The whitewashing of George Carteret
And why how we see the past continues to shape our present
Following the murder of George Floyd by police and subsequent global protests driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, the news has been dominated by coverage of the toppling of various statues around the world due to their associated histories of exploitation, murder and slavery of indigenous populations.
After the George Floyd protest held in Jersey’s People’s Park, impressively attended by more than a thousand people, the statue of Sir George Carteret in St Peter was defaced with white paint and a petition is currently doing the rounds calling for its removal due to his past links to slavery.
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So far, the Constable of St Peter, Richard Vibert, has rejected its removal and is going to raise the issue as to whether the statue’s accompanying plaque should be amended to acknowledge Carteret’s slave trading, stating that, ‘the important thing is that we actually learn from history’ with Bailiwick Express reporting that Vibert maintained removing or amending the statue would be tantamount to rewriting history, which he said Islanders ‘cannot and should not’ do.
Yet by ignoring a fundamental part of Carteret’s story it ends up being exactly that, a rewriting of history. As the Jersey International Centre of Advanced Studies (JICAS) put it on social media before the statue was literally whitewashed: ‘The whitewashing of history and unjustified influence over the narrative took place when the statue was constructed; this is finally adjusting the narrative to an even level…literally.”
This whitewashing of history can also be seen in the pamphlet that was issued for the statue’s unveiling. The only mention of slavery within it relates to Carteret rescuing “270 Englishmen from the slave trade” when he was 27. It goes on to describe the statue as portraying Carteret in an ‘imposing, thoughtful yet approving mood, as if he is aware that his statue is the catalyst for a rekindling of lost friendships between Jersey and New Jersey’. Carteret has also been described as a hero, ‘Jersey’s greatest son’, one of “Jersey’s great figures” and a role model for youngsters, highlighting just how much of a positive figure he has been portrayed as.
So what aspect of his history has been erased?
That he was one of the founding six committee members of the ‘Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa’, set up in 1660 to trade in gold, ivory and slaves. Which apparently was also a family affair with his son James ‘collecting’ over 300 slaves from Africa for transportation to the West Indies during one of the company’s early voyages in 1663. The company was succeeded nine years later and was the template for the ‘Royal African Company’, of whom Carteret was a consultant and early minor investor.
The Royal African Company went on to ship more African slaves to the Americas than any other institution in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. Between 1680 and 1688, it transported approximately 5,000 slaves a year totalling around 212,000 between 1662 and 1731. It’s estimated that 44,000 men, women and children died en route, with thousands of those who did survive arriving in the New World with the company’s initials branded on their chests.
As I wrote previously, Carteret also enacted the “Concession and Agreement” in 1664, that offered additional land per slave for any settler arriving in New Jersey to encourage population growth for his newly gifted American state. This led to New Jersey having one of the highest slave populations in the north. His contribution to the historical record of the transatlantic slave trade is clearly significant and not just in local terms either.
Many have argued that we cannot judge the past by today’s moral standards, which to an extent I don’t disagree with. However, four Quakers and Mennonites in Pennsylvania signed a petition as early as 1688 against the ‘traffik of men-body’, marking the beginning of the anti-slavery movement among people of European descent. To think that no one had issues with slavery before that petition is clearly a reflection of the denial and lack of honesty which still exists about this period of history.
Former St Peter Constable John Refault, who has not responded to my 2017 email about Carteret’s past and, by his own admission in the pamphlet I mentioned earlier, says he was not aware of the man’s history prior to 2013, has tried to redirect the debate to one about modern-day slavery stating: ‘Don’t get angry about the past — the past is the past…Tearing things down isn’t going to make that better, but actually if we focus on modern slavery.’
However, local DJ, Biko Bangs’ — who has previously been exposed to racist abuse here in Jersey — commenting in the Jersey Evening Post last week has a different view: “When I look at what that statue represents, I find it very disheartening and abhorrent. It completely winds me up and for someone to say that it happened many hundred years ago and that we should be looking at things now… but that statue was put up in 2014. For me as a black guy, it’s everyone paying homage to something that was wrong”.
With so few voices from the Jersey black community being heard on this issue, I asked a friend their view over the statue, it was both honest and to the point:
‘Belonging is all anyone and everyone desires, whether it’s in a community, a corporation or a prison. The George Carteret statue rapes this society of its unity for all who live here in Jersey.’
It is not that Mr Refault wanted to promote a slave trader or is himself a racist, but he certainly appears to be surprisingly ignorant of his past considering his historical research prior to the statue’s unveiling. What’s clear is that both the former and current Constable of St Peter are now fully aware of it, yet are still failing to appropriately address the issue. This is about setting the historical record straight, acknowledging the wrongs that have been done in order to move forward for the betterment of society.
Even if the decision is made to update the plaque to include Carteret’s slave-trading past it only raises further questions as to why a statue of such a prolific slave trader was put up so recently. So I agree with Mr Bangs when he said the statue belongs in a museum. The question still remains as to why the debate over statues has been so divisive.
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I recently tweeted a video of a Christopher Columbus statue being toppled in Minneapolis. It certainly elicited a strong reaction. It was labelled ‘mob rule’, ‘cultural fascism’ a ‘puritanical purge’ and an insult to the ‘craftspeople who made it’. I was asked what the difference was between this and ISIS destroying ancient temples. Such events are always likely to offend liberal sensibilities. Martin Luther King’s letter, wrote from an Alabama jail, springs to mind:
‘The white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”’.
It later transpired that the statue was pulled down by Members of the American Indian Movement. After being charged with criminal damage, one of the members responded: ‘I’m willing to take that. The paradigm shift is happening and it was time.’ Despite his well-documented genocidal crimes, Columbus Day is still very much a celebrated national holiday in the US. Rather than ISIS, this event seems more akin to Jews pulling down a statue of Hitler, not to forget that there was a whole de-Nazification of Germany after the Second World War and they still manage to know about their own history.
As British historian David Olusoga has said, statues are not about history, they are about adoration. They are symbols of power, this debate is not meaningless. This is about who gets to control our shared public spaces, which individuals of history are erased, who gets remembered and how they get remembered. As JICAS said, it’s about who gets to define the narrative for society. This is why the far-right have attempted to fish a slave trader statue out of a river and have rushed to violently protect Churchill’s monument. It is not about protecting the historical record but protecting a particular view of that history.
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The question remains that if the Jersey government had appropriately acted to address these issues back in 2017 when I first wrote my column about Carteret’s slave-trading past would the statue have still been vandalised or a petition for its removal set up? Like in the UK and US, it’s the ignoring of the past and people’s legitimate grievances that can lead to such explosive backlashes and the destruction of property. Identifying with those grievances, both historical and contemporary, is not the same as supporting the tearing down of every statue and street sign.
What is clear is that the spotlight on these statues both here and abroad has created a huge demand for people to learn about their own forgotten histories. My online column has seen more than a quadrupling of views in the past week compared to since it went up in 2017 and the greater awareness and understanding about our past history can only be considered a good thing.
The government should work with the Parish to have the 2014 statue removed and put it in a museum where people can learn about his full history and demonstrate that everyone really does belong in this community. That way we can all move on from this debate about statues and deal with the bigger societal issues at hand.
This article was amended on the 19/06/2020 to clarify that the government should work with the Parish to have the statue removed rather than remove the statue