Set in Stone? Challenging the Statue Immemorial
As the Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd have swelled and spread, the movement has become one of a broader challenge to structural racism and inequality, inspiring large-scale peaceful demonstrations not just in the United States but also many other countries, including the United Kingdom. These protests led to a landmark moment on Sunday 7th June, when the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the harbour during demonstrations in Bristol.
Many cheered and celebrated this moment, drawing attention to Colston’s despicable history in the trade of captive slaves. The fact that a statue of a slave trader stood proudly on the streets of a British city in 2020 is shameful enough; what is even more disheartening, though, is the amount of people who were so aghast at its removal. Even those who asserted that it would have been preferable for this act to have been sanctioned through the ‘proper channels’ mostly agreed with the sentiment, and accepted that this was an event created out of frustration and democratic failure thanks to several repeated attempts to remove or amend the monument through officially-sanctioned means. There are, however, many people who assert that their defence of this statue, and ones of similarly contentious historical figures, rests not on a defence of a slave-trader, but on the principles of not ‘destroying’ or ‘erasing’ history. It is this notion of the what is falsely presented as neutral and apolitical conservatism of the preservation of history in the material urban landscape that I will take issue with here.
Firstly, I am not a historian by training nor trade; however, I firmly believe that history is not written only in stone or copper, or enshrined only as men (and they are mostly men) on plinths. No one is advocating book burning or the destruction of libraries. I doubt many historians would argue that statues are the most valuable historical artefacts or teaching tools; how many people stop to critically examine a statue of a man who died centuries prior in their town square? And what does this statue say about this person? In most cases, statues are celebratory and commemorative, for the purpose of nostalgia rather than nuance. As such, it is rare for statues to acknowledge the darker side of their figures; as previously mentioned, attempts to enact this in the case of Colston were repeatedly frustrated. Indeed, the inscription on his statue read: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”, hardly a nuanced account of a historical figure as controversial as this. In fact, arguably the only time this statue has proved its worth is by its destruction — a point many social media commentators made was that those outraged, especially those outside Bristol, had more than likely never heard of Edward Colston before this protest.
Furthermore, history, particularly the recording of it through commemoration in the urban landscape, is rarely apolitical. Memorialisation in this way is always political, and reflects a particular story that those in power at the time wanted to reflect. Examples of this are not hard to find, but one that I am particularly well-versed in thanks to my undergraduate dissertation is that of the statues of Alexander the Great, who died nearly two and half thousand years ago, erected in the early 2010s in Skopje, capital of North Macedonia. This move by the nationalist Macedonian government of the time aimed to assert the former Yugoslav republic’s claim to the ancient heritage of the kingdom of Macedon, a claim fiercely rejected by Greece, whose northern region is also called Macedonia. Here, ancient history was mobilised using newly-built statues and monuments in order to exude legitimacy for a new nation through a rootedness in the mythical past, all part of a long-running dispute with Greece over the new state’s name. Of course, the contexts are very different to the statues of British slave traders, however the example illustrates how histories are mobilised for political, often nationalistic, aims, manifested in our material landscape, and how statues of individuals in particular reflect the politics of memory. Similarly, Colston’s statue was built 174 years after he died, as the zenith of the British Empire passed and those in the upper echelons of society sought to project images of imperial prestige, nobility, and power. On the flipside, of course the removal of statues is political in the same way; to this end, I would encourage those holding on to the belief that their opposition stems from a conservatism of history to consider whether they feel the same emotions towards the removal of statues of Lenin across Eastern Europe. In a similar vein, the legacy of the USSR evokes wildly different feelings in different populations of its former republics, with the moving of a statue of a Red Army soldier in Tallin, Estonia, triggering the world’s first nation-targeted cyber warfare attack back in 2007. Clearly then, the politics of historical legacy and memory are not set in stone, but is a fluid and changeable thing.
The furore and passion sparked by the toppling of Colston breathed new vigour into another long-running movement to remove another problematic statue in the UK — Rhodes Must Fall, which concerns the depiction of Cecil Rhodes, who (at the time of writing...) stands proudly above Oriel College on the High Street of Oxford. Cecil Rhodes was a businessman, statesman, and imperialist, who was an unabashed white supremacist and racist driven by his belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was “the first race in the world”. The case of Rhodes provides an even more stark example of the limiting factors of requesting the removal of these problematic memorials through the ‘proper’ channels — protests in previous years led to the college appearing to keep the statue in place due to fears over wealthy donors withholding their money.
