The tearing down of slave trader Edward Colston from his pedestal was a moment of collective euphoria in a violent news-cycle. The removal of Confederate and other racist monuments has been a notable victory of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in the most recent protests. In Bristol, we witnessed the toppling of the statue as the crowd closed around it. The thin, holed metal mass rolled towards the waterfront like a cheap candlestick and finally with a poetically great splash, disappeared into the dock. Good riddance to a racist monument, and long overdue – but some would disagree.
Defenders of racist statues use words like ‘controversial’, ‘different times’, and most of all – ‘heritage’. Was the Colston statue heritage? Historic England say it was. In 1977 the slave trader’s statue was designated a Grade II listed structure.
Damnatio memoriae is the striking of a name from history, a punishment for heretics, traitors, and bad rulers. Disgraced Roman Emperors would have their names scratched from inscriptions, their monuments demolished, and some like Caligula had their statues hurled into the Tiber river. As museum and heritage professionals we are dedicated to the preservation and study of historic sites and monuments, but we were happy to see Colston take a dive. Historians, archaeologists, and curators have been prominent voices in campaigns against racist statues, from the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the present protests. Egyptologist Sarah Parcak tweeted detailed instructions last week about how to use chains and ropes to tear down an Egyptian obelisk, noting innocently that the obelisk ‘might be masquerading as a racist monument I dunno’.
From Edward I and Oliver Cromwell to Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill, Britain is studded with statues of slave traders, genocidal colonialists, war criminals, scumbags and murderers. From a museum and heritage perspective, these statues are interesting: over their long lives they have sparked fear and reverence, wielded economic and political power, and helped to shape peoples and places. Of all the stories that monuments can tell, the ones written on their sides are usually the least interesting and least believable.
Attempts to remove or even re-inscribe these blood-stained memorials have been met with the same whiny objections of those now lamenting Colston’s fall:
‘We have to preserve them, they’re part of our heritage’
In the real world, preserving heritage means managing change. In a city like Bristol this means balancing an old statue against civic values, traffic, pigeon poo, and the needs and interests of the community. Statues and memorials get moved, modified, restored, rebuilt, and removed all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Bristolians have been campaigning for years to have Colston’s statue removed, or to add new plaques explaining his crimes against humanity. This never happened.
‘Taking down statues means destroying history’
The ancient Egyptians tried to erase Pharaoh Akhenaten from history, demolishing his monuments and statues and even scrubbing his name from written texts. 3500 years later there’s a whole opera about him.
The real destruction of history took place closer to home. Operation Legacy by the British Foreign Office was the systematic destruction and concealment of colonial archives to hide evidence of crimes including torture and murder. Their existence was only revealed by the Government in 2011, during a court case concerning the torture of Mau Mau suspects in 1950s Kenya. We have documented and digitally reconstructed a selection of the work camps and torture chambers that the British used in their attempts to quell the Mau Mau uprising.
Some former Communist countries have opened sculpture parks to house the thousands of statues of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin removed from public spaces. In the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, Estonia these statues are situated in the basement, next to the toilets.
‘Won’t this lead to ALL statues being pulled down?’
We are not on a slippery slope which starts with taking down statues of slave traders and ends with a ‘politically-correct’ cleansing of all public spaces. The statue of Jimmy Savile in Glasgow was an insult to his victims and was rightly removed. The statue of Colston was a physical insult from the city of Bristol to the descendants of enslaved people. Any monument that causes collective hurt and insult should be a candidate for demolition.
People have been throwing statues into rivers for thousands of years. It is up to curators and archaeologists to try to distinguish the rubbish from the religious offerings, the disgraced emperors from the beloved ancestors. The bronze head of Emperor Hadrian in the British Museum began life as a public sculpture in Roman London, but at some point was thrown into the Thames.
It is unlikely that Edward Colston’s statue will remain in Bristol’s dock, but its future remains uncertain. Despite its Grade II listing, Historic England have recognised that the statue was ‘a symbol of injustice and a source of great pain’, and have stressed that ‘we do not believe it must be reinstated.’ We hope that this can be the start of a more open and empathetic conversation about the many statues of monstrous men scattered across Britain.