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.
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. Continue reading “Who wants yesterday’s statues?”
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