Published in Dawn – photograph by Julia Rendleman/AP
It was a hot day in June when Edward Colston took a bath in the Bristol Harbour. The rest of the world soon learned why Mr. Colston, or at least his bronze likeness, went for a swan dive: the man was the shining star of the Royal African Company, slave-trading brutes that branded their initials into the chests of human beings.
And yet today, the name ‘Colston’ adorns street signs, high-rises, and concert halls, when it only ever deserved to be etched into a prison wall from the inside. As to his philanthropy in later life, one observer compared it to mugging a grandmother, and then giving half the money to charity.
But even as Mr. Colston is fished out of Bristol’s holy waters, the debate continues. As statues of Lee, Leopold and heaven forbid, Winnie Churchill, look on in fear at what the kids might do next, an older generation cries halt.
The pearl-clutching comes in various shades: first, this is history and, like it or not, we can’t change it. Second, attempts to change it are a disservice to the past. Third, where will all this end?
To each we turn.
To start with, so much of this isn’t history. The Confederacy, that famous last hurrah for feral white slave-owners, lasted barely five years – not even the blink of an eye in the grand sweep of things. Statues of grim-looking generals went up decades after their defeat, as much to rewrite their shame as to spite civil rights. Today’s racists fighting to preserve some bust of General Lee should remember that Lee himself refused to endorse such memorials: ‘I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war,’ he wrote in 1869. Black Lives Matter would agree in 2020.
To argue that tearing down such statutes would diminish history is to forget that putting them up was always meant to demean it in the first place, and terrorise the already terrorised.
Second, the purpose of the monument in the town square has never been historical record. It is, was, and always has been veneration. We raise statues not to remind us of who we are, but what we could be. And each time, we find ourselves face to face with a political statement.
One obvious example is Cecil Rhodes – diamond-guzzler, warmonger, imperial horseman of the Union Jack – better-known today as a beloved old uncle that graces Oxford’s statues and scholarships. His stone perch atop Oriel College has somehow outlasted his victims, the angry heirs of Rhodesia, and continues to gleam in the sun.
As Oxford dons hem and haw over the latest spike in student rage, Olde England is having none of it. ‘Rhodes’s generosity allowed thousands of young people to enjoy an education they could not otherwise have had,’ says Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (the same prince that called Corbyn’s suggestion to return the stolen Elgin Marbles to Athens ‘national masochism’).
He has a point: Rhodes was generous enough to write that South Africa was ‘just emerging from barbarism,’ led an orgy of plunder, and then pressed his evil operation into the service of Commonwealth students his cause had helped impoverish. As late as 2016, Oriel College gave his statue a pass, calling it ‘an important reminder of the complexity of history.’
And yet there’s so little that’s complex about the mud and blood of the De Beers diamond empire. It is, nonetheless, a statement: Cecil’s statue will remain for as long as the sheer scale of their criminal past continues to thrill British nostalgics.
Third, voices closer to home warn of enabling extremists, like the RSS demolishing Babri Masjid. This comparison is all wrong. The RSS tore down a mosque for the same reason the United Daughters of the Confederacy built pillars to the sky: to enshrine terror and persecute a minority. As made painfully evident by archaeologists, no temple ever existed under Babri, to say nothing of the fact that Babar spent most of his life fighting Muslim kings anyway. It had nothing to do with history, and everything to do with the sectarian fever dreams of L. K. Advani, and the ghouls he led. There’s no cure for such poison, except punishment.
In sum, this slippery slope isn’t slippery. To the question of where all of this will end, author Eugene Robinson answered, ‘This is not a hard problem to solve: it ends where we, as a nation, decide to draw the line between those historical figures who deserve to be so honored and those who do not.’
It’s not rocket science; all that’s needed is clarity. When this writer asked a Princeton alumnus what he made of the decision to remove the name of racist, segregationist Woodrow Wilson from its policy school, immediately came the reply, ‘Wilson was a pig.’
And all at once, the clouds parted.