Why Stone Statues Don’t Represent Equally Enduring Beliefs
24th June 2020
On Sunday 7th June, Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol harbour. The monument, who made his fortune in the slave trade by transpoting about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas, had been a source of controversy in the city for many years, garnering repeated calls for its removal. It was later fished out of the harbour, with Bristol city council saying that the statue will eventually stand in a museum, alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.
The conscious choices to both tear down the statue in the first place, and to preserve it in a museum, are symbolic of the tug-of-war that dominates the history of the world: the lessons that we learn through the decades are founded on what we decide to remember and to forget as a global community. There are always disagreements about what we opt to retain – and occasionally, such disagreements bubble over.
This conflict has been bubbling closer to home as well – People Before Profit recently called on local Galway authorities to remove Irish monuments that glorify slavery and racism, including a Christopher Columbus statue in Galway, as well as a plaque in Tuam that honours Major Richard Dowling, who served with the Confederate army in the US.
Of course, despite these more contemporaneous calls, Ireland is no stranger to tearing down the odd statue. Over the decades of the twentieth century, the attempt to rid Ireland of the relics of British imperialism became an operation of itself, the most famous example being the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 by Republican dissidents. Despite reservations on the aesthetic or indeed the meaning of the Spire erected in its place, I highly doubt that many would prefer to see the Pillar standing in its spot today.
Why, then, the sudden controversy over the tearing down of statues enshrining those who committed racist endeavours?
Diarmaid Ferriter in a recent Irish Times article claimed that “To tear statues down as an act of protest can be deeply satisfying and cathartic, but does it also do violence to historical context and messy, layered identities and inheritances? And how far should it go?” Another call has been made by the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is also the first black woman to become a bishop in the Church of England, for plaques to be erected on statue plinths, explaining the person’s actions and deeds, and putting into context the reason why the monument was erected in the first place. The overall argument is made that we must retain links with our past, even if it means keeping public figures, known to be responsible for inhumane actions, on pedestals, in order to attain maturity as a society and to warn future generations against committing similar wrongdoings.
“Over the decades of the twentieth century, the attempt to rid Ireland of the relics of British imperialism became an operation of itself, the most famous example being the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 by Republican dissidents“
On some level, I agree. The very purpose of studying the history of the world is to learn from our mistakes – to remember them and to be shamed into doing better in the future. Surely this would mean that such statues and monuments should remain, with added messages plaqued on for the contemporaneous beholder. Here is a man who was celebrated for X. But he also did Y and Z. And it was wrong.
But somehow, I don’t feel that this is enough. A tardy disclaimer does not go far to signify the utter rejection we feel for inhumane ideology and action as racism and the slave trade, as in the current case. I am all for education, but education can be achieved while not glorifying the perpetrators of such a barbaric cause.
Recent days have witnessed statues across the world being graffitied, decapitated and levelled. These acts all constitute iconoclasm, the social belief in the importance of destroying icons, imagery and monuments for typically religious or political reasons. Of course, the iconoclasm of late has concerned acts of protests filled with meaning and layered with centuries of anger, pain, and largely unresolved injustice.
The argument of many follows the lines that to remove offensive statues is to destroy historical memory – the very circuit breaker of humanity. But perhaps such a historical memory, as triggered by statues like Colston, does not have a place in our everyday lives anymore – especially if, through statues and monuments, such traumatic memory is piqued against our will. Of course, the genuinely heartening stories should be told – but so should the “moral failures” that hide behind them. Some stories are filled with such shame that to remember them does not lighten the burden of the suffering caused.
Countries like Germany understand this: Whether you walk around Berlin or Bonn, you will not see a statue of one Nazi general: in the years after World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany systematically destroyed any and all statues and monuments related to Nazism. So, as Sebastian Smee of the Washington Post puts so perfectly: “If, as an African American, you are out with your kids or walking to work, why should you have to pass by a giant statue of Robert E. Lee — a man who led the fight to maintain the enslavement of your people? Why should the city — your city, where you pay taxes — be planting flower beds around such a statue? Take it down.”
As Cian O’Donovan noted in response to Ferriter’s judgment, the argument on the side of preserving history appears to neglect the “current controversy’s chief concern – that statues in our streets are political statements in the present.” To celebrate people who were responsible for slavery and racism, to immortalise them in metal and stone, to display them proudly for the world to see, simply ensures the absolute prevention of progress and reform for as long as they stand. Statues perpetrating immoral ideology should be relegated to museums – the institutions which are best equipped to unravel their complicated and multifarious place in the world: past, present and future. When can we begin to learn from our mistakes, rather than to idolise them?
Featured photo by @YesYoureRacist