If only for the sake of history, William Davage argues against cancellation


One of the great portrait paintings is of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pareja is portrayed in half-length. He wears a black coat, fashionable owing to the importation of black dye from Mexico, with an ornate, exquisitely achieved lace collar. He looks out from the canvas with a steady, unwavering, watchful gaze. Handsome and hypnotic; noble and assured. Who is this aristocratic Spaniard? A soldier? A statesman?

Neither of those. He was a member of Velazquez’s household. A servant? Not that. He was born, probably about 1606, into slavery. Of Moorish descent, he was a slave in the artist’s household, part of the retinue. He was also an accomplished artist. On 23 November 1650 he was granted his freedom from slavery to take effect after four years without breaking the law. He died, a free man, in 1670.

In this cancel culture how do we now look at that painting? It is a portrait of a slave painted by a slave owner. The cultural problem is highlighted in three cases. The statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol was torn down by protesters and, unceremoniously, thrown into the harbour (later rescued). Colston was a merchant and philanthropist. Many of the institutions and civic amenities owe their existence and their survival to his substantial benefactions. He was also a slave trader which, to some today, trumps whatever else he was or what other qualities he may have had. The statue may have ended up in the water but there seems to have been no urgent desire to close the institutions or return the money to whatever descendants there may be. They were, however, renamed. Colston Hall became the Bristol Beacon.

Jesus College, Cambridge, was stymied by a Consistory Court from removing a memorial tablet from the chapel dedicated to Tobias Rustat (1606-1694), a generous benefactor to the college. He was a royal courtier and an investor in two trading companies, the Royal Adventurers and the Royal Africa Company. Both companies were involved in the slave trade and that, for the College authorities, was the defining issue. Again, there seemed no willingness for the College to divest itself of the money.

Slavery was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1833, coming into effect the following year. Compensation was paid to slave owners. The debt on the loan taken out by the government to compensate them was only paid off finally in 2015. There was no compensation for those who were enslaved. It is difficult to find words adequate enough to condemn slavery, not only historically but modern slavery and the trafficking of people that, wickedly, goes on today.

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was not a slave trader but he was found guilty by the court of undergraduate opinion of quintessential imperialism and demanded the removal of his statue high on one of the walls of Oriel College overlooking the High Street. It became the target for the outrage of the protestors. The Governing Body seemed to be minded to remove the statue, without, inevitably, returning the money. There was an added irony that the scholarships that he had endowed and which bore his name were, by his express wish, open to all sorts and conditions of people and race. Mark Antony was right when he said: ‘The evil that men do lives after them / The good is oft interred with their bones’.

Depending on your point of view, all three have been subjects or victims of cancel culture. Few, I suspect, would have objected to the removal of Josef Stalin from the  mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. The only reservation may well have been that the odious Vladimir Lenin was not also removed. Few, similarly, would have repined or objected to the tearing down of the monstrous statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, on 9th April 2003, accomplished by Iraqi civilians and aided by United States Marines. 

Of Colston, Rustat, and Rhodes it might be argued that their donations and legacies may have had some redemptive quality and power. Not that their generous legacies would obliterate their past, nor in any way excuse or approve of it. That past now appears highly problematic and offensive to contemporary mores but to understand the past, for good or ill, is not to try to strike some moral equivalence. Their generosity from the grave may not be sufficient to outweigh their lives or their societal values, even if they were people of their time: as are we all. All human beings are people of shades and sorrows, as well as light and goodness.

Pope Francis has argued that the cancel culture is ‘a form of ideological colonisation’ and it results in ‘cancelling all sense of identity’. He was speaking of contemporary culture but his words are equally applicable to the past. The past is another country and it is a different, almost a foreign country. They do things differently there. It is at times an example but also a warning. It is the responsibility of the present to learn from the past, not to ignore it or wipe it from human memory in all its angularity, its failures, its moral lapses, its cruelty, its otherness. Cancel culture is not an attack on what is deemed unacceptable in the past, it is an attack on history itself.