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Letter: Honour and Honesty Dictate We Shouldn’t Believe Our History is Spotless

Published on: 25 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 25 Jul, 2020

From George Potter

Lib Dem borough councillor for Burpham

I’m surprised at the number and vociferousness of objections to what is an innocuous and normal exercise. Indisputably, prominent people in Surrey were linked to the slave trade and other activities profiting from theft, looting and the oppression of others.

Undeniably, across more than four centuries of colonialism, parts of that have impacted Surrey’s history and the lives of individuals in our county and our town.

Any good historian worth their salt is always ready to try to dig deeper into the story behind things we take for granted to put them in their proper context, and that is all this exercise is about.

If there is nothing in the collection with any link to colonialism and oppressive practices, that will be confirmed. Items which do have such links will allow us to learn how to put them in their proper context.

I understand this work is part of the digital cataloguing of the entire collection, which was already in the works. Even the most biased observer should agree cataloguing is the most appropriate time to review the provenance of items.

Whitewashing history to view ourselves as the good guys is comforting, as Cllr Paul Spooner seems to feel, but honour and honesty dictate we shouldn’t believe our history is spotless on faith alone.

For instance, Clandon Park House was built by Baron Thomas Onslow, who made a great deal of his wealth as a leading member of Onslow’s Insurance which was incorporated as the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation and specialised in insuring ships and merchants during the height of the slave trade.

The honorary remembrancer mentioned the “Zong”, the ship named in an infamous court case where the crew threw dozens of slaves overboard to claim the insurance. The insurance company denied liability, saying they should not have to pay out for the deliberate “destruction of cargo”.

Our financial institutions from that time were heavily interwoven with the trade in lives that killed millions of people and destroyed the lives of millions more.

I don’t know whether the insurance business that paid for one of our local landmarks directly profited from the slave trade, but I would be interested to find out. That we don’t know the answer shows we can’t take it for granted that slavery and exploitation didn’t leave any legacies in our town and county.

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Responses to Letter: Honour and Honesty Dictate We Shouldn’t Believe Our History is Spotless

  1. Ben Paton Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    Why does Mr Potter presuppose that anyone thinks British history is ‘spotless’? Is Mr Potter suggesting that the post-colonial history of Africa is ‘spotless’?

    Why does he presuppose that anyone ‘denies’ that colonialism has affected Surrey?

    Why does he presuppose that ‘we don’t know the answer’ to whether the Onslow family may have profited from the slave trade?

    Who does Mr Potter consider is ‘whitewashing’ history? Is he suggesting that modern British citizens are responsible for events that took place before most of them were born?

    What has Clandon Park got to do with either GBC or Guildford Museum? Is he not just creating an Aunt Sally to beat up on?

    What does he mean by ‘decolonisation’ of a local museum? Is “decolonisation” just a form of Doublespeak?

    How is decolonisation relevant to the operations of GBC and the present daily lives of people who live in Guildford? What practical action does Mr Potter expect anyone to take as a result of his ‘decolonisation’?

    Does Mr Potter have any qualifications for setting himself up as a moralist and judge of the past? Is this a good use of taxpayer’s money?

    Why doesn’t Mr Potter show the same curiosity about the evidence base for the Local Plan that the Lib Dems have vociferously supported for so long? The Local Plan is “modern history” but is it more accurately portrayed than the “colonial” history that he has developed a new interest in?

    Is Mr Potter as interested in justice for the living rather than re-writing selective parts of history? When he buys petrol for his car is he not complicit with the activities of oil-producing regimes that oppress minorities?

    When he buys Chinese consumer goods is he not complicit in the activities of a totalitarian one-party state?

    When he buys products containing coffee, sugar, soya and other agricultural ingredients from Brazil is he not complicit in environmental destruction? And when he travels by aeroplane is he not complicit in climate change?

    Isn’t the Tory/Lib Dem Local Plan more destructive or our local environment than any other single government act since World War 2?

    Aren’t these issues rather more relevant than a local museum’s contents?

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