Thursday, 17 March 2016

How to deal with Bristol's past

Bristol is one of my favourite cities in the UK - small enough to be friendly, big enough to have all the benefits of city life. And this view has been reinforced by my two days a week as an RLF literary fellow at the university. However, it's pretty much impossible not to be aware that a lot of Bristol's money (and its better buildings) came from two sources that would now be regarded as unpalatable: the slave trade and the tobacco industry.

The reason this came to mind was reading Sanjida O'Connell's essay The Silence of the Slave, a fascinating account of her attempt to find the voice of slaves for her writing. It's an excellent article, but one aspect disturbed me. Sanjida uses as a hook for the piece an experience while eating in Pizza Express in Bristol and realising that the building was an old bank that was funded by the slave trade. She writes:
By the time my daughter’s ice cream and chocolate sauce arrived, I had a prickling sensation running across my shoulder blades and I couldn’t wait to get out of that tastefully decorated restaurant. I’d realised that this former bank was founded by and had housed the accumulated wealth of the city’s merchants who, almost without exception, had been involved in the slave trade.
The reason it disturbed me is not that we should simply brush the impact of slavery aside - and if you like historical fiction, I'd recommend reading Sanjida's Sugar Island, a novel that doesn't shy away from revealing the realities*. It is essential that we remember past horrors committed by human on human, whether it's slavery or the Holocaust. What I'm not totally comfortable with is the idea that we should feel guilty about, say, eating in such a building, as if somehow we, today, have a unique and terrible personal past we need to atone for.

This raises two issues for me. The first is the time/responsibility argument. The idea that we can be responsible for the sins of our forebears seems totally illogical. Apart from anything, where do we stop? Should be unhappy about eating in an Italian restaurant because the Romans invaded Britain? Or should I be unhappy about being anywhere built by an Englishman because of the way Cromwell treated my Irish ancestors?

A reinforcing argument, is universality. Practically every country has practiced slavery at some point in its past. Why pick out one historical instance? Surely it is far more important to do something about countries that still allow slavery today. Not to mention cultures with intellectual slavery, where people are punished should they dare to disagree with political or religious leaders, or where, for instance, women are not allowed to drive or get an education. Slavery is still with us today, and that truly is a horror.

* If it's not your kind of book (I confess I rarely read historical fiction), I'd recommend Sanjida's non-fiction book on sugar which includes some aspects of the slave trade, Sugar: the grass that changed the world, and, simply because it's a great read, her latest, a psychological thriller called Bone by Bone.

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