“You can’t erase history.”
That’s what you’re bound to hear at least once if you discuss the removal of statues, which happened last summer in high profile instances in the U.S., U.K., and Belgium (to name but three countries).
A statue of Christopher Columbus was removed in Virginia, one of King Leopold II in Antwerp and in Bristol, in the U.K., a statue of the little known (outside Bristol) slave trader Edward Colston was gleefully removed from its plinth and tossed into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest. After that, the likeness of slave trader Robert Milligan was also been removed in London.
This has been back in the news recently as four people have been charged with criminal damage for the toppling of the Colston statue (they have denied the charges).
All this has brought about an important discussion — what do we do with our statues and memorials for undesirable people? There may be an even trickier discussion to come — what do we do with the statues of people with a more complex legacy that can be debated, someone like Winston Churchill, for example?
But what we also need to ask is whether statues even teach us anything about our history.
Here in the U.K. the removal of the Edward Colston statue caused much debate around “erasing history”, but what history did his statue teach us?
Colston made much of his fortune in the slave trade, and the city of Bristol was the recipient of some of it. But while Colston spent his money, and estimated 44,000 people perished aboard the ships of the Royal African Company as it transported over 200,000 slaves from West Africa to the Americas.
But would you know any of this from the statue? No. The plaque for the statue merely says:
“Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”
Apparently, 95% of the all-time traffic for Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page came after the toppling of his statue. It’s simply a fact: more people have learned about him since the statue ceased to exist than when it was standing.
So what history, exactly, is being erased?
The Democratic Route
Politicians, generally, walked a fine line when the statue came down. While they don’t want to endorse a slave trader, they also don’t want to be seen as pro-violent protest.
The prime minister Boris Johnson called tearing down the statue “a criminal act” and argue that if people wanted to take the statue down there was “a democratic process” to follow. You may have heard people repeating a variant of this argument since.
The problem? People have been trying to use the “democratic process” for decades, with no success.
Since the 1990s campaigners have been trying to have the statue removed, or, at least, have a plaque added to supply some context and explain Colston’s role in the slave trade. It goes without saying that neither campaign was a success.
The “you can’t erase history” people aren’t necessarily wrong — they are just having the wrong argument.
Nobody wants to erase Edward Colston from history. As we’ve seen, his statue removal has made him better known than ever. It’s not about erasing history. It’s about re-evaluating it.
Just because in 1895 (in the Colston statue’s case) it was decided someone was worthy of a statue commemoration doesn’t mean that’s still the case in 2020. Are we not allowed to think about ourselves, our society, and the people we wish to publicly venerate? Or are we stuck with those that the 1800s told us were worthy?
The Jimmy Savile Example
Eccentric British TV personality, radio DJ, and philanthropist Jimmy Savile spent several decades as a “national treasure” in the U.K. until his death. And then the darkness came spilling out as the country learned the horror of who Savile, serial rapist, and child abuser really was.
After the scandal broke, many organisations and facilities named after him swiftly changed their names. Two charitable foundations closed their doors. Plaques and statues were removed. Even the headstone of his gravesite was gone.
And yet, no one said, “you can’t erase history”. No one argued that the memorials should remain in place.
Yes, his crimes were despicable. So what were Colston’s? Are terrible crimes from long ago more acceptable than recent ones? Is there a line to be drawn between people like Savile and slave traders? Which crimes mean you can keep your statue, and which don’t?
Though there are no memorials to him, people remember Savile’s crimes. A certain Adolf Hitler has not been “erased” from history either, even though there are no statues of him in Germany. If you ask the Iraqi people, they will be able to tell you who Saddam Hussein was, even though his statue was famously toppled.
Statues are not history. We can re-think and re-shape what, and who, matters to us. The past is written but our future is not — let us become a society that honours good people.