It is the strange nature of public discourse that allows a premise to be established on one side of an argument without its logic ever really being questioned. I have certainly been guilty of arguing from such a standpoint – when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign gained particular prominence in the media in 2016 and a similar national debate as that pertaining at present was being had, I would have argued that it would be wrong to “wipe such figures from history” by removing the statues erected in their honour. It was an argument reflecting a belief sincerely held and not stemming from any desire to defend the white supremacist settler colonialism that Rhodes represents. But does it make any sense?
This question has garnered increased significance recently in the wake of the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Colston had become the focus of protestors’ ire as they demonstrated in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement following the gruesome death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police. After being pulled off its plinth, the statue was dumped in Bristol Harbour in front of a cheering crowd sparking a national dialogue focusing on the ethics of supposed historical erasure. The protestors were “trying to erase him from history” according to Will Heaven, writing in The Spectator and adumbrating an argument which would become the Right’s stock response to the act. “It isn’t right,” he continued, “Colston should be fished out of the docks and put back.”
Heaven, as was always going to be the case, got his first wish at least. After all, the likelihood of Bristol City Council surrendering thousands of pounds worth of bronze to the fishes on the strength of a symbolic gesture was slim. However, he won’t be returning to his plinth any time soon, with the Council indicating that after an extensive hosing-down a cosy spot in a museum is likely to be procured for him. So what are we to make of his ultimate destination – a sort of semi-erasure?
The most obvious flaw in such thinking is a fact so few in the public domain will be willing to admit but which is no doubt widely true, namely this – who, outside of Bristol, had actually heard of Edward Colston prior to this? I have no shame in admitting that I had no idea who he was when I first heard that his statue had been removed, and a cursory online search of his name gives some indication as to why this was the case. His life was fundamentally uninteresting in the main – he followed his father into the family business, made money trading in textiles and wine and spent a brief three-year stint as MP for Bristol before dying alone. The wealth he bequeathed to charities upon his demise, which bought him a place ‘in history’, is overstated as a cause for celebrating his legacy – after all, he had no heir to leave it to and his money wasn’t much use to him in death. If that was his whole life, was it really worth memorialising?
Yet, this wasn’t his whole life – he was also the deputy governor of the Royal African Company which had a monopoly on the slave trade in the late 17th century. Of course, the statue erected in his honour made no mention of this, thereby aptly demonstrating that a statue can ‘erase’ history as much in its presence as by its absence. Attempts to install an additional plaque which recognised this aspect of his life had been in the works for nearly two years without result, having been bogged down in bureaucratic nit-picking around the appropriate wording to use. This is an important point to note when people recycle hackneyed arguments about how “we can’t learn from past mistakes if we erase them from history.” Nor are we able to learn from past errors if they are whitewashed in the official narrative memorialised by such statues.
In any case, there is nothing inherent in statues which justifies their elevation to the position of lone arbiters of historical truth. Personally, I don’t recall ever having learned anything from a statue – there is a sense of permanence about them which distracts my focus whenever I encounter one, much in the same way that I’d struggle to recall the nature of the patterns of bark if I were to stare at a tree. There are plenty of other means by which to learn about the past which don’t involve the approval of a subject’s actions which is so clearly implied by a statue. Another opportunity of this kind will soon present itself in the form of the exhibit to Colston in whichever museum his statue is ultimately placed.
Contrary to the charges of the likes of Heaven, the toppling of Colston’s statue has not erased his memory from history – it has turned a generally uninteresting 17th century merchant into a household name. The difference now is that he will be remembered appropriately – not as a trader in Portuguese wine and British cloth, but as someone who made a substantial fortune by trading human beings.