'We must change the
way we understand
our history'

Historian Toby Green says slavery destabilised the early modern African nations that had been equal business partners with European countries

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One sunny day in June, a number of angry people in Bristol decided that toppling a statue of a slave trader and throwing it into the nearest harbour was an idea whose time had come.

Over the course of his business dealings in Africa, Edward Colston enslaved 84,000 people, killing around 20,000 of them in the process. Later he spent some of his profits on philanthropy, endowing schools and hospitals in his native Bristol.

It was the philanthropy that a consortium of local businessmen chose to commemorate when they erected Colston’s statue in 1895. It was the slavery that angered Bristolians to the point where they pulled over his statue and dragged it to the harbour in 2020.

“The process demoralised West African nations to the point of collapse, to the benefit of later European colonists.”

Colston hit the water with a splash heard round the world. In Belgium, Leopold, the early 20th century king whose personal rule over the Congo amounted to one long stream of atrocities, was dethroned from his plinths. In the United States, multiple statues of Christopher Columbus were heaved overboard. Pretty much everywhere,
local authorities began to take a look at what the various pigeon perches in their town centres actually did when they
were alive.

Critics said protesters were destroying history. Protesters said they were making history. So what do historians think?

“Personally, I was delighted,” Toby Green, senior lecturer in African studies at King’s College, tells Big Issue North.

“I was in Bristol not too long ago and a friend discussed the statue with me and the anger it was causing. Bristol is a city with a large population of African descent and this was an insult to them, and to everyone who abhors slavery.

“The statue was a monument to the power of slavery and to the racism of those who thought it was fine to put up such a statue in 1895. We should not be celebrating such things.”

The power of slavery to destroy not just individual lives and families but thriving communities and entire nations is the major theme in Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. Shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize, A Fistful of Shells is a necessarily dense but highly accessible history of the rise and fall of the early modern nations of West Africa, covering a region ranging from present day Senegal to Angola.

When Colston and others like him first ventured to Africa, they encountered a political scene that would be familiar to them from Europe: kings, courts and senates; standing armies; merchant syndicates and state-sanctioned religions. Workshop manufactures, artisan production and organised agriculture. Peoples who lived under common codes of law and thought of themselves as subjects and citizens of distinct nations. Endless rounds of diplomacy, alliances, trading and warfare.

Europeans started doing business in Africa on equal terms with their business partners. It was the nature of the trade that changed this picture over time. “The slave trade was the fundamental cause of Europe’s economic expansion,”  says Green. “Over several centuries, Europe extracted economic value in the form of gold and human beings whose labour created capital in Europe. Africa received in return supplies of currencies whose value diminished over time – copper, iron and cowrie shells. This capital allowed Europe to invest in production and expand its industrial growth, creating modern economies. Thus the wealth absolutely depended on the horror and inequalities of the slave trade.”

Dutch-African trade in Ghana in the 17th century

Where Europe had different currencies, all were based on materials agreed to be of universal value and rarity, namely gold and silver. African currencies, by contrast, could be found or produced cheaply by Europeans involved in trade. The cowrie shells used by the Kongo state may have been rare in Africa, for instance, but the Portuguese traders who did business with Kongo could simply pick them up in unlimited quantities from the beaches of Brazil. The copper and iron used in other African currencies was rare locally, but cheap and common in Europe.

So Europe increasingly came to dictate the terms of trade in a way that combined the moral atrocity of slavery with radical economic destabilisation. Europe could pump vast quantities of African currencies into Africa. This caused local inflation, which led in turn to African nations devoting more resources to the most valuable commodities to Europeans, namely slaves and gold. Eventually, the process weakened and demoralised West African nations to the point of revolution and collapse, to the benefit of later generations of European colonists.

“The economic relationship became ever more unequal as capital mounted up in Europe and diminished in Africa,” says Green. “In the 18th century this was compounded by increasing exports of guns which destabilised African political balances – Birmingham was a key gun-manufacturing city, for instance, many
of which went to Africa. All this paved the way for the Scramble for Africa in
the 19th century.”

Slavery in one form or another was endemic across the world at the time people like Colston became part of the process. So was contempt for slaves. But chattel slavery – the idea that enslaved persons were simply commodities to be traded on an open market – became endemic because of the activities of people like Colston. And the fact that all these enslaved persons were African generated the racist ideology that justified the profits made from the trade.

“Racism certainly emerged to justify slavery. We can see this through the way in which racialised imagery of Africans in European countries always followed the rise in that country of slavery – the best example of this being the Dutch, whose artists prior to the 1640s, when their interest in slavery took off, produced several moving portraits of ambassadors from Kongo. Once slavery took hold attitudes racialised,” says Green.

“The impact of that can be seen very clearly today in the west, in Trump’s politics, Johnson’s throwaway racialised dismissal of Africans as ‘picanninies’, the western ideology of ‘freedom’ in societies whose wealth was built on slavery, and the way in which discourse around Africa remains one of ‘saving’ a continent in which outside intervention has almost always been negative.”

While there are many arguments over the 19th century age of high colonialism, very little is known about the age of Colston, which set the stage for Europe’s imperial adventures in Africa.

“We absolutely must change how we understand our history,” says Green. “History is always a relationship between the past and the present – it always must be usable for present generations. These statues are testament to a view of the past that is – and always was – bankrupt. But also, the reason that they cause such hurt is because the racism and atrocity that underlie them are not properly taught and understood in the education system.”

Defenders of official British history like to point out that Britain was first to abolish the slave trade. But if it wasn’t for people like Colston, there may have been no need to do that in the first place.

And speaking of Colston, what should become of his statue?

“It would have been most fitting to leave it in the harbour, given how many Africans he helped send to a watery grave.

“There is also an argument that it should go to Bristol’s Museum of Empire, as a testament to how ingrained racism has been in British society – that the good burghers of Bristol thought it fine to acclaim such a man when they erected the statue in 1895.”

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution is published by Penguin

Update: this article was amended on 22 July to include Toby Green’s views on the statue of Colston going to Bristol’s Museum of Empire

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