“It’s always assumed that radical history is the history of failure,” says Bristol Radical History Group co-organiser Roger Wilson. “We want to challenge that idea. People forget that a lot of the positive changes that have happened – like democracy – were often obtained as a result of radical struggles.”
Certainly failure is not a word in this group’s vocabulary. This loose coalition of local historians, ‘organic intellectuals’ and general ne’er-do-wells has had a successful first three years. In 2006 they had the idea of organising a festival of lectures, debates, films and gigs that would uncover some of the west country’s forgotten past. Since then they’ve put on five events, established a publishing arm and enticed a number of world-renowned historians, such as Peter Linebaugh, Silvia Federici and Marcus Rediker, to Bristol to speak. Not bad for a bunch of enthusiastic, cash-strapped amateurs. “We don’t take any funds from political parties, universities or government,” explains Wilson. “But I think that has allowed us to do things a lot of other groups wouldn’t have been able to. We have a lot more freedom.”
They’ve been able to include a boat trip around Bristol’s pirate landmarks and the recreation of radical Quaker preacher James Nayler’s so-called ‘blasphemous’ ride into Bristol. He deliberately echoed Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, shocking 17th century society so much he was jailed and tortured. On its 350th anniversary in 2006, the Radical History Group re-enacted this event on Corn Street with the Sealed Knot and a group of local cancan dancers. The results stopped traffic and saw Saturday shoppers splutter on their sandwiches.
But then a large part of the group’s mission is to take history out of the fusty enclaves of academia and make it relevant to the wider public. “It’s a bit cliched to say that all you learn about at school is kings and queens,” says Wilson, “but you don’t get to see the whole picture. Battles still go on about what history should be taught. Through the 80s the Tories tried to argue that we should have ‘British’ history and we should stop learning all this post-colonial history.”
This idea of history being a modern-day battleground is one that is not unfamiliar to Bristolians, as many would say the city still hasn’t come to terms with its role as a centre of the slave trade. Incredibly, the 200th anniversary of abolition in 2007 left no permanent recognition of this aspect of the city’s past, something that the Radical History Group will remedy this March when they unveil a plaque at the Seven Stars pub commemorating the life and work of anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson.
Craftsman Mike Baker puts the finishing touches to the Thomas Clarkson plaque
“Bristol has never commemorated him,” says Wilson. “He has been written out of the history of abolition in favour of William Wilberforce and yet the work he did here was crucial in ending the slave trade. He interviewed sailors working on board the slave ships – the only people to speak out against the trade. Everyone else from the bankers to the ships’ officers had a vested interest. This evidence was crucial in creating a mass movement against slavery and in the parliament to back up Wilberforce’s bills.”
The Clarkson plaque unveiling is just part of what is shaping up to be a busy year for the Radical History Group. They’re hoping to organise a talk about the Hillsborough Disaster on its 20th Anniversary in April and in August will be gracing Dorset’s annual Tolpuddle Festival with an event based around the Swing Riots of the 1830s. Then in October there’s the fourth annual Radical History Week. There is also the possibility of collaborations with similar history groups that have sprung up around the country.
Wilson sees this group as part of a trend towards re-investigating our past. “Over the years attempts have been made to democratise history, put it in the hands of the people making everybody an investigator – with family history or labour history or whatever. I think we’re going through one of those phases now.”
“It’s important. Part of the process of understanding a political struggle for freedom is to know who you are and where you come from. Knowing your history is the first step toward that.”
written by Will Simpson
first appeared in Spark issue 56, Spring 2009
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