One of Britain’s most prominent historians, David Olusoga, has admitted he “desperately” wanted to join the protesters who tore down the statue of the slave owner Edward Colston in his home town of Bristol.
The broadcaster and historian said the dumping of the statue in Bristol’s harbour in June, part of the Black Lives Matter protests, was the most remarkable event of the summer.
It was condemned as an act of “thuggery” by the home secretary, Priti Patel, and was described by the leader of the Labour party, Keir Starmer as “completely wrong”.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Olusoga spoke of his own torment in not taking part in pulling down a statue that had “loomed over us” in Bristol.
He said: “I fought enormously against the urge to jump on my bike and cycle down there – my home is only 10 minutes away.” He said he did not because he had promised his family he would be “careful” during the pandemic.
He added: “It was very difficult. Though, before I could be tortured by not being able to go, Colston’s statue toppled. It was a hugely emotional moment.”
He said tearing down the statue captured the essence of Black Lives Matter by being a cultural and political act rather than an outbreak of lawlessness.
He added the government’s reaction to the protest was racist. “The word ‘thug’ has long been used in this country as a dog whip for attacks on black people, it’s a word that drips with racism, but it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
He pointed out that nearby statues of the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke and Queen Victoria were left untouched and shop windows were not broken.
Olusoga also revealed that he spoke to the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, on the day of the protest, about the decision of the local authorities not to intervene to stop the statue being torn down.
He said: “It’s a lot easier for me because I’m not an elected official. For Marvin, you’ve got to make sure people are safe.”
The interview with Olusoga was timed to mark the broadcast of his new documentary, Africa Turns the Page, about the influence of African writers on world literature. But he also talked of being encouraged by the new interest in his back catalogue of BBC documentaries, many of which have charted Britain’s legacy of slavery.
He predicted historians of the future would mark this summer as a time of increased general awareness of Britain’s black history. In June, half of the top bestselling non-fiction books were about race or black history, Olusoga pointed out. “People who don’t have as much contact with young people, who don’t teach like I do, don’t understand that this generation doesn’t want to live in a racist society any more.”
Olusoga, a member of the board of the Scott Trust, which publishes the Guardian, also revealed he is regularly racially abused. “Every day on social media, some says, ‘stop talking about slavery. You hate Britain. If you don’t like it go home’. I ask people why they want me to be silent. What is it about black people talking about these issues that makes you so uncomfortable?”
Simon Schama, a fellow historian and co-presenter of the BBC’s landmark Civilisations documentary, offered a different take on the Colston row. In a separate interview for Radio Times, he said he was against the pulling down of statues.
He said: “I’m not a very ‘plinthy’ person. Do I want them chopped down and thrown in a pond? No. I think they should go into a museum as a focus of debate. There are some people who are worth honouring, including Churchill. But I’m very happy if it engenders debate. I don’t want to see them just brought down.”
Schama’s new three-part BBC series will examine the Romantics, who he believes would approve of the current enthusiasm for street protests.
“What the Romantics wanted to embrace has come back – the power of the imagination and a sense that popular demonstrations could achieve something. Plus, there is the involvement of young people, like Greta Thunberg. The young Wordsworth would have recognised that straight away.”