the ‘we’ who bury history right here, hide from it or never knew it was there” and it meant nothing more. The ‘ambiguity’ was over whether we forgot, intentionally lost it in the past, and either are simply ignorant now, too lazy to find, or do not want to know. It is really quite simple.

            In fact fine black scholars of slavery have not dwelt on the particular responsibility of the Scots in Jamaica or Virginia, as they might have done; which has facilitated the ease with which the Scots back in Scotland have been able to hide so long from their culpability, by losing forgetting or burying the history here. So there really is a problem back here in Scotland, which is no doubt in part why Glasgow University decided now was time to own up.

          3. John S Warren says:

            Of course it should be on a national curriculum. So should a lot of issues in history that are not covered.

            But I do not write articles to second guess whatever box you happen to desire to be ticked, or suddenlydiscovered it was vital, before it passes muster.

            May I suggest that you write your articles about the issues you wish focused on, and I will write mine?

  5. Stella says:

    This misses the point
    I did not know before that Winston Churchill had racist opinions, or the history of Colston before all this. It wasn’t taught and it should be. This isn’t whitewashing or hiding the history, it is recognising it and saying we are different now. We celebrate different things.

    And why bring an attack on an existing organisation (and a public service) into it, something which is able to reform and change? Not a dead person who can’t change the bad things they did or undo the harm? I’d say it was a non sequitur.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Frankly, you have lost me. I do not see a non-sequitur, but I think you have fallen into the fallacy of petitio principii (begging the question).

      “It wasn’t taught and it should be.” It wasn’t taught because it had glibly been forgotten, was hidden, buried or dismissed as of no consequence, and that was not yesterday. What you are taught is selected; the selection may reflect generations of careless or deliberate omission or commission.

      We have not explored all the awkward corners of Scottish or British history that have been lost from view and remain lost or obscured; and are neither much discussed or considered now. We “are different now”. Are we? Slavery has not been eradicated, and there are even stories for some years of human trafficking into Britain, including Scotland. I think I missed the marches when that news first broke. As for the proposition that institutions can change now, I notice you do not say “have changed”. There are some things that are so reprehensible, no institution should survive. But allow me to provide you with some slack on this. Please tell me, in precise, authoritative and fine detail – with references – what changes to the institution you do not name have been made? Where is the evidence? Further, where is the audit report to prove that it has changed, top to bottom that works? Please do not tell me after all this, that you do not know.

      Let me add, we all require to remember that our values, our virtues, our vanity today is not the last word. One day our activities and our failings will come under historical scrutiny; and we it may only then that the mote in our eye is discovered. That should raise a more important issue about the nature of the study of history, but that is another story.

  6. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Thanks for this, to the author and the editor.

    Year zeros are never great in hindsight, even if iconoclasm seems justified in the heat of the moment. My take on it would be that as public opinions change, monuments should be swapped out gradually, and old statues retired to museums. Even better, the people of a city or town should always be consulted about new memorials – top-down impositions by intellectual and financial elites are bound to be torn down sooner or later.

    On a different note, it’s certain that Scotland would be a happier and saner place without all the book burnings and statue toppling we’ve already had. The article made me think about those.

    We’ve had the culture of the Picts disappearing (possibly active erasure or maybe just gradual decline). There was Longshanks’s attempted erasure of Scotland’s history. There was the book burning and people burning of the Reformation. There was the deliberate loss of that history as part of later religious settlements. There was the suppression and destruction of Gaelic culture. There was the suppression of the Scots language in education. There was other anglicisation by a thousand cuts. There was the unmentionableness of radical and republican history. There was the deliberate crafting of a sanitised and cringeworthy history for good provincials of the Empire.

    That’s just a taste of it.

    I can only hope that Independence will be more about accepting all our pasts as the past, to learn from – and less about burying opposing takes. The old ‘know yourself’, is good for countries as well as individuals. Some of the Scottish Government’s recent moves do make me worry about our future freedom of speech and debate.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.