Who wants yesterday’s statues?

Banksy sketched his idea for replacing the Colston statue. Pic: Banksy, via Instagram

The Decolonising Working Group
Department of History, University of Exeter (and friends)  

The heart-breaking, public and blatant murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 has fuelled a storm of protests across the world. Black Lives Matter protests have broken out across Britain and other European countries, where the reckoning has re-opened questions about the legacies of empire, including the enslavement, brutalisation, and exploitation of African people. In many of these protests, statues in public squares have acted as focal points for public outrage. The most iconic moment in the British protests thus far has been the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slave-trader who died in 1721.

Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol in 1895, as a result not of a campaign from the ‘people of Bristol’, but rather because of the efforts of one businessman, James Arrowsmith. Fearing strikes and socialist agitation amongst the working poor in the 1890s, and anxious about the future of British Empire, he sought to proclaim the city’s imperial deeds through the commemoration of one of its patrician class: Colston. The plaque declared Colston a ‘wise and virtuous’ man. Today, many people clearly think that a slave trader is nothing of the sort; our colleague Ian Cook (Geography) has made a short film  about the toppling, and eventual ceremonial drowning of Colston’s statue in Bristol Harbour.

Critics of the statue’s removal allege the criminal irresponsibility of the act: on the day Colston fell, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointedly claimed that the BLM demonstrations had been ‘subverted by thuggery’, and Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted that there would be a criminal investigation. They did not see in the destruction of the slave trader’s statue a necessary political confrontation with a shameful history that had failed to find a place in the British story. Rather, they insist that such statues were sources of a necessary civic education: ‘those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.’ Supporters of the removal pointed out that this action also confronted history, and that public statues represented the power of a particular social and political order. The Mayor of Bristol called Colston’s removal “historical poetry”. A website ‘Topple the Racists’ sought to continue what Colston’s fall had begun, hosting a crowdsourced map of UK monuments which glorified individuals linked to slavery or colonial violence.

Some people proposed ways in which the statue might be kept, its meaning remade, unable any longer to glorify slavery. Street artist Banksy suggested  that it would be better to re-instate the statue, but in the moment of its toppling, alongside newly cast bronze protestors. He playfully presented himself as the voice of reason and compromise, simultaneously catering for ‘both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t’.  Others sought to recontextualise the statue, seeking ways to relieve it of its power to glorify imperial violence whilst giving voice to those who suffered. Some plans advocated surrounding Colston with monuments to the 84,000 enslaved people he was estimated to have traded, or replacing him with a different statue every day for the next 233 years to recall each slave he was responsible for shipping. The most common response was the statue’s ‘ideological quarantine’ in a Bristol Museum, although critics questioned whether such use of museums served to depoliticise political actions, treating them as places where historical problems could be made to disappear.

Statues depicting prominent individuals project power, whether of the individual themselves or of the political or social vision they represent. As Simon Schama cogently argued in the Financial Times, ‘statues are revelations – not about the historical figures they represent, but about the mindset of those who commissioned them’ and the same can be said about their moving, recycling or toppling; all are political acts which can be used to effectively trace shifts in public opinion and its power.  The Black Lives Matter movement, and the toppling of Colston, has inspired the defacing, and in some cases subsequent removal, of statues linked to slavery and imperial violence across western Europe – in Italy and France, but most notably in Belgium, where monuments to Leopold II, ruler of Congo Free State where, from 1885 to 1908, an estimated 10–15 million Africans had died, were removed.

