Imperial Bristol Forever?

by Omayra Zaragoza Cruz

20 September 2004

Bristol's racial history is as complex as that of any other city, but in England, this city is a site of struggle over how exactly the nation's complex racial history will be managed in the future. Bristol may be picturesque, with its old stone buildings and plentiful parks, but its contemporary street names, such as 'White Lady' and 'Black Boy', proffer constant reminders of Bristol's relationship to its racial and imperial past.
What does St. George's flag stand for, these days?
Photo from 

” I’ve been dreaming of a time when to be English is not to be baneful, to be standing by the flag, not feeling shameful, racist or racial.” — Morrissey, “Irish Blood, English Heart”

In the summer of 2004, Bristol joined cities across England in a widespread reclamation of St. George’s flag. St. George is the patron saint of England and his symbol, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, is the country’s unofficial flag. (The Union Jack serves as the official flag of the United Kingdom.) England earned a place in Euro 2004, a regional football tournament, and St. George’s flag was chosen as a badge of support for its players. The flag waved from cars and was broadcast on television commercials. It appeared on shop windows and on t-shirts. The trouble with this particular celebration is that St. George’s flag has an objectionable past.

Nationalism, racism, imperialism, and xenophobia have all been associated with St. George’s cross. The Crusaders marched beneath it. English ships, the Mayflower included, traditionally sailed under St. George’s cross. Right-wing groups like the British National Party and the National Front still parade it. The presence of St. George’s flag in Bristol is worthy of note because Bristol is also the home of the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, a contestant in a very different competition. The Museum, which explores nationalism, racism, imperialism, and xenophobia, vied with over a dozen others for the title of European Museum of the Year 2004. Between its part in the resurrection of St. George’s flag and the high profile attained by the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol emerges as a site of struggle over how exactly the nation’s complex racial history will be managed in the future. The question is whether the success of the Empire and Commonwealth Museum and the latest endorsement of St. George’s flag signal a genuine change in attitude and understanding.

Bristol’s racial history is as complex as that of any other city. The difference is that in Bristol that history remains startlingly visible. It may be picturesque, with its old stone buildings and plentiful parks, but the civic and private funds that built it have an ugly source. Bristol, the largest city in Southwest England, was built on the slave trade. It vied with London and Liverpool for wealth generated by traffic in human beings and the commodities that they produced.

In 2003 Bristol’s Massive Attack, a band renowned for its progressive politics and key to the “Bristol sound”, took the city to task for its role in the business of exploitation. Past and present collided when Massive Attack refused to play in Colston Hall (Bristol’s main live venue) because of its associations with civic benefactor Edward Colston. In addition to Colston Hall, visitors to Bristol would notice a statue of Colston that is still sometimes defaced in protest. The problem with Colston is that he was a major proprietor of the Royal African Company, an organization that planned and financed slaving ventures. Massive Attack opted to play their August 2003 gig to an audience of about 20,000 in Queen’s Square, the very site of riotous Bristolians protest against the 1832 Reform Act. No less striking a contrast would do from a city that can boast both the oldest continuously working theatre in the country, Bristol’s Old Vic, and an IMAX cinema with 3D technology (the latter being, perhaps, the more anachronistic of the two).

Even contemporary street names proffer constant reminders of Bristol’s relationship to its racial and imperial past. Two streets in particular, White Ladies Road and Black Boy Hill, piqued my curiosity. Soon after arriving in the city I asked a cab driver about White Ladies Road. After all, who better to comment on city streets than someone who spends their days traveling them? Besides, I like talking to Bristol cabbies because a good number of them sound like pirates. Bristol was a port city, remember? That growling R sound — “Aaarrrgh!” — that’s from this region of the British Isles. So the cab driver kindly explained that the name is historical — or more accurately, “histarrrghical”. He was resolute on one point: these streets may touch on an uncomfortable issue, but they have been a part of Bristol for centuries and should not be changed. What remained unclear is whether the past is automatically of merit by virtue of being old.

Veronica Smith, another local expert on the city’s geography, indicates that the road is named after a pub called White Ladies that she found on some map from 1804. In Street Names of Bristol: Their Origins and Meanings (Broadcast Books, 2002) Smith notes that because of the road’s juxtaposition with Black Boy Hill, rumors linking the two have run rampant despite that “there is no connection at all.” I find this hard to believe. The latter is named after a place called Blackboy Tavern. There is a connection, a great big one. There may be no “official” documentation of White Ladies traipsing about with Black Boys in tow (boys, mind you, not men), but so what? These words have meanings rooted in racial, sexual, and class politics that continue to resonate and that Smith herself traces back to the Crusades. The Blackboy Tavern used to be known as the Blackamoor’s Head, which was a term used to designate African Muslims during that particular economic, political, and ideological conflict. Need I mention that the “War on Terror” that Britain is currently waging with the United States is viewed by some Muslims as a continuation of the Crusades?

