How The Toppling of Statues Emphasises the Need to Address History

The Enduring Power and Symbolism of Statues

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Yesterday a scene that is associated with the downfall of brutal regimes played out on the streets of Bristol in England.

A statue was toppled from its plinth, rolled towards the harbour and dumped in the sea. By all accounts, it was an extraordinary scene, one that has led to jubilation in some quarters and dismay in others.

But why did this happen? Who was the man depicted in the statue? And why did it cause such uproar? These questions are key to understanding how the moment we are living through.

The toppling of the statue happened at a Black Lives Matter rally. Following the horrific death of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests have not only sprung up in America but around the world too.

The visceral and shocking images of Floyd’s death at the knee of a policeman, have galvanised people to take to the streets despite the Coronavirus which still stalks many countries, not least America.

The protests serve to highlight the maltreatment black people and ethnic minorities face at the hands of the police and society in general. What the toppling of this statue shows is that the protest is now beginning to morph into a wider issue.

One of tackling racism in society as a whole, not just at the hands of the authorities. The issue highlights a wider cultural problem when binary and simplistic views of history create problems in the present.

Who was Colston?

The statue in question was of Edward Colston, a merchant and slave trader who lived from 1636 to 1721. He was a high official of the Royal African Company and was a central player in the enslavement of 84,000 people, 19,000 of whom died en route to the Caribbean.

The people that were traded by the company were branded with the initials of the company on their chests, marking them as the company’s ‘property’. Many of those 19,000 people who died while on the boats to the Caribbean were pushed overboard and drowned, or died in the depths of the ship they were forced into.

Those who survived the journey were sold for cheap labour on sugar and tobacco plantations. In a book about the Royal African Company, the historian, William Pettigrew, states the company, “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.”

Away from the slave trade, Colston was also a philanthropist for the city of Bristol. He founded farmhouses, endowed a hospital, and a boarding school known as Colston’s hospital. His name is almost synonymous with Bristol, with many schools and streets bearing his name to this day.

This brings us to the statue of Colston which was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy to Bristol. However, no mention was made of his connection to the slave trade. Inscribed on a bronze plaque are the words, “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895.”

What’s interesting is that the statue was erected over one hundred and fifty years after his death. That the statue was erected so long after his death is a kind of historical revisionism in itself. The Victorians must have been aware of Colston’s involvement with the slave trade and his profiteering from it. Yet, the erection of statue continued anyway. Was this willful ignorance, or where the wider population unaware of his past?

In recent years, the statue has become more and more controversial. In 1998, the words SLAVE TRADER were scrawled onto its base. Since then, there has been a wider recognition of Colston’s past and an increased emphasis on taking the statue down.

Discussions took place to add a second plaque to the memorial which highlighted his role in the slave trade. This was agreed in 2018 but the efforts were scuppered as the wording of the plaque was controversial with one councillor describing the idea as ‘revisionist’ and ‘historically illiterate.’

The plaque was never added to the statue. This highlights the issues of trying to deal with these matters via the democratic process as politicians have suggested should be the route for removing statues.

The toppling of Colston’s statue hints at something larger and more important, which is the role history and statues play in society today. It also highlights how culture and identity have come to be ever more important in politics reflecting the polarised nature of the society we live in.

Heads must roll

The issue with the statue is clear. Colston profited from the misery of thousands of people. No matter how much he donated to good causes or how many buildings bear his name, these facts can’t be airbrushed away. His legacy is tarnished.

When a statue of Sadaam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad in 2003, aided by the actions of American troops, the image was beamed around the world as the liberation of a people from a tyrannical dictator. The sentiment was similar when statues of Lenin in former Soviet republics were toppled following its dissolution. These scenes were portrayed as liberation from oppression. No one was complaining about the removal of Nazi symbols from Germany and occupied territories at the end of the Second World War but by the logic of those opposing the toppling of Colston’s statue, does this not amount to historical revisionism?

Of course, no one objects to this. The crimes committed by the Nazis were abhorrent as were those by the Soviets and Sadaam, so why the objection to the removal of a statue of a slave trader? My first reaction to the removal of the statue was disbelief that it existed in modern Britain.

The claim is that the toppling of the statue was unlawful, undertaken by an out of control mob. Instead of taking direct action, the protestors should have expressed their displeasure through democratic means. Except, that’s what had happened. Only the process ended in gridlock as neither side could agree upon how to proceed.

Often, the responses to these events are binary. The reality is more nuanced. For black people living in Bristol, the statue will be a daily reminder of the oppression their ancestors suffered. Is it right that in 21st century Britain, a statue of a prominent slave trader is in the middle of a city? It’s hard to argue it is.

This brings us to an important question on statues, what is their purpose? A statue is a way of remembering someone. Often, they are an act of vanity, a way of asserting ideals or the importance of a figure. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to be commemorated in this manner. Statues can serve as a form of power and propaganda that serve to reinforce myths about the figures they depict. History is written by the winners as they say and statues are a way of enforcing a narrative of history.

The reason the statue went up was because of some reverence for Colston. The population of Bristol, and more importantly, the decision-makers back then will have been mainly white men. They were free to decide what should and shouldn’t be remembered. The statue of Colston remembers one man, a morally bankrupt one, at the expense of the thousands of victims of the slave trade who were silenced and, in effect, have been expunged from history.

Are their stories any less valid than Colston’s? Are their stories not worthy of being commemorated? Those that say the removal of statues is rewriting history miss the point. History is always being revised and always has been. It’s a living, breathing thing. The history that we remember says a lot about us as a society. To leave the statue standing is a tacit acknowledgement of what Colston did, to bring it down is to reject it.

To say that the history of this man or that man is final is just wrong and ignores the fact that cultural standards change as time passes. Was it right that Colston’s statue was taken away down? It’s hard to argue against it. There is also a historical irony in the fact that he was dumped in the harbour as many of the slaves he owned were dumped in the ocean on voyages to the Caribbean.

The incident highlights the need for greater awareness of the past. As a history graduate, there is not enough of this in Britain. I never learnt anything about the crimes committed by the British empire. Nor was I taught about the British occupation of Ireland and the misery this brought upon the residents of the island, including my ancestors.

I only found out today that Britain had paid off a loan taken out in 1835 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to compensate slave owners in 2015. That’s right, a total of £20 million, equivalent to £300 billion today. No penny of that money went to the slaves who were freed, instead, it was given to slave owners as compensation for the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. It’s uncomfortable to think that my taxes were used to pay off this loan but without wider recognition, I was blissfully unaware.

History is contentious and powerful. When we approach as a tool for remembrance, it can help people heal and acknowledge its chequered past, but if wielded in the wrong way it can gloss over the unsavoury parts.

A museum dedicated to the slave trade in the UK should be set up to offer greater awareness of the role the British played. One such museum exists in Liverpool, but more awareness of this part of our history needs to be raised. It’s a part of our history whether we like it or not.

Then you have stories such as this, where the British government destroyed evidence of crimes committed during the final years of the British Empire. Without reconciliation and an acceptance of what happened, it’s no wonder there is a furore around the removal of the statue.

As George Orwell wrote in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, “who controls the past controls the future.” The fact that a man who died 299 years ago is household news today in Britain is evidence of Orwell’s quote and that we have yet to come to terms with our past.

To do so, we must acknowledge that many of the riches we enjoy today were the result of the exploitation and misery of thousands of innocent people. Irrespective of when they were put up, the statues we see today are a mirror of the society we live in. Do we tolerate the historical amnesia we display when we preserve such statues, or do we tackle the issues they present?

Maybe the toppling of Colston’s statue is the event we need to push us in the right direction and finally face up to our past.

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