Monday, 15 June 2020

Taking down statues isn't the answer

It’s understandable that protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement have wanted to take down statues that represent reprehensible history.

But removing the statues won’t delete what happened.

The problem is not so much that the statues are there. The issue is that the statues celebrate wrongdoings of the past.

Even though previous generations – often the ones who erected the statues in the first place – didn’t view things in the same way as we do now.

Taking down the statues is a lost opportunity, in my view. We should leave the statues in place, and provide a better, more honest explanation of the history they represent.

That way, more people can learn from history, and the long and tortuous journey humankind has taken to reach the point where we are now.


A new plaque, rather than an empty plinth, would in my view do much more to help people today understand the wrongdoings of yesterday.

I expect many supporters of Black Lives Matter – and I am certainly one of them – would endorse such an idea.

In fact, a proposal for a different plaque for the Bristol statue of 17th Century MP and slave trader, Edward Colston, was put forward, but rejected.

I only support strictly democratic means to achieve change. But it’s a true maxim that those who continuously make peaceful change impossible, will often make violent change inevitable.

Not acknowledging the dastardly deeds of historical figures – with pasts that can directly impact on people’s present lives – is bound to lead to a simmering anger that will eventually implode.

Far better to take the heat away from that simmering anger, than put a lid on top of it in the hope it will just go away.

It won’t.


We are all the products of the past.

More fully understanding that can help us to reach a more mature realisation of how we’ve ended up where we are now – a society that still largely favours today’s descendants of past generations that became rich through plundering, exploitation and enslavement.

Humanity is complicated. Good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. Often, bad people do good things in an attempt to hide their bad things.

A more rounded understanding of historical figures can help us reach a fuller perception of the past, essential, in my view, for figuring out the present.

But hiding historical figures won’t achieve that. Even putting those figures into a museum will obscure part of our history.

History, honestly and frankly displayed in our streets and on our pavements, can be a wonderful educator.


Many years ago, with some friends in Oxford enjoying our idealistic youth (an idealism, I am not ashamed to say, I haven’t lost as the years have gone by), we embarked on a project to explain the history of coffee to the public who drink it.

That meant educating people about our country’s colonial past – something that many did not, and still don’t, associate with the products we buy in the shops every day, such as coffee.

We launched ‘Campaign Coffee’ – which eventually became the prelude to Fairtrade Coffee in the UK.

We imported around 3 tonnes of instant coffee from Tanzania and sold it in 4oz packs across the country.

This wasn’t to make money, but simply to illustrate how our colonial past affects our shopping today, and the lives of millions of people across the world.


I wrote and designed the pamphlet that accompanied every pack of Campaign Coffee.

‘There’s a world in your coffee cup,’ I wrote. ‘Coffee is more than just another hot drink After oil, it is the largest commodity traded on earth.’

And I went on:
‘It is ironic that the very drink which stimulates us in our fast materialist society, is a story of poverty for the people who produce it.
‘Why should this be? For the answer, we must first look back at history.’
In a section of the pamphlet called, ‘All our yesterdays’ I explained:
‘In the 15th Century, when Europe sent its ships to discover the world, it wasn’t just exotic lands that they found. It was riches and glory on the cheap.
‘The bargain treasures, robbed with violence from distant communities, included tropical crops such as coffee and sugar, valuable minerals such as copper and tin, and over 100 million slaves.
‘This involved a massive transfer of wealth to Europe, making possible our Industrial Revolution, and our continent’s fast economic growth over the past 100 years.’
And in a separate section of the pamphlet about the situation today, I wrote:
‘We made it illegal for small boys to climb chimneys over 100 years ago.
‘Yet few of us today turn a hair at drinking coffee picked by a little boy of five who hardly has enough to eat.
‘We may look back at history and think that the slave trade and colonial exploitation were inhuman and inconceivable. But there is no doubt that our way of acquiring wealth and distributing it is just as inhuman.’
● Extract of the Campaign Coffee pamphlet

At the time, ‘Campaign Coffee’ caught the attention of shoppers across the UK, and the initiative was featured by The Guardian newspaper and reported by Radio 4’s World at One.


Today, millions of poor people in Africa, Asia and South America are dependant on the coffee we drink. And they are poor because of that dependency – something they’ve reluctantly inherited from colonial days.

But I wouldn’t clear our supermarket shelves of coffee because of that. I’d use the opportunity to explain to shoppers about the lives of those who provide us with much of our daily consumption.

Unfortunately, unlike ‘Campaign Coffee’, today’s Fairtrade coffee doesn’t provide any educational material about the history of coffee and the people who pick the coffee beans.

That’s a missed opportunity.

Just as it’s a missed opportunity to remove the plaques of controversial statues – rather than the statues themselves – and replace them with educational facts about our true historical legacy.

We shouldn’t try to hide, or even celebrate, history. We just need to explain it.

▪ Link to the ‘Campaign Coffee’ pamphlet 

 Photo of Sir Francis Drake - English sea captain, privateer, naval officer, and explorer of the Elizabethan era. He was also a slave trader, making three voyages to Guinea and Sierra Leone that enslaved between 1,200 and 1,400 Africans between 1562 and 1567 - a figure that probably meant the deaths of around three times as many. The treasure that Drake stole from Spanish ships enabled Queen Elizabeth I to pay off the entire national debt.
Other articles by Jon Danzig:
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