The Historical Presence

In 2019 I began research into slavery and East India Company links, purely out of my own interest and using freely available records from the Legacies of Slave Ownership database and East India Company @ Home.

For a long time I’ve understood that to imagine and also to build a new future, we need to examine the past. I’ve spoken about that in various places including the Royal Academy and St Mary’s University, and much of my work carries that ‘echo in the bone’ of injustices which have to be corrected.

I discovered that Robert Aske, the benefactor of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Schools, held a share in the Royal Africa Company; a grand name for a dirty enterprise in the capture and commodification of human beings mandated by the British State in the form of Charles II.

At the fort on Bunce Island just upriver from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, they branded the captives with RACE – Royal Africa Company of England. This literal manifestation of the separation of human beings into castes deemed worthy of liberty and those denied such have become the foundations of our society.

I alerted the Haberdasher’s Company to Robert Aske’s profits from slavery in Spring 2020. I heard nothing.

I continued to alert them to this several times through the summer of 2020. The deafening silence continued.

After many attempts at communicating with them, I updated their Wikipedia page with the facts about Robert Aske’s investments and profits from slavery with appropriate academic references.

By early summer 2020, students, parents and the Schools’ alumni began to ask questions, and these became amplified by the events of summer 2020.

In March 2021 we all finally got a response with headlines in The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator.

A letter was sent simultaneously from the Schools’ governing body to parents and pupils with the news.

In pure PR terms, this approach was a masterclass in good communication; owning the story positively and with good intent after a significant delay and lack of response. Take it from an expert who manages communications campaigns for global brands.

Since then I have met with the Heads of the Schools. They seem sincere in their desire to manage some sort of change.

I advised a collaborative approach – working with their students – to reinterpret the statue at the school in my area, a hill overlooking the City of London. A city built on the proceeds of theft and slavery, then as now.

As I said in that meeting and maintain still, what better advertisement for the ethos of the schools today than to demonstrate the critical thinking of the citizens of tomorrow through a student-led reinterpretation of the Robert Aske statue.

The Haberdashers’ Schools are, in their words “already engaged in comprehensive reviews of their culture, values and ideals which are now being considered as part of a consultation and review process”. There has been a suggestion by the Schools that a rebrand of the organisations might take place, losing the Aske name, or possibly a re-siting of the statue. That’s for the Schools’ Governing Body, pupils and parents to decide.

In the case of re-siting the statue, they will need to consult with the appropriate heritage body (Historic England have listed the statue). However, it is worth pointing out that the statue of Robert Aske is twice fired pottery (that’s what Coade Stone is); it is a common or garden bit of Victorian embellishment not an ancient Greek rarity, and was moved to its present site atop Telegraph Hill from elsewhere in 1903.

The statue of Robert Aske has no intrinsic or immutable roots in the soil, sediment or base rock of the area – none whatsoever.

Resistance from alumni or the local community to requests from the current students’ body and their parents to re-site the statue or rename the schools looks like a sad attempt at playing a ‘culture war’ game more in thrall to Daily Mail headlines than the reality of peoples lives, especially that of the students.

By discounting the voices of today’s students, what message is being sent out; serve and obey in the crudest sense? What echo does that approach carry?

In my podcast with Professor Corinne Fowler of Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, we discuss how co-created responses to contentious issues enable education, inspire creativity, and lead to a better and wider understanding of how the past shapes us still. It is Corinne’s work which partly inspired my suggestion for the re-interpretation.

Now? We’re all waiting for the next move.

TS Eliot put it well in the Four Quarters:

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”

For me, a guiding belief remains; that until we claim the future with positivity and hope, the past will always be a stumbling block.

There are some who claim that this is rewriting history, as though ‘history’ was something fixed in perpetuity. That’s just wilful and historically illiterate. History is the accumulation of knowledge over time and is updated and reflective of the most recent research rather than inaccurate myths.

We should not live in a fantasy of the past.

The fallacy of ‘received history’ is that it is partial, exclusionary of inconvenient facts, and frequently loaded with biases. It is not objective.

No one is applying the standards of today to the past; we are re-appraising the way we look at monuments, statues, and stories in light of research and knowledge.

Those who claim that reviewing and revising history creates division are peddling a lie; the division was made the day people were branded with RACE, commodified as chattel, and stripped of their humanity. Acknowledging that injustice, tackling the inequalities and structures it built, and beginning the journey to making things right is what heals division.

POSTCRIPT – 5th September 2021

In a ‘Statement from the Haberdashers’ Company: Statement outlining the outcome of the Robert Aske Legacy consultation’ issued in early September to parents whose children are at the Haberdashers’ schools, it was announced that the schools would change their name, losing the ‘Aske’ connection. In addition, the Haberdashers’ Company now carries a full and truer record of Aske’s investments and profits from slavery than it did – see it here.

As for the statue of Robert Aske? They say:

“… we will seek to re-purpose the statue of Aske at Hatcham College. A formal committee will meet to review the extensive restrictions over its treatment and aim to contextualise it in a way that ensures alignment with the Trust’s values and longer-term educational objectives.”

This is probably the best result, and is the outcome of the efforts of many.