Statues are part of history

posted in: History, Life and things | 0
By Ashley Pomeroy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Dearie me. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has now taken on the task of cleaning up history – in particular, statues.

Let’s not get too precious about this. It’s been going on throughout human history. Christians destroyed so many ‘pagan’ monuments. Muslims destroyed any statue of ‘god’. etc etc

In more recent times, remember the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan? Blown away by the Taliban. Closer to home, I wrote a post in 2012 about the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen which has proudly stood in the square in Hoorn (a town in the Netherlands) for several hundred years. He was Governor of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia during the 1620s and his treatment of the locals was not at all nice. But despite a suggestion that the statue be replaced, it’s still there. In fact, the Dutch as colonial masters were just as bad as the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the English…

Similarly, a group several years ago pushed for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University because of his record as a colonial master. The BLM protests have revived this particular debate, which is reported in the Guardian newspaper. The discussion isn’t over but since Rhodes made it possible for many talented young men to attend the prestigious university, perhaps there are shades of grey to be considered. After all, Rhodes was a product of his time.

It’s easy enough to roll one’s eyes and accuse these people of trying to change history – or at least, the perception of history. But it’s never that simple. The men (most of them were male – but that’s another issue) of whom the statues were erected were products of their time. It is unreasonable to judge them by the mores of the current day. Removing a statue does not change or white wash history, it indicates a change in the present society’s values.

Why does society erect statues? I suppose as a recognition of an individual’s contribution to the society that puts up the likeness. Others are monuments to particular events. A statue of a person reflects the standing of the individual within the society in which they are erected. Or, if you’re an absolute ruler, how you expect to be considered (or else). Examples of the latter include Queen Victoria, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. The world applauded as Saddam’s huge statue was torn down at the “end” of the Iraq war. As our perceptions of the world change, perhaps other statues deserve the same fate.

I don’t agree with scrapping the statues. They are an important record of the past, but they should be in a museum, where a little bit more can be said about them than a few dates on a plinth. So, I think the statue of slave trader Edward Colston which stood proudly in Bristol until it was torn down and thrown into the harbour recently (read that story here) should be fished out and put in the local museum, where visitors can learn about Colston as a brutal slave trader as well as a philanthropist.

In America, protesters have quite a few statues on their hit list. I think it’s fair to suggest that statues of Confederate generals, erected decades after the Civil War was fought and lost and having little or nothing to do with the fallen on both sides, smack of white supremacy. This article in History Today explains their origin and their role in reflecting the segregationist beliefs of the white population who erected them. It seems to me that black Americans have every right to protest. In a similar vein, The Emancipation Memorial, which shows Abraham Lincoln standing with a liberated slave kneeling at his feet, is maybe a bit controversial in this day and age.

It’s great to see a new, powerful statue for Harriet Tubman, who was the best known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that helped thousands of enslaved black Americans make their way to freedom in the north in the early-to-mid 1800s. Tubman herself escaped slavery in 1849, then kept returning to the Underground Railroad, risking her life to help lead others to freedom.

Certainly, the statue of Theodore Roosevelt riding a horse, flanked by a native American and a black American on foot, reminds me very much of the statue in the foyer of the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, where magic users are superior to other entities (like Muggles) in society. The Theodore Roosevelt statue will be removed and put on display in a museum. (Read more here) In summary, the Smithsonian said “We have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism. Simply put, the time has come to move it.”

However, the attacks on many statues simply reveal the ignorance of the perpetrators. In Australia, statues of Captain Cook, who explored Australia’s east coast in 1770, have been vandalised. The man was an explorer. He had nothing to do with setting up a colony in 1788.

The desecration of Churchill’s statue in London will have done the BLM protesters a real disservice. World War II might be ancient history for today’s kids – but it isn’t for the older generation. It’s part of our family history and Churchill’s role in stopping the Nazi tide was pivotal. Yes, he made some mistakes in his younger years. Show me someone who hasn’t.

There’s another side, too. Here in Australia there aren’t too many monuments to aboriginal people – even when they’re an important part of white Australia’s celebrated events. For instance, we’re taught Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Australia. We even know his cat, Trim, went with him. But he had an aboriginal companion, without whom he would have found it difficult to survive in this strange land. There are statues to Flinders, and to his cat, but not to Bungaree. That strikes me as wrong. But here’s a link to his story, so you can at least read about the first Australian to sail around his own country. (Flinders was a Pom)

Maybe there should be a statue erected to Jandamarra, an aboriginal leader who fought a war against white settlers taking over his lands. It’s a fascinating, and little-known, story, documented here. As a child I was taught that there was little resistance to white colonial rule in Australia. That wasn’t true. But the only statues that I know of erected for an aboriginal hero was that of Yagan. One stands on Heirisson Island in the Swan River close to Perth’s CBD, and the second stands in the middle of the city in a square that bears his name. Read about it here. It’s good to see Perth coming to terms with real history (that is, told from both sides).

So, let’s not overestimate the importance of statues – and let’s not underestimate them, either. They reflect the values of the people who put them up. Sometimes, those values become cringeworthy and it may be time for change. But sometimes they symbolise events that should never be forgotten. The statue at the top of this piece is called the Children of Lidice, erected to the memory of people murdered in a particularly nasty Nazi atrocity in WW2. Presumably, those who believe the Holocaust never happened would want to take it down…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.