Across historical epochs, whenever values have changed or were challenged, people have proposed a range of techniques to deal with contested statues – demolition, defacement, defence of the status quo, ideological quarantine, recontextualization, or the making of alternatives. Recast or destroyed statues often live on in pamphlets, photography and film: replayed and remembered, they become a powerful symbol of political transformation. Nineteenth century America celebrated in painting the toppling of the statue of British monarch George III, just as Germans would later say ‘Goodbye, Lenin’ in film. The image of a recumbent Stalin, defaced and dethroned from his pedestal, surrounded by cheering protesters on the first day of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, quickly travelled around the world and remained a powerful symbol celebrating resistance to Soviet control of Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Statue of King George III being pulled down at Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan.
The widely celebrated act of taking down Stalin’s statue at the beginning of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

This piece has been written collectively by History staff at the University of Exeter, with assistance from colleagues within and outside Exeter. It should be said at the outset that while we are unanimously in support of Black Lives Matter and the justice it seeks, we are not all agreed on the best method of tackling contested statues. This unusual activity, which has seen sixteen of us writing in tandem, is part of our exploration of another, related, movement: we are trying to discover together what ‘decolonising the university’ might mean in research, teaching and writing. We believe that researchers in universities must grapple with social inequities, that the process of that engagement must involve self-reflexivity, and conscious efforts to learn and teach what has been irrationally omitted. We have also been led by our students, especially a well-researched and robustly argued article in a student newspaper, on Exeter’s own historical connections with imperialism and the slave trade. Much of what we have done is actually very traditional – we have pooled our knowledge, we have compared notes, we have tested whether certain lines of argument hold up against this varied evidence or not. In doing so, we have written what could be a very standard essay in comparative history, but what we have experienced in this writing process has been exceptional and salutary.

There are many kinds of statuary: this piece focuses on the history of the ‘un-making’ of free-standing statues of historical individuals, in public spaces, detached from churches and tombs. The question of why statues, as opposed to other forms of memorialisation, hold such power as sites of protest, is beyond the scope of this post. But the perhaps the human form provides an immediacy, an opportunity for demanding or enacting forms of justice, that makes them suitable for ‘image-events’ of the kind that occurred in Bristol.


Imperial Rome provided the most systematic and persistent model for Europeans looking to make as well as break statues in public spaces. Statues of rulers were placed throughout Rome and across the Empire as a sign of imperial power, serving as iconic proxies for an emperor’s presence. Imperial Romans also systematized the harsh and dramatic ritual of tearing down statues during attempts to obliterate the memory of the tyrant they represented. Statues of deposed Roman emperors were sometimes decapitated, or had new heads attached. Shortly after Commodus’ assassination in 192 AD, it was urged on the Senate floor that any statues of this derelict tyrant be torn down, and that his name be obliterated from works of architecture where he had added it.  This process became known as damnatio memoriae– the erasure of memory.

Statues could also be co-opted and relocated. As part of the translatio imperii (handing over of Empire) from Rome to her Germanic successors, Charlemagne ordered the transfer of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric’s equestrian statue from Ravenna to Aachen.


Islam has historically expressed strong disapproval of representations of living creatures. This ensured that statues of saints or kings never appeared in the Islamic empires that formed across Eurasia and North Africa from the eighth century onwards. Muslim iconoclasm, on the other hand, has been much discussed and politicised in various parts of the world, but Islamic practices varied significantly. Where a statue represented political power, it was certainly vulnerable to destruction, although components were often preserved, and even venerated. The enormous equestrian statue erected by emperor Justinian in Constantinople was dismantled by Mehmed the Conqueror soon after his conquest of the city in 1453. Mehmed had the copper horse and Christian symbols melted down for use. This contrasts with Christian forces who, after the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, shipped four bronze horses from the Byzantine capital to St Marks’ Basilica, where they remain today. The Venetians were keen on displaying their continuity with the Byzantine empire, Mehmed aimed to demonstrate the exact opposite.

However, religious difference did not always preclude rulers and people in Muslim countries from embracing public statuary of pre-Islamic vintage as their own. The enormous royal statues of Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Achaemaenid empire in what is today Iran, survived Islamic rule. Islamic inscriptions were added to the pillars, and by Safavid times (15th-18th centuries CE), Persepolis came to be regarded as the takht-i Jamshid (throne of Jamshid, the legendary ideal ruler of ancient Iran). Later, the Qajars enlisted European archaeologists to systematically study the site, which emerged as a premier locus of Iranian state-sponsored nationalism in the early twentieth century.


