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…