Black Lives Matter

Statues: the ink of history

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Why do we have statues? Remembrance of great human beings? The celebration of people who were largely good?

Surely not to remember slave traders.

Since the removal of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston, a debate has been reignited around the globe on how history is being considered through the medium of statues. In America, the place of Confederate leaders’ statues are being reconsidered; US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has branded them as ‘traitors’ whereas President Trump has blasted the removal of Confederate General Albert Pike as ‘disgraceful’. In the UK, the statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was recently boarded up for fears of his statue being attacked.

From a British perspective, let’s be clear: the statue of Edward Colston deserved to come down – during his tenure on the board of the Royal African Company (which exploited Gold along the coast of West Africa and largely traded slaves) between 1680 and 1692, he transported nearly 50,000 slaves – nearly 20,000 of them died en route.

Is this something to be celebrated? Is he deserving of commemoration? Rather, are those 50,000 black people more deserving?

For those who see Colston’s philanthropy as altruistic and something to be wholly celebrated, let us dig deeper into his intentions. Bristol University historian Kenneth Morgan found that his bases for donations to give boys an education was that they would be educated as Anglicans – not as Catholics or any other faith. We see effective philanthropy as inclusive and largely unconditional – just that the money deals with a problem – is this exclusionary behaviour something worthy of celebration?

It’s right what protestors did to Edward Colston: petitions dating back three years can be found on the internet; political leaders knew the pain this was causing- MPs and local leaders; national news reports were done on this whereby the plaque had to be reworded as it wasn’t balanced.
So what happened when few listened to the pleas of the community to remove the statue? They did what the people do when their leaders do not listen- they put them on notice to reconsider the chequered history of these statues.

Even though I have largely focused on Edward Colston, (as this issue reignited this current discussion – bear in mind I have not said ignited) this discussion has broadened to the place of statues in a nation’s cultural history. One such figure at the centre of this is Winston Churchill.

This is where nuance is critical.

There is no doubt that Churchill’s rousing speeches were effective in leading the United Kingdom and the British Empire through our darkest moments. Churchill’s foresight of the dangers of the rise of Nazism and Hitler were largely overlooked during the early 1930s. Thus, Churchill’s leadership was critical in the British Empire’s and the Allies’ victory in the Second World War.

However, it is clear that Churchill held deeply racist views. When Gandhi’s peaceful resistance movement for the Independence of India was growing in support, Churchill blasted that ‘I hate Indians – they are beastly people with a beastly religion.’ In addition, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen found that imperial policies led to the Bengal Famine. Churchill argued it was India’s fault for ‘breeding like rabbits.’ However, he had a deep respect for Sikhs who originate from the Punjab. Churchill lauded, ‘As a result of their (Sikhs) timely help, we are today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.’

This seems contradictory: is this evidence of Churchill’s attitudes shifting over years like many people’s have? Or, is this him being the quintessential politician – saying whatever he needs to garner adulation?

The nuance is that although Churchill is celebrated for defeating Hitler, he held some deeply racist views. The same can be said for Gandhi who said that Black South Africans ‘live like animals’ but is widely lauded to inspiring civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr and indeed Mandela himself.

History is complex and contradictory. It is unclear whether it can be reconciled. It is clear abundantly clear that Edward Colston’s statue and his namesakes deserved to come down – such statues belong in a museum where context can be provided.

When it comes to icons such as Gandhi and Churchill, a discussion comprising of communities, experts and activists needs to be commissioned to provide adequate context – could a balanced description plaque be placed next to these statues? It is painful for many to take down such statues but is equally painful to others to keep them up. A middle ground is needed.

I understand why people are outraged as there has to be sensible discussion about where the line is in terms of reconsidering statues –  nuance, knowledge and context is essential here.

Statues are one of the inks of history. Mark Twain once wrote: ‘The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice’.

Let us hope we can annotate such history with critical thinking.

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