On Sunday Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the river. I was ecstatic when I heard the news, campaigners in Bristol have been trying to get the statue removed for decades and now, despite Bristol City Council and other organisations ignoring the numerous campaigns, the city is finally rid of the monstrosity. It has, this morning, been removed from the river to be placed in a museum, as it was beginning to scare the fish.
Bristol is an interesting city, with its ties to the slave trade enabling it to become a wealthy port. It is also the home of the Methodist movement, which was critical in the campaign to end the slave trade. A statue of the founder, John Wesley, stands in another part of the city centre and, like every other piece of property the protesters marched past, was left undamaged.
There has been a mass debate across many platforms about whether the destruction of Colston’s statue was correct. Many on the left, including Labour leader Keir Starmer, agree with the statues removal but do not agree with the manner in which it was removed. This is an understandable position for the leader of the opposition to take – he cannot be seen to condone an illegal activity, even if he is pleased with the outcome. This now appears to be the Labour Party’s official stance on the issue. The inference is that protesters should have gone through the proper channels. Campaigners have, as I have already mentioned, been attempting to use the proper channels to have this statue removed for decades and, as one protester put it, in his delightful Bristolian accent, “he’s in the proper channel now” – democracy in its most raw and beautiful form: the people enacting the will of the people.
The Daily Mail was, unsurprisingly, outraged by the event – considering it to be no more than a wanton act of vandalism and calling for a full investigation into the crime. They were, however, equally outraged the following day when another slaver statue was legally removed by the authorities. It appears the removal of the statues is the issue, rather than the manner in which it occurs. This, it would seem, is an argument that has become commonplace; that the destruction of statues is tantamount to the erasing of history. Some claim that the statue’s presence was an educational tool, despite the fact that not so long ago children were taken to the statue to throw marigolds at it to thank Colston for what he’d done ‘for Bristol’, with no mention of his links to his most abhorrent of business activities. There are also schools and a theatre in the city that are named after Colston. I once voiced my disgust at this to a teacher who worked at one of the schools, who claimed that the school should not change its name because ‘it provides an opportunity to educate children about slavery.’ A preposterous argument for a teacher to make – a school already has every opportunity in the world to educate children about slavery seeing as it is an establishment specifically designed for the education of children.
I am sure that there are some people who genuinely believe this argument, though for the most part it seems to be little more than a gossamer thin veil behind which there lurks the spectre of white supremacy. The idea that the statue of a mass murderer should remain standing because it was raised, many years ago, by people either ignorant of his crimes or in agreement with them is an absurdity. The removal of statues is a historic act, it is a way of saying that we are better and that we now know this person is not worthy of the glorification they once received. People who oppose these changes either condone the heinous acts of the past or do not understand the message the statue transmits to the descendants of those effected. This is not about forgetting our past, it is about changing our relationship with it – about finding a better way to remember the mistakes we’ve made.
A fantastic example, if you will forgive me for the crime of reductio ad Hitlerum, is Germany’s relationship with its difficult past. No statues of Hitler or his followers are required for those events to be remembered. Instead there are memorials to those killed, museums and preserved concentration camps where people can go and remember and learn and understand the horror. German children are far better educated about their country’s history than our own are about Britain. Bristol should have a memorial to those killed and displaced by the slave trade – a place of education and memory. Perhaps a replica slaver ship, so that people can learn about the horrible conditions. There are plenty of ways to remember and learn without having the person who committed the atrocities on a literal pedestal in the centre of town.
The question, for a lot of people, is how far does this go? The graffitiing of Sir Winston Churchill’s statue in London is an incredibly emotive issue for many people. Sir Winston is a divisive figure, seen by many as Britain’s defender and architect of victory over Hitler, he was also responsible for the creation of concentration camps in Kenya and effectively orchestrated a famine in India. It is an extremely difficult debate and one I am far from decided on.
The question I would like to ask, however, is why are we still putting up statues of people at all? My Mum always told me not to put people on a pedestal but we always doing it, both literally and figuratively. We cannot help ourselves, as many poorly rendered bronze footballers standing erect outside stadiums will tell you. No person is perfect, everyone has made mistakes – we know this, yet it does not stop us. The problem with people in the public eye, politicians especially, is that their mistakes can be high profile and costly with far-reaching consequences. I think we need to be asking ourselves whether statues of individuals are the best way of remembering and honouring history. Would a more appropriate, lasting and accurate reminder of who defeated Hitler and defended Britain be a statue of three nameless soldiers, one British, one American and one Soviet? A merciful nurse tending to a wounded Tommy? An anonymous spitfire pilot? Are these not greater symbols of that period than any flawed individual, who there will always be some issue with? I’m not saying to forget the likes of Churchill (and I really don’t know how I feel about statues of him), far from it, I’m merely advocating a way of remembering our history without searching for non-existent, all-virtuous, super-heroes of the past.
Our relationship with our history is strange. British people still retain a pride of our once extensive empire and an ignorance of the atrocities it committed. It is not taught in schools, it is not delivered in documentaries or represented in films, it is not symbolised by monuments. More people have learnt more about the slave trade in the last five days than in all the year nine history classes combined. History is a succession of moments, that should be recorded to benefit future generations and as a society we have been wholly inadequate in performing this task. Let’s be better, not by raising statues of flawed “heroes” but by erecting simple reminders of what has occurred: both our glories and our failings. Let’s be honest about our history, by teaching children what really happened ‘warts and all’. A man on a plinth tells me nothing, whoever he is, but an accurate reminder of what really occurred, accompanied by frank and honest discussion: that is history we can learn from.