Removing Statues: Covering up the Sins of Our Fathers?
Cassie Grace discusses the calls for
removal of monuments to those associated with the slave trade
There’s been a lot of petitions going around recently, some more justifiable than others. One that I think is especially important calls for education on the violence of the English empire and the transatlantic slave trade to become a compulsory part of the curriculum. I was very lucky in that I was taught the reality of colonialism from a very young age, but I recognise that this is not the case for most students. If we don’t know our country’s past then we can never truly learn from it, know what we are fighting to change or be proud of how we have already improved. And there can be little doubt that our country has in the past been the biggest and baddest bully on the playground; our forefathers committed and condoned some pretty appalling stuff, much of which furthered and justified racial discrimination throughout the colonies. Knowing our history should be essential not just for England but for all countries; after all, no country can claim to be entirely innocent.
No country can claim to be innocent
What confused me was not the petitions themselves but rather the hypocrisy of many of their promoters. The same people who have been using said petitions to light up my insta feed like a Christmas tree have also been the ones encouraging the vandalism and destruction of historical statues. In Bristol, the statue of the merchant and parliamentarian Edward Colston has been removed and thrown into the harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters. Like most wealthy men in the 17thCentury, Colston was involved in the slave trade. But surely, instead of tearing down all mentions of him we should instead be educating people on why his actions were so wrong and can no longer be accepted. Colston was also an unparalleled philanthropist; in fact, from the money gained through the slave trade, he contributed what now equates to £10 million to charities in Bristol and founded many of Bristol’s most famous landmarks. Obviously, his racism cannot be condoned today, but that is because we judge him by very different moral standards to those that existed during his life. It doesn’t seem right to overlook all his good deeds because of something that at the time would have been seen as normal.
In Exeter itself, the General Buller statue, long the wearer of the freshers’ cone, is being reviewed and potentially removed amid accusations that he was involved in the creation of British Concentration Camps. Although conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg may claim that the death toll in such camps was as inconsequential as that of Glasgow at the time, more accurate statistics suggest that the number was as high as 48,000, more than ten times greater than that of Glasgow. There can be little doubt that the British Concentration Camps are a horrific and disturbing chapter in our history. Yet, the statue was chosen and paid for by the people themselves to pay tribute to one of the most famous war heroes Devon has to offer, with Buller being awarded the Victoria Cross as a reward for his gallantry in the Zulu War and Second Boer War. His victory, leadership and courage were celebrated at the time and arguably should be celebrated today, especially given that accusations of his involvement have never found any actual grounding. I for one would be sad to see him go.
I for one would be sad to see him go
Other statues have also been given the boot for similar reasons. A statue of Columbus in Boston has been decapitated, despite the fact that if he had not sailed the ocean blue in 1492, America would not today be having its say. More recent figures such as Churchill have also faced significant uproar for their known racism, with Churchill in particular being blamed for the Bengal famine. Now, any source will tell you that Churchill was a deeply unlikable and ruthless man. But this does not detract from the fact that he was exactly the leader Britain needed at the time. Boris Johnson, unsurprisingly a Churchill fan, decried the protests against him as “absurd and shameful,” correctly pointing out that he saved Europe from a “fascist and racist tyranny.”
These people changed the course of history, they cannot simply be erased because they don’t fit today’s moral standards. Very few people living in colonial times can be seen as entirely innocent, but yet they are a part of our history and culture. If we wipe away evidence of every historical figure who subscribed to the moral standards of their time, then what are we left with? Regrettably, their actions got us to where we are today, and we would be nothing without them. It seems to me incredibly contradictory that the same people who are calling for a greater awareness of our colonial past are the ones arguing that these figures should be removed and concealed. They should remain not just because of their achievements but also to educate our children on the reality of colonialism and as an example of how we have progressed as a nation. Don’t even get me started on HBO removing Gone With the Wind.