The weekend saw the removal of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors. Like so much of social change that is caused by social movements, this particular statue finally fell to direct action after years of discussion and failed petitions. But it begs the question — does history change or is it statuesque?
Next to the Houses of Parliament, on probably one of the most dangerous junctions in the country due to confusing traffic flows and selfie thirsty tourists, there stands another statue. It stands on the brink of Westminster Bridge and shows a figure with her arms in a beckoning motion behind a chariot of horses forever frozen mid-gallop. The figure is Boudica the Celtic Queen who led a failed uprising against the invading Romans in the year 60 or 61 AD. The statue is there to invoke a very early idea of British identity of a heroine who faced a conquering army. It is also there to reflect a certain female power erected deliberately during Queen Victoria’s reign.
But I would bet Boudica and I do not share the same views on gay marriage. Far from me to libel the dead, yet Boudica and I probably wouldn’t see eye to eye on multiculturalism in these islands or on animal welfare. She was from a long, long distant past, and although we share the same home in many ways, Boudica is foreign to me. Yet the spirit of her life and what she represents was positive enough to justify the statue’s creation so we might remember her uprising against the Romans.
I’m using the Boudica statue as an example of my agreement with the idea we shouldn’t be removing statues of all people who don’t align entirely with current values or were responsible for some other atrocity. For balance, there is a statue of Julius Caesar opposite the Tower of London, and he hardly held the values of the Geneva Convention in his heart. Winston Churchill held grossly bigoted and racist views, especially about the people of India. Oliver Cromwell was a war criminal who slaughtered Irish Catholics between 1649 -1653. But we preserve statues of Churchill because he led the defeat of Fascism in Europe and Cromwell because he led the defeat of an unaccountable monarchy. On balance as a country, we’ve concluded the general spirit of what they did, ‘anti-Fascism’ and ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’, is important enough to merit a statue.
The debate grew louder in the past few years because of the felling of many statues of Confederate generals from the American Civil War. In this case, the argument for keeping them is twofold. The first is ‘identity’ and second is ‘they are part of our history’ which shouldn’t be whitewashed.
The identity in question is that of ‘The South’ of the United States. These statues were rarely erected in solemn solidarity with the fallen soldiers. They were constructed in two specific waves: during the introduction of ‘Jim Crow’ laws and later during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. So this seems less about celebrating identity and more about using the statues to intimidate burgeoning confidence from Black America to assert its own identity. The Confederate identity is singularly defined by its support for slavery, and these statues were constructed in reaction to the segregation and later desegregation of races. So the statues are, in this case, a tool of American racism. History should not be weaponised like this. And secondly, if statues are to be used to tell an unflinching account of non-whitewashed history, then I look forward to statues of Malcolm X, Henry Kissinger and Chelsea Manning in Washington D.C. at the earliest possible convenience.
People have this argument everywhere, and that is a reading of the American story. Elsewhere, the story of modern Germany is a nation doing its best to forget its Nazi past. That’s why you won’t hear any mainstream Germans saying ‘Hitler, Heydrich, Speer, and Goebbels are part of our history and I don’t believe in whitewashing history’. But what was the general spirit of Nazi Germany? I’d generally label it as ‘Hate’, and there is a profound monument to Nazi Hate in the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in central Berlin. The Auschwitz Concentration Camp, in then occupied Poland, remains standing as an open and living memorial to visitors. There has been no whitewashing here as people are encouraged to come and learn about Nazi Hate and its consequences.
There is a bigger issue here. Statues and monuments reflect our stories and our histories. It is not as simple to say ‘it is whitewashing history’ to remove something. If there is popular disgust at having to live alongside a certain figure or if it is replaced or changed to reflect the changes in our history, and this context is acknowledged, then this reflects our current story. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Britain has tried to remove the statue of Imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the campus in Oxford University. Since Rhodes made his name whitewashing African cultures by naming an entire country after himself, then perhaps it is fair game that his successors at Oriel College Oxford should try to make their name in opposition to Rhodes.
Because this is the long road of history, twisting and turning as our society’s priorities change. I can’t wait till all of our current statues are torn down in 150 years because our great-great-grandchildren are disgusted we knowingly destroyed the planet by burning coal and gas for fuel. We went down an accelerated version of this road in 2017 when Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi stayed silent while the government she led tried to destroy Rohingya refugees. Like Rhodes, Suu Kyi studied at Oxford, and a portrait hung proudly in her former college of St. Hugh’s for 18 years.
Except that this Oxford college had no hesitation in removing the portrait of this particular apple the moment it turned rotten. Where are the howls of ‘whitewashing history’ that met the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign when Suu Kyi’s image was censored? Those disgusted by the Rhodes statue and campaigned for its removal are forced to look history in its warted face every day whereas students in another part of Oxford have the thinking done for them as the boffins of the governing body removed her portrait days before students even arrived. This is a meaty hypocrisy as I ever did see and a microcosm of the entire statue debate. Why is this so?
Whitewashing history already exists in Britain. It occurs when the British Empire, colonialism and slavery are not taught in schools but left to rot in its own myth. I’ve never tried to get into Oxford, but I hear it’s quite difficult and only intelligent people study there. But why should Oxford students be the only people equipped with the knowledge to have a rough and tumble debate about the merits of the British Empire? Of course, Nazi Germany should be taught in schools but perhaps if our education system didn’t focus so rigidly on the historical faults of Germany while whitewashing our own history, then we might not be so obsessed with singing, without a hint of irony, ‘2 World Wars and 1 World Cup” at football matches.
History is not about ‘When’ but understanding ‘The Why?’ Why did Britain invent the Concentration Camp in South Africa? Why is there a straight-line border between Syria and Iraq? Why were there a million civilian deaths when India was partitioned? Why do we think removing a statue of a man like Cecil Rhodes — or Edward Colston the slave trader from Bristol — is more controversial than actually teaching our children about British imperialism? Do we really want to know the answers?