The events of the past week has brought about a wave of alterations to British cities up and down the kingdom, with many long-standing statues being removed and street names being changed. This wave started with the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol during the Black Lives Matter protest a week ago on 7th June 2020, and it continues to push on at a speedy pace.
So, what was all the ruckus with the Colston statue. For those not familiar, Edward Colston was a man who lived in the late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth centuries who was a noted benefactor to the city of Bristol. His name became established in the area, particularly in the form of Colston Hall and a Victorian statue. However, Colston’s wealth was connected to the money-spinning slave trade of the period, on which the city of Bristol – and Britain as a whole – was able to line their pockets on the miseries of others.
The link between the British Empire and the slave trade has been well known for many years. As an example, the slave trade was taught during my secondary school education, and so it is not as if has been a well guarded secret. However, what wasn’t taught back then – and what hasn’t been taught particularly well since – is in how Britain really profited from this link and how millions suffered. But such a link has been slowly uncovered and peeled back by more and more academics, thereby allowing more and more people to question the reason as to why we are celebrating people who were responsible for the suffering of others.
The actions of the protesters was to highlight the hypocrisy of the statue, as shown in their toppling and removal; the monument was pushed into the river, although it was salvaged a few days later and put into storage. It is not as if the protesters suddenly thought they would take out their fury on the Colston statue; there has been a four decades long pressure group that has lobbied to have the statue removed. But such pressure appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
The reaction was electric. The Home Secretary (Priti Patel) called the actions of the protesters involved ‘utterly disgraceful’, whilst the right-wing press has – as expected – condemned such actions. However, there is much deeper understanding of the context involved from other quarters, including the mayor of Bristol, and from Labour leader Keir Starmer (who didn’t defend the actions themselves, but did believe that the statue should have been pulled down ‘a long, long time ago’).
Since that day, other statues and monuments have also been under attack, or simply removed from our streets. The Robert Milligan statue in London was removed whilst fresh calls were heard for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford (as part of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign). Furthermore, in my home-town of Plymouth, action was quickly taken to remove the name of ‘Sir John Hawkins Square’; (which is currently left blank), whilst there are calls from some to remove the statue of Sir Francis Drake on the Hoe. Meanwhile in London a series of monuments were graffitied, including Winston Churchill’s in Parliament Square (a continuing target of protesters), with the words ‘was a racist’ attached to his name.
All of this change has both excited and confused me. My first viewpoint was one of concern, for historians are – generally speaking – against the removal or defacement of statues. It is similar with the removal of buildings of historical significance or the destruction of books: it is seen as an attack on heritage and knowledge. For a long time I’ve believed that statues are needed to help safeguard and keep alive our history for future generations.
During coverage of the module The Dawning America (as part of the foundation degree at University Centre South Devon), I have been lucky enough to facilitate discussion over the years when our attention turns to the post-Civil War legacy in the American South. A continuing topic of debate centres on the various statues of Confederate soldiers: should they remain in place or should they be removed? Previously I have been in favour of retaining the statues in order to help preserve history.
However, my initial position changed over the next few days. There were a few things that unsettled me and led to a rethink:
- Firstly, the Black Lives Matters protests were attacked by the right-wing media and on social media sites: with a fierce venom and anger. Many highlighted the health dangers of the protests, particularly concerning when we consider the risks of the spread of coronavirus; however, the large gatherings on beaches during the good weather of May were not similarly denounced.
- Secondly, the spread of the slogan “All Lives Matter” irritated me, due to those who rattled it off completing missing the whole point of the protesters. It must questioned if this claim by some is actually accurate: do they apply it to “all”, such as refugees, immigrants, Muslims, or do they really mean “some” or “white”?
- Thirdly, certain elements became attached to “defending” our heritage. Simply put: yobs started creeping out of the woodwork looking for a fight. During the BLM protest in Plymouth a group of men came together to “protect” the war memorial on Plymouth Hoe; however, the BLM protest was a mile away and was peacefully organised and completed. Clearly, these counter-arguments were not about preserving monuments at all.
My rethink culminated in attempting to understand more of the context of the significance of these statues and their overall meaning to us. Yes, historians should safeguard heritage for the future, but at the same time historians should be objective and willing to tell the truth. These statues are just one version of our history: a twisted one that ignores the actual reality. As such, their presence on our streets continues a lie.
Historians should confront reality and the the truth of the past, even if that means that our conclusions are not happy or rose-tinted. Historians need to be strong enough to tell the truth in order to help us understand the past and to preserve what really matters. They are not simply watchers of what happened but rather guides. Therefore, those who are content to remain in the lie of this narrative should be questioned.
My final step in this direction wasn’t made by reading an article or by considering the viewpoint of an academic, but rather from listening to a song rooted in the times of the 1960s civil rights movement. Whilst walking into college Bob Dylan came on in my headphones from a playlist. The song? The rather apt ‘The Times Are A-Changin’:
Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
I’ve rarely felt so happy when listening to a song. It seemed to help all of these things to fall into place: that it was time for society to move on and to not sink a stone. This completed my turn-around to the simple conclusion that just because a statue is rooted in history doesn’t mean it is necessarily a positive thing for us or our heritage.
So, I will applaud the removal of the statues connected to misery and suffering. I’m far more excited for what could come in their place: statues of the neglected and forgotten heroes in our history. That would make for a far more richer, stronger heritage to safeguard and to pass on to the next generation. History is not being destroyed with the removal of these statues: it is being enriched.