Vandalising history

Last week a statue of Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol harbour by anti-racist protestors because of Colston’s links with the slave trade. At first I thought it was a bit extreme and that they should have simply changed the plaque on the statue but apparently people have campaigned for years to have the plaque changed only to be met with a constant wall on inaction.

In 2017 an unofficial plaque appeared on the statue overnight.

In 2018 discussions for an official plaque change finally began and there was much editing of drafts to finally get to this:

“As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America.

“Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans.

“Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.”

However, apparently a councillor objected to it and it never happened. This must have been quite frustrating. I know too well the inaction of local authorities. Had the council acted as it should have back in 2018 then the statue may still be standing today.

The toppling of Edward Colston has unfortunately invited the vandalism of many other statues around the world. The Winston Churhill statue in London has now been boarded up to protect it. Churchill saved the UK from Nazi Germany. It’s right that he gets a statue in London.

In Scotland the Robert the Bruce statue near Stirling has been vandalised with the words, “robert was a racist bring down the statue”. Robert the Bruce is a national hero who was born in the 13th century. If he can be accused of being racist at all then it would be against the Englsh. It’s possible this statue was vandalised by someone who disagrees with the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to discredit it.

I’m uneasy with what’s happening to these relics from our past. There are countless statues of kings and queens around Britiain, who, let’s face it, were arseholes but they are part of history. Henry the VIII beheaded two of his wives and yet he adorns the gate of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. This is our history and it reminds us how deeply flawed and fallible we are. Let’s choose who we honour today but not change who people of the past chose to honour. Otherwise we’re not much better than the Islamic Militants who destroyed Syria’s archaeological sites.

12 thoughts on “Vandalising history”

  1. On Churchill – my Nanna would be so upset if she had to pass a statue of him each day. I can see your point about history but I don’t know the answer, it’s difficult.

      1. Her family was shattered during WW2, though she has passed I stand with her.
        I have seen other posts about this same topic – one suggested plaque additions as you mentioned, or interactive displays of the same piece from a different view? Interesting ideas.

  2. If we are going this way, destroying statues, I don’t think any statues from someone that is from the 19th century and before will survive… Instead of destroying statues people should organize themselves, create political parties, companies charities and try to get a better future for themselves and others.

  3. I know this is going to sound contrarian, but as a teacher and former history scholar, I understand why Colston’s statue and other monuments are under attack at this moment. Statues and monuments aren’t history, they’re narratives about how nations and cities have chosen to portray historical events. It doesn’t matter how many charities Colston sponsored in his lifetime: the fact that he got rich selling human beings and still got a statue of himself standing in a very public part of Bristol says to people of color that their histories, their experiences don’t matter.

    When my father first told me about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, I was incredulous and demanded to know why it wasn’t mentioned in my American history textbook. (US history is usually taught in the fifth grade here, so I would have been 10 years old at the time.) My father said scornfully, “Oh, they’ll never talk about it in your history class. The government writes history; why would they talk about something they did wrong back then?” The next day at school I combed our history textbook for any mention of the internment. Dad was right: there was a section about Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Poland and the expansion of the Nazi empire in Europe; there was a picture of Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin featured prominently on one page. But the internment, which Dad lived through, along with being drafted out of the camp and sent to the Western front as an American soldier, was essentially erased from our history class. It would be 20 years before it was addressed publicly, and even then there were people who said ‘Why bring up bad memories? That’s not what the war was about, this doesn’t override the good that came out of our fight.’ No, it doesn’t, but refusing to acknowledge the wrongs done by our country exacerbates the wounds that still fester today. Slavery is regarded by many as an evil of the past, but its legacy has been institutional racism, which kills many people of color in the US, specifically black men and women.

    We’re finally seeing a revolution of sorts, where racism is no longer acceptable. I don’t like seeing local businesses, many owned by black, Latino and Asian members of our community, smashed by rioters, but I thoroughly support seeing statues of Confederate generals and slave traders taken down. We’re done with the normalization of racism; the least we can do is take down those public edifices that contribute to that.

    1. In 2008 an ancient bust of Julius Caesar was found in a river. They think it was sculpted between 49 and 46BC. No one knows how it ended up in the river but it was probably the result of an angry group of protestors throwing it in there.

      Julius Caesar once sold an entire population from a region he’d conquered – 53,000 people – to slave dealers so people had good reason to feel angry.

