Public Statues: Time to Rethink our History

The widespread global protests from the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd have been met with praise and support, with thousands across the UK coming out to show their solidarity. Most symbolically, perhaps, of all the action so far in the UK, has been the recent toppling-and-dumping-in-the-harbour of the statue of loathed British merchant, Edward Colston, who was responsible for the orchestration and trafficking of thousands of Africans to the Americas during the slave trade. Similar action has been seen in various countries, most notably of course in America, where statues of confederate slaveholders such as Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, and Robert. E Lee in Montgomery have met their demise. But with this action the question must be risen: what level of notoriety justifies the removal of a public statue, and what does this mean for these figures’ places in history?

Firstly, it must be understood what a public statue means for a society in cultural and historical terms. Fundamentally, a statue is a symbolic and perpetual memorial representing a figure or event; a historic freezing of something or someone with the aim to preserve their memory. A country may wish the preserve the memory of a figure for a plethora of reasons, but it most commonly appears to be for some kind of lasting contribution to a country and their history. These statues are usually raised by some pedestal, literally towering over those who view them, which can be taken to represent the authority and capacity they truly held and continue to hold in their cultural legacy. It seems clear, then, that statues in this context as we most commonly see them in public spaces, are built and maintained with the desire to be revered and remembered, metaphorically placing them with those at the top echelons of our history.

With this understanding, the case seems more than clear for the removal of statues such as that of Edward Colston, Frank Rizzo and others, due to their direct involvement and profiteering from the slave trade and organised slave labour. Despite reasons for the erection of Colston’s statue to begin with, such as for his philanthropy in the Bristolian community, the very fact that this money came from the subjugation and exploitation of thousands of slaves speaks for itself. However, when we look to other notable and famous statues around the UK, we must ask ourselves to what degree we justify the continued maintaining of such figures. Taking a look around the celebrated statues of Parliament Square, one can very quickly begin to see a stark number of controversial people in regard to their theories on race. Jan Christain Smuts believed in and ruled South Africa via segregation and racial subjugation. Winston Churchill “hated Indians”, describing them as a “beastly people with a beastly religion”. Mahatma Gandhi believed in a racial hierarchy, and that Africans were “savages”. Benjamin Disraeli supported notorious race science and the racial hierarchy, working at Queen Victoria’s (a figure with many, many statues) side at the height of the British Empire, whereby she was made Empress of India in 1877, followed soon after by the partition of Africa in the 1880s. The list goes on.

Conversely though, the legacies and impacts that these people have had in shaping our country are stark and continuous. It goes without saying that if it were not for Churchill’s efforts in the Second World War, or Victoria’s tight and affirmative grip of power, the landscape of the United Kingdom may look very different today. That very shaping, however, was created using the hegemony of colonialism and imperialism, the structures which figures such as Edward Colston made their living within. How then, do we deal with these statues, considering almost all of our famous historical figures are underpinned by some kind of racist or imperial rhetoric? Whether we like it or not, most of these figures are an integral part of our history and culture, and so to simply take them all down would seem to be a symbolic rejection of our past. Maybe there are other ways to retain these statues while addressing such racist subtexts. One option could be to rewrite or place new plaques to address the full context that these figures’ legacies exist within: one protester took a DIY approach on Churchill’s statue, painting “was a racist” below his name on the statue’s pedestal. Such a plaque would serve to inform those who may not know about the racist acts of Churchill and other such figures, hopefully educating more people than if the statue was removed entirely. Another option, while being more on the artistic or metaphorical side, could be to ground these statues from their pedestals, taking away their aforementioned towering boldness. This would be a smaller and more nuanced gesture, but to remove reverence from the figures in such a way would at least artistically change the way we view them.

Of course, there is always the option to take down all the statues of controversial figures; there are still plenty to entirely celebrate and revere such as that of Millicent Fawcett or Nelson Mandela. After all, it shouldn’t be the job of a sculpted piece of bronze to be educating people on colonial and imperial history. This debate is already calling into question many more statues, and with the Black Lives Matter movement bringing these contentious topics to the forefront of our political discussion, we will soon have to look to those in power to make such executive decisions, before the people once again take matters into their own hands.

Image Credit: The Australian