Removing statues allows us to retreat from uncomfortable truths, not address them.
Following the rightful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the ensuing toppling of an Edward Colston statue, there have been renewed calls for Rhodes to fall. In 2016, Oriel College Oxford decided not to remove a statue of the racist imperial statesman, despite the wishes of protestors. Now the Rhodes Must Fall protests are back.
Back in 2016, I felt unsure about removing memorials to figures like Rhodes. As abhorrent as his impact on southern Africa was, something about taking down the statue did not seem right. The debate at the time was nuanced and rigorous, far from the supposed feelings-oriented echo chambers which are claimed to now dominate universities. In light of the Colston statue being pulled down, I revisited student articles from the 2016 Rhodes discussion, hoping to settle on an opinion this time around.
One criticism of removing memorials to people like Colston – a slave trader – is that these acts constitute an erasure of history. This argument seems sound, and I do not disagree. However, it is also an erasure of history to romanticise such figures, bowing to the intended purpose of their memorials. To remember historical figures as ideal bastions of the human project, or as ‘normal’ people who had a ‘net positive’ impact on the world, is an act of conscious ignorance.
Winston Churchill was an effective wartime leader who inspired the nation in difficult times. But he was also an imperialist who described Indians as “a beastly people”. We should forget neither. George Washington could be considered as second-to-none in advancing liberty and democracy in the West. But he also owned slaves. He freed them upon his death, and it has been suggested that he was opposed to slavery privately but did not speak against it to preserve the young, fragile United States. His story is complicated. We should not forget that messiness.
Removing memorials to the likes of Churchill and Washington is an erasure of both positive and negative histories, as well as the glorified feelings their statues evoke. However, keeping these memorials but never addressing their dark side is also an erasure of history, favouring easy remembrance over uncomfortable truths.
Writing in the context of the 2016 Rhodes Must Fall debate, one student journalist argued that if commentators “truly cared about so-called ‘erasure of history’ and historical integrity, they’d recognise that Rhodes was as despicable when he was alive as he is today”. For Colston, his despicable slave-trading story needs to be emphasised just as much, if not more, than his story as a generous Bristolian which the statue gives prominence to.
Removing all memorials to Rhodes, Colston and others might achieve this. After all, the mere act of pulling down statues reveals the dark sides of the men behind them. I doubt most people had heard of Colston or Robert Milligan until this week. But now their statues are gone, we are remembering them on balance, recognising that their impact on the world was far from good.
However, if we are to remove all these problematic memorials, we risk forgetting why controversial figures were memorialised in the first place. It is just as much of a problem that we – me, you, and those in the recent past – allowed these statues to be erected without holding to account the rose-tinted remembrance they encourage.
As another student journalist writing in 2016 put it, the Oxford statue of Rhodes is ‘living proof of our absurd distortion and glorification of imperial activity’. Likewise, the Colston statue is living proof of our willingness produce and reproduce exalted legacies on a foundation of human suffering. Taking down statues of both men will not lead to either being forgotten. Both will, if the momentum of the moment succeeds, receive fairer critical treatment in museums, textbooks, and schools. But taking down statues of Rhodes and Colston removes proof that ‘we were once complicit, content to remain blissfully (and consciously) ignorant of the horrors of empire’.
It feels as though when we pull down statues of controversial figures, we are trying to rewrite the past. Not rewriting colonialism and the slave trade, but rewriting our own flawed remembrance of the immoral, exploitative figures in British history. Instead, we should re-evaluate our relationship with that past, acknowledging that uncritically praising Rhodes and Colston was wrong, and that as a nation we need to come to terms with our persistent imperial mindset.
Overall, both common responses to problematic memorials are flawed. Continue to romanticise memorialised figures, maintaining their perfect images – this is an erasure of history. It erases the suffering on their hands. Remove all problematic memorials – this is also an erasure of history. It erases our own poor judgement in remembering them without fault.
What, then, is the middle path forward? Perhaps some memorials should be removed, especially those which honour people with few redeeming qualities of relevance. Colston seems to fit this definition. Meanwhile, perhaps leave the memorials to people whose stories are complex and evoke mixed feelings. Such memorials will need contextualising through new, informative plaques, as well as rigorous critique in wider education. These efforts can work to prevent dark histories being forgotten, exposing such memorials as deliberate promotions of selective remembrance. In turn, the nation might begin to move beyond its imperial mindset, laying the cultural foundations on which to build a better world.