Editorial: We cannot rewrite history. But we must constantly revise our reading of the past.

WHFP Editorial, 11.6.20

The current Black Lives Matter revolt against racism and slavery is not without precedent.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic men and women have been pointing out for centuries that that they live in a white people’s world.

The murder of black people by white American police officers has caused protests and riots before, although not from Minneapolis to Sydney by way of Portree, Duntulm, Ullapool and most points in between.

Three things in particular distinguish this movement from its predecessors.

One is its abovementioned internationalism.

Another is the fact that many politicians and even police have made no secret of their sympathy for the cause.

A third, which seems somehow to be connected to the first two, is that it is occurring simultaneously with the equally worldwide phenomenon of Covid-19.

It is no secret that the virus extracts its most vicious toll from BAME communities, who are almost everywhere in the world most defenceless against its onslaught.

Is this part of our brave new post-coronavirus world?

Has the virus, whether we are black or white, pushed us into a new view of our societies, of which the global Black Lives Matter campaign is a foretaste?

It is right to question whether it was the wisest time to take to the UK’s streets en-masse. Many protesters’ actions, in clear breach of social distancing rules, were dangerous.

Yet nobody should shed tears when the bronze statue of a brutal 17th century Bristol slaver is hauled from his distinguished plinth in the city centre and thrown into the harbour.

Our main concern should be how and why it was allowed to stay there for so long.

As Edward Colston’s effigy toppled towards the watery grave to which he had consigned so many enslaved Africans, a protestor knelt on Colston’s neck.

That was a graphic illustration of the incident which precipitated the storm: the throttling by a Minneapolis police officer of the US citizen George Floyd.

George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe”, which applied both literally and to his place in society.

There is nothing sacrosanct about most secular statues. Before 1945 statues of Adolf Hitler were commonplace in Europe.

You would be hard pressed to find one now.

The same applies to Josef Stalin in most of the former Soviet territories.

Just outside New Delhi there is a lonely and extensive graveyard of hundreds of statues of former eminences of the British colonial Raj. Wild dogs roam among them.

Closer to home, Glasgow’s and Edinburgh’s exploitation of slavery is being recognised by the alteration of Glasgow street names and a plaque in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square by the 150-foot statue of Henry Dundas, which will detail his connections with the slave trade.

It’s either that or throw him in the Forth.

We were no innocents in this field. In 1817, no fewer than 32 per cent of Jamaican slave plantations were owned by Scots.

Research by University College London has revealed that when slavery in British territory was abolished in 1833, the equivalent of £250 billon in compensation was handed out to just over 400 Scottish proprietors.

They were not all in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Donald Martin of Monkstadt in Skye cashed in on his ill-gotten gains. So did Alexander MacLean of North Uist.

The Raasay proprietor George Rainy banked his share from human traffic, as did Donald MacLeod of Lewis and Alexander McBarnet of Attadale.

There are no statues of those gentlemen to throw in the sea.

But the next time somebody suggests a similar fate for the statue of the Duke of Sutherland on Ben Bhraggie – a fate to which we would have little objection – we should remember that black lives also matter.

They did then and they do now.