      The bust is very good. We can see what Caesar looked like – how much hair and how many wrinkles he had. We also get a glimpse of ancient sculpture – the materials they used and their ability to sculpt the human form. It’s art as well as history. It doesn’t mean we have to approve of what Caesar did to want to see and preserve the bust.

      I think this is the opposite of your analogy. Removing the statues is a bit like the Americans trying to hide that bit of history about the internment of the Japanese. Incidentally, Germans in the UK were also interned during the war but as far as know there’s no attempt to hide this.

      Leave the statues there but make the cold history known to everyone who walks past by putting a plaque on them. These sculptures make our cities and towns richer.

      1. I think we’re wandering into apples and oranges territory, which I want to avoid. 🙂 The US is a much younger country than the UK/Great Britain; our Civil War was just a century and a half ago, and its aftermath was never addressed properly. Programs that were created by Congress to help former slaves, such as providing them with farmland and equipment, were undermined by corrupt administrators who pocketed most of the funds or gave the benefits to cronies. A former slave-owning Southern Democrat took the office of the Presidency after Lincoln was assassinated; he tried to erode all attempts to help freed slaves during Reconstruction. Antiblack racism was rife, not only in the South but in the supposedly progressive, abolitionist North as well. There was also a rush to forgive and embrace “our wounded Brothers” in the South—there’s a good book written about this, Race and Reunion by David W. Blight—which only encouraged resentful ex-Confederates to believe their cause was still right. As a result, we see all these monuments to Confederate “heroes” thrown up all over the South and even in cosmopolitan cities like New York. I don’t wonder why African Americans are resentful and hurt by these supposed public works of art.

        At any rate, there’s no stopping the history train now. The city of Richmond, Virginia, has decided to remove all monuments to Confederate generals. Many other cities are actively talking about removing theirs. The state of California is discussing making reparations to the African American descendants of slaves, which is amazing given the amount of time gone by and the fact that slavery was never officially legal in the state, though it existed and was even tolerated. (I wonder if it will be extended to Native Americans, who were enslaved by Spanish colonists.) The UK is free to decide for itself what to do with its own monuments, but in the US where racism was institutionalized for far too long, it is high time to clean house.

  4. The statue of British Naval Captain John Hamilton, erected in the city of Hamilton several years ago, and which was named after him, has been taken down before it got vandalised. A Maori elder, from local iwi Waikato-Tainui, basically said that if it wasn’t removed he would do it himself. I don’t know the history of John Hamilton, but much of the interaction between the British and Maori didn’t go well for Maori, so there are probably grounds for discontent at having a statue erected to honour him. To be honest, I think that many people – mostly men – who have had statues erected in their honour have some appalling behaviours in their back stories, and don’t deserve to be honoured in this way. However, I also understand what you say about them being reminders of our failings and dual-natured humanness. I must admit, though, that it would grieve me to see a statue of a known paedophile, for example, having some sort of place of honour, regardless of what else he did that may have been note-worthy in a good way. I’m sure we’ll see more statue removing in the near future.

    1. I agree that many of the mostly male statues do have appalling stories which is why I think we should make those stories known. People have a right to know the truth. Then their statues will become more like a public telling off than a public tribute.

      I mentioned above that in 2008 an ancient statue of Julius Caesar was found in a river –

      It was probably tossed in there by angry protestors. Caesar sold tens of thousands of slaves. We don’t have to approve of what he did to want to preserve the statue and put it on display.

      There is also a great deal of ancient Greek and Roman art that depicts pedastry which is a sexual relationship between an adult man and pubescent boy –

  5. I haven’t been keeping up to date with this so it was good to find out about the Council’s inaction as I was able to put this to Isabel as a reason why people shouldn’t just take down any statues they like. But she feels strongly that the bad Churchill did eg in causing deaths by famine in the British Empire outweigh his good during the war and doesn’t think we should have a statue of him either. She has been reading a lot about this. She did agree that lots of people did bad things in the context of the Empire and we wouldn’t have any statues of people who were active between 1800 and 1950 if we applied this to everyone. But she said there were many more deserving people to have statues of. My view was that statues have to be recognisable and stand the test of time, a project to replace all these statues would be an enormous headache and you wouldn’t please everyone.

    1. Yes, I was more sympathetic when I discovered the council’s inaction and I felt in this case they had more justification for the removal of that statue.

      I think there are many people alive today and through our history who deserve statues but who never got one. It’s up to us to build statues for those we see fit.

      I heard recently that Mary Wollstonecraft is going to get a statue. I can’t believe she doesn’t have one already –

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