(Photo: BBC News)
By Ella Stevens – Contributor
The Black Lives Matter protests last year bought about a thought-provoking argument on whether we should continue to memorialise colonialists and slave traders with statues. This comes after the BLM protests toppled the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and spray painted WAS A RACIST on Winston Churchill’s. The question to answer is what should be done with the statues?
The actions of protestors were described by Priti Patel as ‘utterly disgraceful’ and a ‘criminal act’ by a Downing Street spokesperson. The government’s and polices Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 has put in new measures which could lead to up to ten years imprisonment for damaging statues. This suggests that the government believe that the best way to deal with these problems is to impose oppressive measures on those trying to fight oppression. It is a remarkable new law that seems to accept the statues as a necessary part of British history that should be celebrated.
However, these acts of so-called ‘vandalism’ put forward an important message that seems to be undermined by the government’s handling of such behaviour. To many these statues represent their oppression in a very public manner and should be treated as such. To keep the statues as they are seems to reinforce systemic racism within the country by failing to acknowledge Britain’s colonialist past.
Edward Colston is a key example of such statues that have been erected in the names of slave traders to celebrate their lives. He was estimated to have transported 84,5000 Africans into slavery and was responsible for approximately 19,300 deaths. In 1895 his statue was erected in Bristol with a plaque reading ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons on their city’. This promotes clearly that the statue was erected to honour the ‘great’ philanthropist without any concern for his part in the slave trade. Although at the time this would not have been considered an issue the very fact that it still stood there over 100 years later was seen by some protestors as the embodiment of white supremacy. The statue portrays a very selective memory of the ‘virtuous’ benefactor of the city rather than the slave trader who oversaw the deaths of thousands. There was no slavery memorial in the city until 1997 where a small plaque was put up honouring the memory of enslaved Africans, placed by the city docks. The difference in the memorialisation suggests why there was so much anger felt toward the statue by protestors who were only given a small plaque to commemorate the thousands dead.
One solution is to remove the statue completely from public display. This has both its pros and cons when considered carefully. The removal of the statue could be seen as attempting to erase history. By destroying them, are we just trying to hide the truth once again? With no public exposure to who Colston was then people are less likely to be educated on his life as both a slave trader and a benefactor. However, Saima Nasar argues that the toppling of the statue did not ‘remove Colston’s imprint on the city’ and ‘did not remove his association with slavery’ therefore is it necessary to keep the statue which will always have connotation of greatness that come with the erection of a statue.
Another solution would be to add plaques to the statues explaining what they did both good and bad to give a better overall view of the person memorialised. This still leaves similar connotations as completely leaving the statue alone. A statue of an individual commemorates them in a positive way. The figure will always stand out more than the plaque underneath it and whilst this will help with education; having statues of slave traders and colonialists in pride of place in the centre of cities still presents the idea that we should celebrate their lives which undermines why the Colston statue was ripped down in the first place.
The third solution would be to remove the statue from the city centre and place it in a museum. This seems the most beneficial option because museums are places of learning. A lot of information can be given about the statue that would educate those who saw it in his work as a slave trader and benefactor who aided the city of Bristol and its citizens. In this way, history is not being erased in anyway. It bares all its ugly truths in a way that allows people to assess public figures as both good and bad. For many it is not a straight forward line between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ thus we must appreciate this by educating the public as fully as possible.
Whilst there is different option for what could be done with statues the governments decision to increase sentencing for vandalism undermines the BLM protests and reinforces the idea that structural racism is a part of society. Although, it is a difficult situation, it is an opportunity to embrace Britain’s ugly history in a very public domain if dealt with correctly. To place statues with such connotations in museums would give an opportunity for education which deconstructs this idea that figures of history have to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’ when they can be both. It is a chance to re-evaluate the collective memory of Britain and strive towards anti-racism.
Madge Dresser F.R.Hist.S. (2009) Remembering Slavery and Abolition in Bristol, Slavery & Abolition, 30:2, 223-246, DOI: 10.1080/01440390902818955
Nasar, Saima. “Remembering Edward Colston: Histories of Slavery, Memory, and Black Globality.” Women’s History Review 29, no. 7 (2020): 1218-225.