Aside from funerary monuments, statues of secular figures were uncommon in medieval Europe, but they proliferated during the Renaissance, as did squabbles over their acceptability. In 1397, the lord of Mantua felt that the citizens were too devoted to a statue of the Roman poet Virgil, who was born there. He had the statue torn down and cast into the river Mincio. Contemporary authors were outraged, remarking that, rather than detracting from the fame of Virgil, he had brought infamy upon himself.

Copying European models, royal statues were adopted in Stuart England. But in tumultuous seventeenth century England, their erection and placement were often disputed. The equestrian statue of Charles I that now stands at Charing Cross, London  was originally made in 1633 for display in the garden of the Lord Treasurer. However, it was not delivered to him and after Parliamentary victory in the civil wars it was sold to a brazier to be destroyed. Evidently the brazier did not do so – he may have been a Royalist, or perhaps was merely unwilling to destroy such an object. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the statue was purchased from the brazier by Charles II, and in 1675 it was placed on a pedestal at Charing Cross.

Meanwhile, statues of royals, especially in Roman garb, became popular with European monarchs aiming for absolute power.  A statue of Louis XIV as a Roman general was planned by a Maréchal of France for erection in Paris, intended to curry favour with the sovereign by commemorating his military victories following the signing of the Treaties of Nijmegen (1678-79). The king commissioned the famous sculptor Desjardins to produce the multi- figure statue: Louis, crowned by Victory above, and on the pedestal below him, at eye level, bronze representations of the four nations he had conquered, enslaved in chains. In 1792, during the French Revolution, the statue was torn down, along with other images of the monarchy and the clergy, to be melted down for scrap metal. The four representations of the chained, subject nations remained in place, but their iron chains were broken by the crowd—becoming a symbol for the reclamation of power by those oppressed in tyranny.


The second half of the twentieth century heralded the end of colonial rule in Asia and Africa, and, eventually, the collapse of Soviet control over Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This led to frantic efforts to make, break and re-make statues all over the world.

Secular public statuary was a British introduction to India (previous rulers, especially Muslim kings, had not created statues of themselves in this way). After independence, India’s approach to colonial-era statues was unsystematic and varied. In 1965, a  small group of protestors broke off the nose and ears of a statue of George V in front of India Gate, and the statue was relocated in 1968, eventually ending up in Coronation Park in North Delhi. Debates dragged on and it was not until 1970 that all statues of colonial officials were removed in New Delhi, the Indian capital. In Kolkata, the statue of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, hated by Indian nationalists, was replaced by that of the revolutionary-turned-saint Aurobindo, with the cherubs left in place around the plinth producing a rather incongruous effect. The enormous statue of Queen Victoria, however, remains comfortably enthroned outside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, devoid of any political threat. Revealing where the political thrust really lies, populist right-wing iconoclasm in India has instead been directed towards post-independence statues of the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, and other socio-religious reformers  denounced as cultural traitors.

Many commentators trace contemporary campaigns to remove statues to the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa in 2015, when a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was covered in excrement and protesting students demanded it be torn down. But across the African continent, too, the removal of statues has a longer history. After gaining independence in 1980, Zimbabwe called for the removal of statues of Rhodes from prominent sites across Harare and Bulawayo. The ruling ZANU-PF party campaigned for all images of the man and other colonialists like him to be moved to a ‘museum of oppression’ as they believed that ‘even beyond the grave men such as Rhodes exerted an evil influence.’ In what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a statue of King Leopold II, erected in 1928, was ordered to be removed by Mobutu Sese Seko in 1967, seven years after the country gained independence from Belgium. After sitting in a garbage dump for four decades, the statue was resurrected in 2005 and placed in Kinshasa city centre as a reminder of the horrors of colonialism. Its second lease of life was short-lived, however, as within 24 hours public outrage led authorities to quietly re-home the statue in a less prominent position in a museum garden.

