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Edward Colston and tearing down the past

Following events in Bristol, Nick Spencer questions which statues should be allowed to remain. 09/06/2020

The Emperor Caligula, it is alleged, had the heads of pagan gods’ statues hacked off and replaced with his own. The effect, one imagines, is unlikely to have enhanced his imperial dignity. Somewhat more provocatively, he planned to erect a huge statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. His plans were thwarted first by Publius Petronius, the Governor of Syria, and then, permanently, by the Praetorian Guard who assassinated him. Petronius foresaw what would happen if Caligula got his way. Then, as now, statues can enflame a crowd.

Toppling statues is hardly a new phenomenon. We watched eastern Europeans remove statues of Lenin and Stalin as soon as it was safe to.  The removal of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, albeit controversial, was one of the defining images of the Iraq War. And we’ve seen it recently in the US as Confederate heroes bit the dust. But up until this weekend, it’s largely been something that seems to happen “elsewhere”, at least for those of us in the UK.

This weekend, an angry Bristolian crowd tore down the statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour. Colston was a civic dignitary who gave generously to his city, founding two almshouses and a school, and donating considerable sums of money to other schools, churches and hospitals.  He made that money by shipping an estimated 80,000 men, women and children between Africa and America in the 17th century – around 19,000 of whom died en route. However generous and civic minded he was, it is hard to see how the city could (or would want to?!) continue to honour him in this way.

All this raises questions, though, about which statues should be allowed to remain. A few years ago, when we were wondering about whether Rhodes should fall, the writer Afua Hirsch penned an article in the Guardian, which argued that we should topple Nelson from his Trafalgar column. The argument, such as it was, demonstrated why moral indignation is a weak foundation for such actions.

Hirsh compared Nelson – “who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist” – with William Wilberforce (also publicly memorialised in stone, albeit less prominently) who was “unquestionably a force for good”. Whereas Wilberforce had every right to his plinth, Nelson had to go.

This is the past à la “Our Island Story” or, rather, “Our Island Disgrace”. History is divided into bad guys and good guys, villains and heroes, white supremacists and unquestionable forces for good. Nelson was indubitably no saint and his reputation is much mythologized. But he was nonetheless a brave and inspiring military leader and tactician, who defended the country at a time of considerable peril, being wounded and killed in the process.

Wilberforce was a “Saint” and his persistent campaign against slavery rightly earns him great praise and honour. But before we canonise him among Hirsch’s unquestionable good guys, it’s worth recalling he spoke in favour of every single repressive domestic statute proposed by the government between 1795 and 1819, energetically supporting the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Acts of 1795, the Preservation of the Public Peace Bill of 1812, and the Seditious Meetings Bill and the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1817. He also defended the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and spoke against a proposal for an enquiry into the atrocity.

Does that mean Wilberforce doesn’t deserve his statue? No. It simply means that pretty much no public figure from history celebrated in our streets will bear detailed scrutiny and judgement. Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner? No: he was thoroughly opposed to the Great Reform Act, as well as being something of a brute. Boadicea on the Embankment? Achievement: mass slaughter. Cromwell in Parliament Square? Try and persuade the Irish Catholics living in Britain, especially those who can trace their ancestry to Drogheda. John Stuart Mill in Victoria Embankment Gardens? He thought that clever people should have more votes than stupid ones. Gandhi in Parliament Square? That’ll be the chap who advised that the Jews should have gone willingly to concentration camps in an act of mass suicide which would constitute an unanswerable critique of the Nazis. Nelson Mandela at the South Bank? Didn’t he used to advocate terrorism? Churchill? Ha! Do you know what he did to the Kurds?

Our public space is invariably littered with sinful heroes. Our belief – or, at least the belief of some people – that we are in a position to sift the historical wheat from the chaff is worrying, ignoring the tortuous vicissitudes of history. It also seems to assume we are sufficiently detached and ethically superior to pass accurate judgement.

That doesn’t mean we simply have to live with these things. There might well be good reason to depose the odd Edward Colston, General Robert E. Lee, or Cecil Rhodes. But we should proceed with caution. The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his essay The Politics of Recognition, that

it is reasonable to suppose that cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings, of diverse characters and temperaments, over a long period of time – that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable – are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.

This is, in effect, a presumption of respect, judging cultures that are sufficiently widespread, long–lived (etc.) as having something – not everything – in them worthy of recognition. I would suggest we adopt the same approach to public statues. It is reasonable to suppose that public statues that were willingly erected and have been admired by a sufficiently large and broad number of people over a sustained period of time have something in them that is worth preserving. Recognise Wilberforce’s abolitionism, Nelson military prowess, Boadicea’s fight, Cromwell’s integrity, rather than their less admirable qualities. Sometimes we will conclude that however admirable a figure’s achievements or civic generosity were, their sins weigh heavier in the balance. And few sins weigh heavier than trading humans.

But this must be a careful, reasoned and accountable decision. It appears efforts had been made to amend the plaque on the Colston statue for many years, so perhaps his time had indeed come. In general though, pulling down statues because we no longer (wholly) agree with the person they commemorate is simplistic and problematic, making a great many assumptions about who we are and what are our common values. “Our Island Disgrace” is no more grown–up a response to our past than “Our Island Story”. Ultimately, all humans, even our heroes, are fallen. We should put people on statues if only we remember that, at the end of the day, no–one should be on a pedestal. 

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 Image credit: Harry135 via Wikipedia

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 9 June 2020

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