What are the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue of a public benefactor, rolling it through the streets and pushing it into the harbour?
On 7 June, anti-racist protestors in Bristol toppled the bronze statue of William Colston, who after his death in 1721 bequeathed his wealth to the city. His legacy can still be seen in street names (such as Colston Avenue where the statue was located), memorials and buildings. That wealth came from the transportation and sale of an estimated 80,000 Africans as slaves. When the statue fell, a protestor knelt with his knee on its neck—a reference to the police killing in the US of African American George Floyd, which has sparked worldwide outrage.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson described what happened in Bristol as “a criminal act”—he meant the dismantling of the statue, not the slave trade. He said “in this country we settle our differences democratically and if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed.”
The protestors say that Bristol citizens did follow these democratic routes but nothing happened. The statue has been a source of controversy in the city for years. In 2018, the town council agreed to add a plaque to the plinth contextualising Colston’s legacy. Nothing happened, because there was no agreement on the wording.
Culture is always contested
There is nothing new in cultural objects being contested. Society changes, and with that comes a reappraisal of who should be regarded as hero and who as villain.
You might argue that we can’t judge the past by the standards of today. But like the Confederate statue toppled by anti-racist protestors in Durham, North Carolina three years before, Colston’s icon wasn’t all it seemed. The North Carolina sculpture wasn’t erected by those who fought alongside Robert E Lee but by a later generation in the early twentieth century. Colston’s image was put up 170 years after his death by a businessman in 1895.
In a commentary, Matthew Sweet of the BBC wrote
“The statue of Edward Colston is not a pure object upon which later generations have imposed an anachronistic argument. The statue is an argument. About the relationship between the individual and the state, about employers and workers, about civic responsibility and Britain’s place in the world. Its construction was a political gesture. So is pushing it into the River Avon.”
It’s important to say the statue was not destroyed. It has already been retrieved from its watery resting place and could be exhibited in a museum with the appropriate cultural context. You could, indeed, argue that its disposal was also artistic. Certainly, there’s a dramatic irony in tipping Colston into the water in the same manner that many of his slave ship captains did with their surplus cargo.
Destruction of cultural heritage
Cultural artefacts have been destroyed throughout history. We immediately think of Islamic State’s destruction of priceless Assyrian carvings in Iraq and of the Taliban blowing-up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. But Muslim extremists are late to the party. One has only to think of the biblical injunction against worshipping graven images, and its resurfacing in bouts of destructive iconoclasm in the eighth century Byzantine Empire and again in fifteenth century Protestant Europe. The gaping shells of abbeys and monasteries in the English countryside bear eloquent testament to the vandalism of kings.
In more recent times, the Nazis burned books, and the British state banned the publication of books deemed unsuitable, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Culture is always a site a contestation.
Should we destroy our graven images?
If we blow up the heroes of past ages, what will remain? A quick look around the sculptures in Parliament Square is salutary. The statue of Winston Churchill was daubed “racist” during the recent protests. And that is almost certainly true. But he did stiffen Britain’s sinews in the Second World War.
Then there is Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s great Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers in the first half of the nineteenth century.
He opposed universal suffrage, launched the Opium Wars to open Chinese ports to the opium trade, evicted 2,000 of his Irish tenants during the potato famine, and sympathised with the secessionist South in the American Civil War. But he was also a social reformer, an abolitionist and championed liberal constitutionalism in Europe.
The South African, Jan Smuts occupies a spot on the northwest of the square. A commander of the Boer forces against the British, he twice became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. He was an advocate of racial segregation. But he was also an advocate of international peace and helped in the dismantling of the British Empire and its reinvention as the British Commonwealth.
On the other side of the square stands Nelson Mandela, founding father of modern South Africa. He was once regarded as a terrorist, not only by the apartheid government of his own country but also by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
And so I might go on. Each leader, every king, every nobleman speaks of a legacy of theft, violence and exploitation. If we erase them all from history, we will have no history.
Something extraordinary is happening when hundreds of thousands of people around the world march, some might say recklessly, despite the threat of the covid-19 pandemic. Racial justice may turn out to be one of the many ways in which the pandemic, perversely, opens the door to rethinking ourselves and our way of living. This can’t be reduced to a charge of criminal damage to property. Removing all the statues of worthies may not be practical or desirable, but re-contextualising their meaning is on the agenda. Perhaps we need to pair every king, general, and landowner with a statue to their victims.