History is not an object. It cannot be dug up from the earth and placed in a museum. It is not a mural that needs preservation, nor is it an inscription on a tombstone that tells of itself. History is a story. It is written. And I am in the process of writing it now.
On 7th June, protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement collectively pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, a former slave trader who is said to have donated huge sums of his earnings to Bristol charities. Since then, debate has been raging about the role of statues in Britain, with renewed interest in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, and further questions about whether Churchill is an applicable figure to represent Britain at Westminster.
Discussions surrounding the removal of these venerated monuments have been met with a range of emotions, from celebration to anger and derision. Politicians have been slow on the uptake, with Labour’s Keir Starmer arguing that Colston needed to be taken down but through legal channels, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson alleging that the past cannot be rewritten.
Let me explain why the issue of statues is at the heart of the issue of Britishness, and why it sends the message of who belongs and who remains at the periphery.
Arguments against the toppling of statues work along these lines:
- What happened happened and cannot now be changed
- It is disrespectful to take down the figures of people who have done so much for Britain
- Let sleeping dogs lie
- Who cares?
But let me break down these assertions and explain the flawed logic behind them.
A Statue Does Not Represent History
Let’s begin with an experiment. I am going to display three names of men who contributed to the abolition of slavery in Britain in the 18th century. Can you identify them?
- Olaudah Equiano
- William Wilberforce
- Ottobah Cugoano
It is likely that only one name is familiar to you — William Wilberforce. The other two men were taken as slaves at a young age and campaigned to end slavery as adults in Britain, forming the abolitionist group, Sons of Africa.
All three men are history and all dedicated their lives to the abolition of the slave trade in the UK. In fact, Equiano is considered a pioneer in the abolitionist movement and wrote the first influential slave narrative, selling millions of copies of his memoir in his lifetime. Yet only one of these figures, Wilberforce, has been rendered in statue form (Equiano has been given a mere plaque). What can we make of this?
The answer is simple. A statue tells us who to respect, and how much respect to give. It is an act of veneration, of peak flattery. It tells an audience not who was history (for I shall be history soon enough), but who in history to remember. Therefore, to argue that removing a statue is to rewrite history is an extreme falsity. Campaigners do not wish to rewrite history, but to tell a different story of history, so that the victors can be seen for who they were: flawed, and often morally corrupt.
Removing the statues of figures like Colston and Rhodes affirms what values were acceptable, but should no longer be. It makes the point that society is changing and so it must be reflected in who we see standing at our gates watching over us. It expresses our need for new figures of veneration, ones who tell a fuller, richer story of Britain, with more to contribute to the new world than the old.
History is a Story (and Usually His)
If I were ask all my readers to explain their experiences of the pandemic, all would recount different stories. Some would argue for the heroism of the NHS, some would argue against the government and its handling of the crisis, and others, like myself, might even self-centredly reflect on this period as one of peak fitness or thriving culinary skills. All narratives would be true, but all would reveal an inherent bias. It would be clear in my recollection of events that no one personally attached to me was harmed, but I might be one of the few lucky ones. If someone were to recover my story 200 years from now, they would likely be given a flawed account of the pandemic of 2020, believing it to be much less severe than it is.
The example above reveals the fact that history is not fixed. We tell a story of history as if the narrative is straightforward, but it cannot be, for in order to tell the true story we need to combine the voices of all 7.8 billion people on the planet. This would be unfeasible for obvious reasons: some cannot tell their own story (babies and infants), some stories are overlooked (children, people on the lowest rungs of society, the illiterate), and some stories appear in languages that would require translation into English. So if in 200 years historians found half the narratives of today documented on social media, scholars of the future would still need to select a few perspectives and mask this as the whole.
History therefore has been, and will always be, a selection of the stories of the past. Such decisions are generally political and the story we tell of the past says more about the present that the reality of history; few women and even fewer people of colour have been given opportunities to tell of their own past. Who we teach as history, and how we teach them, is now up to us.
The question of statues, however, will always be a contentious one, for who deserves esteem is a difficult question to answer. Colston, Rhodes, who was the architect of apartheid in South Africa, and Churchill, who was responsible for the Bengal famine that killed between 2–3 million people in 1943, are harder to justify, as their victories came at the cost of so many disregarded lives. Perhaps, as Banksy suggested it would be best to replace the statue of Colston with a statue of people removing the statue to tell the story of protest, rather than that of heroism.