Colston Hall: why we shouldn’t rewrite history

In 2006, in the build up to Liverpool being named the European Capital of Culture, a city councillor came up with the idea of renaming streets that were named after wealthy Merseyside merchants who had profited from the transatlantic slave trade. Liverpool was the empire’s most prominent port, and there were scores of these streets to be found.

Many people were in favour of renaming the streets, but many more accused the council of trying to airbrush history. In the end, the idea was quietly dropped when councillors realised just how many streets were in fact named after slavers, and that included in these were many iconic tourist attractions, such as Penny Lane.

The fad for changing the names of buildings and places named after unsavoury characters from history has grown since then. This week, campaigners in Bristol launched a movement to have the Colston Hall music venue renamed Freedom Hall. Edward Colston was, you guessed it, a slave trader. Campaigners claim the fact that he was involved in the transportation of over 100,000 slaves meant the name should be changed. A protest group, Countering Colston, has even gained the support of Bristol band Massive Attack.

The most significant campaign of this kind we’ve seen recently is Rhodes Must Fall, which called for the removal of statues of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes at both the University of Cape Town and the University of Oxford. In the case of the latter, students backed removing the offending statue, only to be slapped down by administrators after a backlash from wealthy donors.

Meanwhile, both Princeton and Yale in the US have also been faced with calls to rename buildings. Yale agreed to change Calhoun College, named after a slave owner, to Grace Hopper College, named after a female computer scientist and rear admiral. (Incidentally, students are still angry about the name of the college, as Grace Hopper was white.) At Princeton, college administrators steadfastly refused to re-christen a political school named after Woodrow Wilson, despite calls from angry students.

In all these cases, where authorities have resisted calls to rename places or buildings, they’ve done so for financial reasons. Liverpool’s vital tourism industry would have been wrecked had the council renamed half the city’s streets, and Oxford stood to lose over £100million from benefactors if the statue of Rhodes was removed. But the key argument against renaming buildings shouldn’t just be financial.

Those who call for buildings to be renamed or statues to be removed do so because they say these reminders of our dark past oppress ethnic minorities in the here and now. This is utterly ridiculous. Buildings cannot oppress people. Renaming them does nothing to combat racism today, nor does it right the wrongs of the past. This is mere posturing, creating noise for the sake of it.

That certain buildings are still named after slave owners doesn’t mean we continue to honour the slave trade. It just reflects the reality of that period. These men made a lot of money and spent it on bricks and mortar. Renaming Colston Hall won’t make amends for slavery, it will just make some campaigners feel good about themselves.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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