Rhodes is far from the only problematic figure embedded in the history of the University of Oxford, but his statue has proved a particularly acute confluence of the wider issues at play, especially in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. From a geographical perspective, this is in no small part to the figurine’s position astride the old main doors of the grand college, one one of Oxford’s busiest streets, looking out over the heart of the city — or, perhaps, looking down smugly on those below. It also serves as a physical centre-point for the wide-reaching legacy of Rhodes, which also includes a scholarship, a trust, and a university building bearing his name. The University and Oriel College have resisted the Rhodes Must Fall movement since 2015, often citing arguments similar to those utilised by the defenders of the Colston statue, decrying such demands as attempts to ‘rewrite’ or ‘erase’ history. This also shows that while those opposed to the removal of the Colston statue argue against the illegal removal or damage of public property, they will continue to resist attempts of more officially-mandated ways of change. Thus, the argument is not against method, but against the change itself.
To me, thinking that statues, no more than a few centuries old, constitute and encompass all of the history of the time of their respective figures is reductive and nonsensical. For one, they are very often built in a different era to the one which they depict. More importantly though, statues are not immutable facts, frozen in time and space; they are built, they are placed, the are moved, and they are replaced. As deeply specific and personal tributes to their subject, they are not just a reminder of a historical period, but a celebration of the individual. A feminist critique might note that this individual is almost always a white upper class male, and so to prioritise statues is to focus on “great man” history over the many ongoing broader changes, both incremental and momentous, in the wider world. While most are not erected for consciously malevolent ends, they are nonetheless emblematic of the context and power structures of the world they represent. Many would label the toppling of statues of emblematic events of sudden, revolutionary, regime change, with one of the most recognisable instances being the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s figure in Iraq. Few would argue that this was an erasure of history; the act was making history. Maybe, then, the UK winces at the sight of a toppling statue because we have had no revolutionary movement since the restoration of Charles II — the British Empire did not collapse in a spectacular fireball, it slowly and incrementally contracted and ceded. As such, there is resistance to the sudden destruction of its emblems because that regime never really died, as the whole premise of decolonisation asserts.
In addition to projecting a specific, nostalgic, snipped of history that is cast in the mould of the politics of those in power at the time, statues themselves are “acts of historical erasure”, to quote Queen Mary University’s Robert Saunders in his excellent Twitter thread on this issue. Dr Saunders also makes the point that statues inhabit the present, not the past, and so by extension in their creation not only reflect the desired image of those that erected them, but also represent those that continue to display them. As a former student of the University of Oxford, this is something which I found profound as I looked upon the Rhodes statue during the Rhodes Must Fall protest on the 9th June; is this how this university wants to look to the world? Out of all the incredible people that have studied in Oxford, what message does it send for Rhodes to stand above them all?
And so, through their projection of a message or by standing testament to the relevant authority’s reticence to outright object to its sentiment, it becomes clear that statues have tangible impacts on the people who interact with these environments in their everyday lives. In the further-afield examples I gave, the nationalist politics of Skopje’s statues had tangible impacts for the people of North Macedonia by escalating tensions with Greece, preventing the country’s accession to the European Union and NATO. For Eastern Europe, those who suffered under Communism and who, especially in Ukraine’s case, were desperate for a turn towards the EU rather than Russia, smashed statues of Lenin as he represented the regimes that they feared, and in Estonia the rejection of the legacy of the Red Army by the removal of a statue provoked a Russian cyber-attack. Statues must matter, and must be more than historical artefacts that can be simply ignored if you don’t like them.
So, how must it feel to be a black resident of Bristol, walking past a statue of a man whose company transported 84,000 African slaves, branding human beings with company insignia and dumping many in the sea? How can black prospective students truly believe Oxford’s commitment to improving the diversity of its student body when it still gives a notorious colonialist and racist such a proud legacy? Why are still beholden to the philanthropy of members of the landed gentry who died a century or more ago? And how can anyone truly believe that we have fully reckoned with our colonial past if we hold so tightly to their icons in our present?
The truth is, we can’t. Histories are selective, contingent, and political, and so the things we do to commemorate or omit are selective, contingent, and political too. I will qualify that I do not believe every statue should be smashed to smithereens, but their impacts and message should be recognised. If statues of problematic figures are to remain standing, then serious efforts should be made to decolonise education in this country so as those who view these figures, do so with critical eyes. If not, then the maintenance of such memorials only serves to taunt the marginalised and reflect the United Kingdom’s continued imperial amnesia. Political memory should not be fixed, and should be a process of change and renewal, listening to those who are caused distress by items in the environment that the majority of the population most likely regard with indifference. Changing our places of memory over time would only constitute the erasure of history if, as a society, our knowledge and representation of history was fully complete and just. Until then, statues are memorials, but should not be immemorial.