Britain’s falling statues
It is too early to say what – if any - will be the long-term consequences of the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in the US. But the shock waves have been felt worldwide, including in Britain, where the event has sparked widespread protests and an unprecedented debate about slavery in the past and racism in the present.
On June 7, in Bristol, angry crowds gathered – largely peacefully – to topple the statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy 17th-century slave trader who endowed many local institutions. Demonstrators dragged his bronze memorial into the river Avon, echoing the fate of black slaves who died and were thrown overboard from overcrowded ships.
This attention-grabbing act provoked a heated debate – not only about the importance of statues commemorating famous people but also the teaching of history. Critics have complained for years that the UK school curriculum airbrushes out darker chapters – including the legacy of the British empire, on which, famously, “the sun never set.”
The British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga compared the action to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003. But the home secretary, Priti Patel, urged police to respond forcefully to an “utterly disgraceful” act of public disorder.
In the modern way, much of this found its way onto social media, with the hashtag #britishhistorymatters trending alongside #blacklivesmatter. Other statues were targeted by demonstrators. In Parliament Square in London, one of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, was daubed with slogans denouncing him as racist. On Whitehall, the Cenotaph – Britain’s national war memorial – was also defaced.
Other controversial statues have also been removed or threatened by protestors. In Poole on England’s south coast, the local council announced plans to remove a statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout movement founder, over concerns anti-racism activists would target it. The plans were thwarted, however, when dozens of local people, some in Scout uniforms, surrounded the statue. Baden-Powell, who died in 1941, has been accused of homophobia and support for Hitler. He is among those added to a growing “hit list” of nearly 80 statues across the country. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded: “To tear these statues down would be to lie about our history.”
Over 10,000 people also signed petitions demanding the removal of a statue of the 18th-century colonialist Robert Clive, known as Clive of India, in Shrewsbury. Clive has long been accused of “white supremacy” and benefiting from “blood money” due to his role in the British domination of India and much of south-east Asia.
Another old controversy has also been re-ignited. That concerns the Victorian-era imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose statue in Oriel College Oxford has been the target of anti-racism groups. Rhodes – who Rhodesia was named after before it was changed to Zimbabwe after independence- supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa. Campaigners also called for the university curriculum to be changed to reflect diversity of thought beyond the western canon.
Not only Britain has been affected by outrage over the Floyd killing. In the Belgian city of Antwerp demonstrators toppled the statue of King Leopold II, whose brutal rule of Congo from 1885 to 1908 caused an estimated 10 million deaths through murder, starvation and disease. Images of Leopold are present in Belgium’s squares, parks and university buildings. Joseph Conrad wrote his famous novel Heart of Darkness after visiting the colony. Apologists say Leopold never set foot in Congo – provoking sarcastic responses that Osama bin Laden was not present with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.
In Germany the horrors of the Nazi era have been dealt with impressively but it has still not managed to come to terms with its earlier colonial history- especially in what was then called southwest Africa – today’s Namibia. German settlers carried out the first genocide in the early years of the 20th century and there are still street names and monuments honoring the generals who carried that out.
The main focus since Floyd’s death has understandably been on black people and racist attitudes to them, but other ethnic or religious groups are also uncomfortable with statues and memorials in adoration of their own persecutors. England’s King Richard the Lionheart abused Jews and slaughtered Muslims during the crusades; Edward II expelled the Jews from England in 1290 and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were responsible for the Spanish Inquisition.
Boris Johnson has been criticized for over-focusing on protecting Churchill’s statue and generally being condescending about the “victimization” felt by black people. But far bigger issues loom. “Statues are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself,” as David Olusoga wrote. “The real conversation has to be about racism and how we confront it.”
Another answer is that statues that were erected in the past to commemorate controversial historical figures need to be removed from public spaces and contextualised in the safe and educational space of museums. It is all a vivid and painful reminder of the old saying by the American writer William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”