One of the daftest sayings I hear regularly is “you can’t rewrite history”.
History is continually in the process of being re-written. Each generation writes its own history books and it looks afresh at the past. They find new perspectives, new sources, new ideas. As new events unfold we look differently at older ones, for example the financial crisis of 2008 changed the way we think about the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression.
When someone tells you that you can’t re-write history they usually mean that they themselves have a particular view of history, and they don’t want anyone questioning their opinions.
But that’s not how history works – questioning old ideas is an integral part of the historical process. Otherwise we will still be believing Plato that the lost continent of Atlantis lies beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
A year ago this week the statue of Edward Colston was toppled from it’s plinth in Bristol. Colston was a notorious slave trader and the statue had long been the subject of controversy. Right now there is a free exhibition in Bristol featuring the battered remains of the Colston statue, however you can’t go and see it because “anti-woke” campaigners have booked all of the tickets to make sure the show is empty. A similar fight rumbles on at Oriel College Oxford where plans to move a statue of Cecil Rhodes to the new centre for Rhodes studies has met with fierce opposition from right wing academics fuelled by the Telegraph and the Times. In response the Government is threatening stiffer penalties for statue-botherers.
At the heart of the controversy is a central question – should we stick to a national history which emphasises our achievements and cuts out the negative bits, or should we embrace the whole story good and bad?
To illustrate I want to tell a story from my own family.
My family originate from Rochdale. Pretty much all of the world’s Chadwicks can trace their family back to Rochdale at some stage. There is a more affluent branch of the family from Staffordshire, with a family crest, but they are a tiny minority of the proud Chadwick nation.
My family moved from Rochdale to Prestwich in Manchester, in the 2nd half of the C17th. Working out which family member was the one who moved is complicated because my family were hard core protestants and only used a handful of names; Robert, John, Richard. We still have Roberts, Johns and Richards today.
The shift from Rochdale to Prestwich happens in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and co-incides with the arrival in the North of Louis (sometimes Lewis) Chadwick
Louis was from the Staffordshire Chadwicks and fought with distinction in the English Civil War as a Colonel in dragoons. His son John fought alongside him.
Although Louis was a war hero he had a darker side to his character. After the war he travelled the country, holding assizes and prosecuting affluent local gentry who had sided with the Monarchy. With England in turmoil this kind of justice was common. Those found guilty of backing the wrong side would have their land and titles distributed among ordinary people who had supported Parliament.
The Rich Finder General.
While on paper this sounds altruistic in reality Louis and John mostly redistributed the most attractive parcels of land to themselves. Once they had taken over these estates they would summon their less affluent relatives who would be installed as tenants, estate managers, crofters or craftsmen.
At some point the Government appears to have rumbled Louis’ scam because he spent a year in prison before being released to start again.
Through this method Louis Chadwick acquired land near Manchester, in what is now Prestwich. This posed a problem for his business model as he had no relatives to install on the land.
His solution was to marry his son John into the local Chadwick family from Rochdale, creating a new bunch of relatives dependent on his largesse who were moved onto his estates. My ancestor Robert Chadwick was one of the Rochdale Chadwick’s who moved to Prestwich onto estates acquired by Louis and John, their new glamorous in laws.
Working out which Robert made the move is complicated by a later relative, also called Robert Chadwick, a notorious Manchester mill owner. He was a social climber who also married a Shropshire Chadwick and re-buried his less affluent ancestors in a family vault, thus robbing us of the gravestones that would have allowed us to put more detail into the family tree.
As well as taking land Louis and John took over grants and titles belonging to Royalists. Among these titles were the Lordship (effectively ownership) of the Island of St Lucia.
These titles dated back to the days of James I/VI. King James was keen to expand British colonies around the world, and one of his tactics was to grant titles to far off parts of the world to his favourites, on condition that they then settle and develop them; a kind of outsourced colonialism. The Earl of Carlisle was granted parts of the Caribbean, and he established lucrative plantation colonies on Barbados.
In the aftermath of the English Civil War the title to St Lucia came into the ownership of Louis along with the land in the North West of England, although he never set foot on the island.
The Caribbean islands were the start of the British slave trade. Slavery didn’t exists as a legal institution in Britain, and in Tudor and Stuart England there were free Black British citizens. When Shakespeare wrote Othello with a handsome black hero he didn’t have to explain to audiences who black people were or why Othello wasn’t a slave.
While there were no laws to allow slavery in Britain there were no laws to prevent it in British colonies.
British plantation owners in the Caribbean starte buying slaves from Spanish and Portuguese slavers in C16th, and slavery came to British colonies in North America in the C17th via these Caribbean plantations. St Lucia was a profitable slave colony and was contested between the French and the English throughout the C17th. Along with the title to the island Louis would have either owned slaves, or more likely, had tenant colonists who owned slaves themselves.
Whichever way he would have made money from the slave trade just like Colston.
With the restoration the title to St Lucia passed to Francis Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham, who immediately lost the island to the French. Britain finally captured St Lucia back during the French revolution when there were risings of slaves in France’s Caribbean colonies, most famously when Toussaint L’Ouverture led the worlds first successful slave uprising which created the country of Haiti.
Britain ran St Lucia as a slave plantation for only a few years until the Somerset Judgement and the Wilberforce Act put an end to the Slave trade.
Reading that story back I don’t know why we feel so anxious about telling these stories about slavery and the way it connects to our own family trees. I don’t feel any particular shame for my families brief connection to the slave trade nor do I think it changes my views of Louis and John – I always knew they were wrong ‘uns.
In fact, I quite enjoy the story. It’s a good tale. I don’t like Louis, but I do like having him as an ancestor. I can see bits of him in me and in my other family members. Connecting with the past like this makes me think about who I am, and my own family, right or wrong.
If there was a statue to Lewis and John and people wanted to take it down and put something new up it wouldn’t bother me one bit. I would be more surprised that anyone had bothered putting a statue up in the first place. I’m baffled that Colston’s statue stood around for so long. 19,000 people died on his slave ships, 40% of them children.
Despite the moral panic about statue -bothering the last few years in Durham have seen no statues taken down, and plenty of new statues put up. The DLI have a long awaited memorial in the market place, while Seaham has the amazing “Tommy”. Frankly I am surprised that there isn’t a memorial to the 100,000s from Durham who worked in the mines.
Just as each generation gets to write their own history books so each generation gets to decide which statues are put up and which are taken down. Trying to stop the process of history, to prevent new generations thinking for themselves, is crazy and frankly impossible. Colston should have been taken down quietly years ago, and so should Rhodes, to make room for more Tommys or whatever else people want to put on pedestals.
This culture war going on is part of a bigger fight. One one side an older, socially conserative generation which is politically powerful and voted for Boris and Brexit, but which are mostly retired, and consequently economically less influential. On the other side a younger, socially liberal generation who are politically divided, pro-Europe, work hard and who are economically dominant. Culture has become the battlefield where political and economic power clash.
I understand why an older generation feel anxious about a young generation re-appraising the past using their values and finding it wanting. They grew up in an era when racism, homophobia and sexism were commonplace, and while they are mostly OK with changing attitudes they don’t want their past opinions to be judged by the standards of modern young people. They want to be the ones doing the judging not being judged.
But the culture war will have only one winner. The young. They will outlive and out fight the older generation, and the harder the fight the harsher their judgement will be. When it comes to culture economics trumps politics. There might be a temporary polling benefit for the Borises and Donalds of this world by encouraging older voters into a culture war with the young, but it is’t a fight they will ever win.
Best get used to it.