At the end of the Cold War, the destruction of Lenin statues became synonymous with the collapse of Communism: from Addis Ababa, following with fall of the Derg government in 1991, to his removal across the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe. Much statuary was not destroyed, however. Sometimes it was quarantined: Communist-era objects were moved and displayed in statue parks such as Memento Park in Hungary and Grūtas Park in Lithuania. These were located in remote spaces outside cities where the power of monumental objects could be deadened and their political irrelevance confirmed. But some Communist-era monuments survived in public spaces. Recently, with the rise of nativist populism across the world, such remnants have become re-politicised. In India, many Lenin statues endured despite the country’s liberalization; but in the last three years, as Hindu nationalists took power, they have been widely attacked – most notably in West Bengal and Tripura. And in Germany, concerns have been raised about the memorials to Red Army liberation that survived Communism’s collapse: now used as meeting places for far right groups, often with links to Russia, they no longer remain aesthetically intriguing remnants of a past that is dead and gone. And the Stalinist aesthetic has made a comeback: North Korea has developed a profitable industry in the 2010s sculpting statues in this style, re-commemorating a first generation of independence leaders across Africa.

In the USA, removal of Confederate statues and monuments has become emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement amid its broader decolonising efforts to topple the imperium of American white supremacy. In recent weeks, over 30 cities in the USA have either removed or are planning to remove Confederate monuments, even as rightwing populists like Republican President Donald Trump remain committed to defending them, arguing that the removal of statues of Confederate generals equated to ripping apart “the history and culture of our great country” and destroying “the beauty . . . of our cities, towns and parks.” Yet the history behind the statues themselves, let alone the figures they represent, tells a very different story. The vast majority of the country’s hundreds of Confederate monuments were built not in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, but at key moments in the twentieth century as part of efforts to legitimate and preserve white supremacy. The first surge in Confederate statue-making occurred in the early 1900s against the backdrop of widespread extra-judicial lynching and Jim Crow legislation, which disenfranchised black Americans. The next big spike occurred in the South after the Second World War to counteract the country’s growing civil rights movement. The lack of rightwing opposition to the now-iconic, carefully choreographed toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad by US psy-ops in April 2003 only further belies the objections made by the Confederate statues’ defenders today.

US soldiers at the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, Iraq, 2003 (Image: Mike Moore).


Just because statues are removed, it doesn’t stop them – or some of the values they represent – from returning. For example, the statue of Kaiser Wilhem I in Koblenz, originally erected in 1897, was destroyed by Allied Forces in 1945, but reinstated, in replica form, in 1993. The return of the Kaiser was not without controversy: it was felt by some to espouse values of the nineteenth century rather than those of a newly unified Germany in the 1990s. In the Croatian capital Zagreb, a statue dedicated to Ban (governor of Croatia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) Josip Jelacic was erected in 1866. Following the Second World War and the creation of socialist Yugoslavia, the statue was disassembled and removed, being viewed as a defunct symbol of Austrian control over Croatia, only to be reinstalled in 1990 after Croatia became independent and seceded from the Yugoslav federation.

Examples such as these, throughout history and from across the world, demonstrate that a public statue is never simply ‘cultural heritage’; it is a representation of political consensus – or simply power – and a claim to public space. Unsurprisingly, over time societies find new heroes to honour, whose achievements and values more accurately reflect their own concerns and aspirations. And this is why, for all the voices that disagree with the removal of Colston, it is striking how few wish him to return. He was a man of his time, and one whose failures previous societies could overlook. Yet for all his wealth and his philanthropy – and knowing what we do of the current injustices he helped to create – we would not choose to celebrate him now.

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