Institutions Featured

Submission by History Reclaimed to the public consultation on the Deptford Town Hall Statues

Deptford Town Hall
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

The History Reclaimed group opposes any change to the façade of the former Deptford Town Hall and to the statues that adorn it of Francis Drake, Admiral Blake and Lord Nelson.

  • We are against the judgment of past historical figures by present-day values and views.
  • We point out that though some may be offended by these statues, many more would be offended by their removal, and that tolerating offence is the price we pay for living in a free society.
  • We note that the removal of the statues would also be a critical judgment on the generations of local people in Deptford who erected them before the First World War and who have lived with them for decades without complaint.
  • For Goldsmiths to remove them from a civic building it purchased from the community less than 25 years ago would itself be an insult to that community and a derogation from its duty of care to protect the local historic environment.
  • It would also be an aesthetic outrage as the statutes are integral to the design and meaning of the building, which commemorates Deptford’s history of building ships for the navy.
  • Finally, we note that the three figures under scrutiny lived in different ages and had very different lives and careers. Far from being three ‘colonialists’, Blake was a genuine social and religious radical, Nelson had no involvement whatsoever with slavery, and Nelson’s great naval victories actually hastened the end of slavery.

 

  1. Judging the past by the standards of the present

Whenever historic monuments and artefacts are threatened with removal on political grounds, the same initial point must always be made: that it is intellectually and morally illegitimate to convict figures from the past for transgressing principles that we now uphold.  lived in a different age and believed different things. They cannot be convicted of crimes and sins that simply did not exist when they were alive. They cannot be judged by our standards, and they are unable to defend themselves from their present-day and present-minded critics.

  1. Tolerating offence

The argument that the very presence of these statues as historical images causes offence is invalid also. We must all accept that a price for living in a free society that upholds free expression and freedom of thought and conscience, is that we will all be offended at certain times by things said, or published, or done. But that is never a strong enough reason to remove a statue or burn a book. In this case, millions of Britons will be offended by the statues’ removal. In a free society we must tolerate things we dislike, granting to others the right to express views and do things with which we may disagree profoundly.

  1. The views of the local community

In cases like this we must also recognise that more than the reputation of historical figures is at stake. The values of those who erected the statues is also at issue. Take down the Deptford statues and a cultural war is being prosecuted not only against Drake, Blake, and Nelson, but against the people of Deptford who, in the Edwardian period, thought them worthy of fame and recognition because Deptford had a proud tradition of building ships for the navy on the banks of the River Thames. Local people now may have their say on the statues, but everyone involved should recognise that they are judging the views and ideas of several recent generations of local people as well. To take down the statues would be disrespectful to local residents in the recent past who have lived happily enough with this civic building in its unaltered state.

  1. Goldsmiths duty of care

To remove the statues on the façade of a civic building that Goldsmiths purchased less than 25 years ago will be construed by many as an insult to the local community that erected the building, and as a dereliction of the duty to preserve and care for this notable civic resource and monument. When any historic building changes hands, a responsibility to preserve and care for it is passed to the purchaser. For a university to take on a building of such local importance, and then to deliberately alter it, is to renege on a duty of care and to demonstrate disrespect for the historic environment and generations of local people.

  1. Aesthetic considerations

It would also be an act of aesthetic vandalism. The four statues are intrinsic to the design of the building and to its façade. To remove them would destroy the symmetry and balance of the former Town Hall. To replace them with other statues, if such a thing is under consideration, would be anachronistic in the same way that judging these historical figures by our standards is to impose the present on the past. It is difficult to imagine that public authorities and heritage organisations would ever support and agree to such desecration, whatever the views expressed in this consultation. We all have a responsibility to preserve the historic built environment and pass it on to future generations. A university, which is a repository of knowledge and understanding built up over centuries, should take that aesthetic obligation very seriously indeed.

  1. Three figures in History

As to the historical case made for the removal of the statues, it is claimed that Drake, Blake and Nelson ‘either have links to Britain’s role in slavery or the colonial system that supported slavery’. This is true of Drake, who, as a young man, in his first voyages with John Hawkins, was directly involved in the capture and sale of hundreds of Africans as slaves. But these grounds for opposition to Blake and Nelson simply do not hold. In the 1650s, Blake was a naval commander defending the Cromwellian Commonwealth, the short-lived English Republic. In defence of the English Revolution, he fought against the Dutch, French and Spanish fleets in home waters around the British Isles and in the seas around Europe. His greatest victory was over a Spanish fleet off Tenerife in 1657. He neither took part in, nor led, British expeditions to colonial possessions. Blake was, in fact, a republican and a religious Presbyterian – a radical, in other words – rather than a monarchist and member of the established church. He had no links to the colonial system, in short.

As for Nelson, his fame rests in the same way on his battles with European navies, predominantly French and Spanish, which threatened to invade Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. His victories were all in European waters: the Battle of the Nile in the Mediterranean, the Battle of Copenhagen in the Baltic, and the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. As a young naval rating he was involved in the American War of Independence, but he took no part in campaigns of colonial conquest or depredation. His fame, at the time and since, as the greatest of English heroes, rests absolutely on defending this country from invasion.

In short, putting together three such different historical figures, whose lives span three centuries and entirely distinct historical epochs, and convicting them of the same undefined general crime of ‘colonialism’ is based on a poor grasp of early modern British history.

  1. Nelson and Slavery

Nelson has been convicted of opposition to the abolition of the slave trade on the strength of a private letter he wrote in 1805, just before his death, to a former acquaintance. In it he apparently criticised the abolitionists and declared himself a ‘firm friend to our colonial system’. The letter is the subject of dispute. It has been plausibly argued that it was altered after Nelson’s death by anti-abolitionists to co-opt him, and his great reputation, for their side of the argument. Whatever the letter’s provenance, to cite the National Maritime Museum:

It is important to state that Nelson never owned slaves, never owned a slave plantation, never took part in slaving activities at sea and never financed a slave ship – after his early career he was never stationed in the Caribbean, making just one brief visit after 1787. (https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nelson-pedestal)

Moreover, Nelson’s very victory at Trafalgar, by confirming Britain’s naval primacy over France and Spain, made it easier for Parliament, and for British public opinion in general, to accept the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of slaves in the British empire in 1833. Reform of the empire, and the cessation of slavery within it, were less contentious once external threats to British interests had been removed. Paradoxically, whatever his private views as expressed in a letter that may well be a forgery, Nelson himself made a vital contribution to the ending of slavery. As always, the real history in these situations is more complex than zealots and campaigners appreciate.

To remove Nelson’s statue in these circumstances, on the disputed evidence of a potential forgery, while overlooking his contribution to the ending of slavery, would be an Orwellian act. Even if he did write the words attributed to him, many people opposed Wilberforce and the abolitionists, which is why it took so long to abolish the slave trade and then end slavery itself. If private thoughts and views are to be grounds for historical cancellation, which historical figures would survive the modern-day Thought Police?

            Conclusion:

Taking these points into account, the History Reclaimed group requests that nothing be done to alter the façade of the former Deptford Town Hall and that Goldsmiths recognise its responsibility to conserve the civic building it purchased from the community. In commemorating three great sailors and naval commanders, the Town Hall is true to the traditions of Deptford as a once great centre of shipbuilding for the Royal Navy. There is no shame in continuing to recognise the place of the local community in naval and seafaring history.

About the author

History Reclaimed

History Reclaimed