Flat White

Dr. Livingstone, the racist, I presume?

11 April 2022

2:00 PM

11 April 2022

2:00 PM

The Australian political theorist, Professor Kenneth Minogue, posited the idea of ‘St George in retirement syndrome’ in his 1961 book The Liberal Mind to describe the tendency of Western liberalism to charge at ever smaller ‘dragons’, when the real dragons, such as slavery, suffrage, and such have been slain. 

Douglas Murray, in his great 2019 book The Madness of Crowds, pushed the analogy further to reflect the recent crude extremism of puritans wishing to purge historical figures with the most laughable excuses, with St George no longer even slashing at tiny dragons, but at thin air. I wrote in 2018 on the attempts to cancel Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill. Now, in 2022, Glasgow City Council is contemplating the removal of a famous statue of one of its most famous sons, the explorer, geographer, author, and famed abolitionist, Dr. David Livingstone. 

The reason given is even more sordid than those provided for the attempted cancellations of Jefferson and Churchill. A report commissioned by the city council marked Livingstone as having problematic links with slavery. As the historian Andrew Roberts explained, the link is because, as a 10-year-old boy, Livingstone worked painfully long hours at a cotton mill that used cotton from the West Indies picked by slaves. 

To say that Livingstone’s scrounging a living as a 10-year-old (along with his brother) is the equivalent of a ‘defence’ of cotton masters in the West Indies, the ‘experts’ who wrote the ‘Glasgow Slavery Audit’ open themselves, and anyone who drives an electric car, up to the charge of supporting child labour. The majority of cobalt, used in electric car batteries, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of children work in horrendous conditions, with many dying from accidents and toxic fumes. Perhaps the Glasgow City Council, no doubt awash with electric cars, should consider abolishing themselves?

The ridiculous justification aside, the charge is made even more ludicrous by the fact that Livingstone is famous for his work as an abolitionist. He wrote in his diary of the East African slave trade that, ‘To overdraw its evil is a simple impossibility.’ His books and journals stirred up anti-slavery sentiments. For this, as well as for his exploration of Africa, he was voted by the British public in a BBC poll as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in 2002. He instigated the formation of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, which had opposition to slavery as one of its major tenets. It also offered medical and education provisions, benefitting countless people. Leader Stirling, a surgeon who volunteered for 14 years in the UMCA, later became Tanzania’s Health Minister. 

The grand irony is that, as Glasgow contemplates tearing down the statue of Livingstone, In Africa, there are dozens of his memorials in multiple countries, such is the regard for the man. There are schools, scholarships, hospitals, and streets named after him. There is even a city named after him in Zambia, and a city named after his place of birth (Scotland, Blantyre) in Malawi. 

So the city council of Glasgow, led by their panel of so-called experts, is behaving like an illogical, hormonally tempestuous woke undergraduate, whose emotions overreach his understanding, lashing out wildly at the good, while pretending they are a dragon, and expecting adulation for their destructive conduct. 

Even if Livingstone had tangible connections to slavery, should such history simply be abolished?

One of the most vital uses of history is as a warning of what not to do again. The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote that, ‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’ The attempt to rid the public space of reminders of history, which is often stark, complex, and difficult, is childish and churlish, and will inevitably lead to dark places. 

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