A few years ago there was a debate at Oxford university whether to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes. (That statue is now coming down.) I remember during the previous debate feeling that removing the statue was appropriate but also feeling confused by the counter arguments that doing this was rewriting history, and therefore bad/dangerous/the start of a slippery slope (chose your description). This time around, I have to say my thoughts are a whole lot clearer:
- Despite arguments to the contrary, the statues that currently line our streets and squares do not spark historical debate – rather, we don’t notice them. I’d never realised until this month that we even had a statue of “Clive of India” up outside the FCO, and I certainly couldn’t tell you the full histories behind all those plinths that describe a “local philanthropist, beloved by all”. In fact, it’s by fading into the background, being part of the furniture, that these monuments solidify the power structures they represent. If something’s so “obvious” it doesn’t need to be discussed then that thing is on the winning side. So let’s debunk the idea that keeping these statues up is what generates political debate. It doesn’t.
- The more I read about these statues, the more I realise that it’s often flawed to assume that these monuments were raised in good faith. William Dalrymplenotes that Lord Curzon pushed for a statue of Clive to be put outside the FCO, an unsubtle tribute to Curzon’s own time as viceroy of India when – like Clive – he presided over a mass famine in Bengal that left his successor horrified, and where he staged a Durbar that was essentially a propaganda piece that again mirrored Clive’s own looting. Oh, and Curzon was a fiercely ambitious politician who craved being PM and saw his position as Foreign Secretary – where he could stare at Clive’s statue every day – as a stepping stone to that. The parallels between Johnson and his hero worship for Churchill are striking. In addition, Dalrymple points out that Curzon’s contemporaries felt the statue sent the wrong message so it’s questionable how much removing these statues is “rewriting history” from a benign acceptance to utter disgrace.
- We’ll come back to rewriting history and what it might mean later, but let’s sit a moment with the people these statues glorify. The statement is often made that they were “of their time” and therefore should be sheltered from the ire of today. As per these screenshots from Instagram stories, I take issue with that. This narrative ignores the fact that in every generation there are those pushing for change and pointing to the evils of today. If we’ve listened to that and moved on, we’re allowed to change our minds on who the heroes are.
- This being me to the problems of taking a squint eyed view on what the individuals being memorialised stood forChurchill’s eugenicist views weren’t something that all his contemporaries shared – in fact one of his fellow Tories who had to work with him on Indian affairs during WW2 privately reflected that “Winston’s views on India are not entirely sane and I find them hard to distinguish from Hitler”. Another example would be Dr Livingstone, from this morning’s post. Typically remembered as a benign scientist, he was a missionary (albeit an unsuccessful one) who wanted to establish a white, Christian culture that would then make Africans sufficiently noble for Europeans to decide to trade with them. He also ended up travelling with slave caravans to help get him to the source of the Nile and was possibly involved in a massacre of villagers at one point on his journey. Seeing where Linvingstone’s economic and cultural “mission” was at 30 years after his death it’s quite hard to have the same hero worship for Livingstone that the late Victorians did.
- The argument I’ve been most susceptible in the past focuses on “rewriting history”. As every student historian knows, censorship and twisting history is a key tool in a dictator’s armoury and a Bad Thing.* What doesn’t get talked about is that – much like the cry that “you’re calling me a bully is bullying” – the fear around rewriting history can also be used to keep partial / distorted histories in place. Instead, as this article points out, rewriting history is what historians do. It’s called academic study, it’s called research, and it’s a Good Thing.*
- Finally, there’s an argument often made that if one set of people (usually not white, usually left of centre) removes monuments (usually of white dudes) then it’ll become a tit for tat of demolition. This is definitely something I’ve been swayed by in the past. Leaving aside the question of how many such statues there are for counter protestors to target, the actions of the current U.K. and US governments debunk this argument. A far right government doesn’t go for small fry like taking down a statue of a suffragette or birth rights campaigner; they’re going to hold a rally on the site of a racial massacre on the exact anniversary that the abolition of slavery was announced in the last state; they’re going to abolish healthcare provisions for the trans community during Pride month; they’re going to deport citizenship because the government has binned their records, they’re going to make an announcement that benefits are being raised…and raise them by 26p a day. I also don’t think dictatorships tend to wait for someone else to act badly before taking the actions they’ve planned all along.
So, what next? Yes removing statues is well and good – and a small step towards acknowledging a complicated, racist past – but really long term change is what matters here. That’s where updating the school and university curriculum comes in. Some of the changes are simple but effective: citing that the cotton that fed the industrial revolution was grown on British owned and then American owned plantations and came from slave labour; including British examples in discussions of post war civil liberties campaigns. Others need more work to add to the current conversation, eg looking at the length of British colonial holdings, their role in developing “scientific” theories of racism and horrific codes of punishment (wiring shut a man’s mouth after filling it with dung, anyone), or taking a more critical view of arguments that Empire was primarily an economic venture and so there was nothing structural about it after all. If we won’t even acknowledge that some of the “heroes” of the past had their flaws though, we’re going to struggle to move any further.
*apologies to “1066 and all that”