Last, though certainly not least important, these street names expose insensitivity to Bristol’s black populations. There are numerous Afro-Caribbeans as well as East Africans in Bristol, and many are still surprisingly segregated, concentrated in areas like Stapleton, Easton, and St. Paul’s. It is little wonder that in the 1980s Bristol was the site of race riots alongside cities like London and Liverpool. To add to the strangeness of it all, the faces of these communities appear in the latest advertising campaign for the Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Enormous photographs of smiling people from all corners of the Empire hang on the Museum’s outer walls. Beneath the faces appears a standard caption: “Empire and Us”. These billboards greet nearly everyone who comes to Bristol because the Museum is housed in an old wing of Temple Meads, the city’s main train station.

The station is a perfect home to the Museum for a simple reason. Like much of the nation’s infrastructure, construction of the station would have been funded by the wealth that poured in from the Empire. The British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. It was a great big business that made the country incredibly rich. As the first purpose-built train station in England, Temple Meads is something of a monument to this wealth. It is a cavernous stone structure that looks more like a Gothic cathedral than a modern building. If transportation hubs received the kind of attention traditionally dedicated to houses of worship, then perhaps it is because they were houses of worship: worship of change, steam, modern life and steel.

Alternatively, Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Weidenfeld, 2004) explains that Victorian fondness for Gothic architecture was rooted in a desire to escape the realities of industrialization; especially the dirty, noisy, crowded city that it produced. Using Gothic styles to dress up the mechanical lifelines of industrialization represented an attempt to capture an idealized vision of life before industrialization. For Victorians, life before industrialization meant life in the Middle Ages, a feudal agrarian existence in which the lowly knew their place and the wealthy commanded great power over their lands in the absence of a strong, centralized government. Actually, the analogy is not entirely off the mark since mortality rates in Victorian British cities rivaled those of the Black Death, a 15th century epidemic that decimated the islands’ population.

According to @Bristol, a website that lists the city’s attractions, events and visitor services, the Museum’s charting of “500 years of the Empire…has been praised for its sensitive handling of Britain’s past. It covers not only the maritime, military and technological triumphs of empire, but also examines less comfortable issues such as racism, economic exploitation, cultural imperialism and slavery.” Rather astonishingly, it actually does. The Empire and Commonwealth Museum attends to the ethical contradictions of Britain’s past. It may be neither the most spectacular nor well-funded museum in Europe. Yet the Empire and Commonwealth Museum is nothing short of extraordinary.

Unlike Niall Ferguson’s international bestseller, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Penguin: 2004), the Museum does not purport to have an answer. The Museum dedicates attention to the contemporary effects of imperialism on the many countries it touched: the United States, Canada, India, Jamaica, and so forth. It explores a subject as confusing, emotional, and timely as imperialism in a heated context: not only must the world contend with the legacy of conquest, it faces the consequences of contemporary exercises in imperialism, like the occupation of Iraq. Filled with stuffed carcasses and pelts, porcelain, manacles, textiles, and sugar production tools, the Museum shows the real cost of luxuries generated by the Empire — tea, tobacco, sugar, chocolate, and fine textiles — that we take for granted today.

What is the cost of displaying St. George’s flag in this time and place/day and age? A promising sign of the times is that its return generated widespread discussion about what it means in racial terms to be English, an issue that is doubly consequential for a place like Bristol. This is not the first time such discussions have been raised. For instance, Paul Gilroy wasn’t just in it for kicks when he wrote There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Hutchinson, 1987), and that flag’s connection with Britpop, the Queen’s Jubilee, and the last World Cup sparked similar controversy. An article entitled “I no longer view the flag with suspicion” published in the 10 June 2004 edition of The Guardian explores just this point. The article collects interviews of a dozen women and men from a range of backgrounds. The responses comment on their memories of St. George’s flag and how they feel when they see it displayed today. The consensus is that St. George’s flag is just that: a flag, the flag of England. Several interviewees insist that what matters is not what the flag means over England, but what England means under the flag. In this article, actor and writer Kwame Kwei-Armah eloquently voices this sentiment:

Seeing the flag throws up a huge set of dilemmas, but above all I see it as a reminder that things change. When I was young, it was a signal that you were walking into National Front territory. And when England won anything, it would always mean a massive increase in xenophobia, so when I was young I never wanted England to win anything! Now when I see the flag, my whole system remembers that, but after the emotional response comes the intellectual one, and I see it as a good thing because it no longer has to mean xenophobia. That’s a real shift forward. There can now be national pride without extreme nationalism, and that’s a great thing. So I no longer view the flag with suspicion, but I do remember what it used to mean. I don’t display it anywhere, but I think my children would, and if they did, I wouldn’t object. But part of my gig as a dad is to remind them of the path we’ve travelled. Lest we forget — and all of that.

Yet enthusiasm for St. George’s flag as a symbol of national solidarity ends on an ominous note. Buildup for the Euro 2004 tournament coincided with a round of national elections and the night that England lost to France in its opening match for Euro 2004 the UK Independence Party gained a number of seats. Its “Say No to Europe” campaign, a nostalgic nod to British supremacy, calls for voters to refuse the rule of Brussels. This opposition to the European Union is as much about keeping immigrants out as it is about national sovereignty. As an immigrant in Bristol from one of the old colonies — the first to gain independence in 1776 — I wager that symbols of empire will keep their damaging connotations so long as the actions that surround them continue to do damage.

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