In the latest stage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, crowds have now taken to either protesting for the removal of statues in cities and towns across the country or just taking it upon themselves to go ahead and dismantle these statues then and there. But why? What’s the point of removing these historical figures that we have immortalised in stone for so many decades already?
This current fixation on statues in the news comes after protestors in Bristol tore down the figure of Edward Colston, a slave trader who was directly involved in the enslavement of 84,000 Africans – 19,000 of which died in passage on the Atlantic, whilst the rest met the horrific reality of a life in slavery.
Perhaps if you did not know about Colston’s barbaric past then your first thought when hearing the news of his statue’s (un)timely demise at the bottom of the Bristol Harbour was that the protestors had gone too far with this act of vandalism and that it tears away at the foundation of our country’s history.
But now that you know the truth behind how Colston attained his wealth and came to be immortalised in stone – a grand afterlife that came at the price of others. Maybe instead you might ask “Well why the hell was this man put on a pedestal in the first place? And why did we leave him up there until 2020?”
Pro-Colston advocates will argue that Colston earned his stature through his philanthropy, although historians have said this is a dubious claim at best. Yes, he did donate to schools and churches and even founded a boy’s school, however, this was mainly used as a resource for recruiting sailors for his ships and his generosity was believed to have been used as a way to try and patch up tensions as the working class began to rise up.
Sure, we could all pick a side and then fixate on just the good or the bad parts of the man’s legacy which would no doubt leave us all divided about what version of history we tell. But frankly put, we’re a whole 20 years into the 21st century, the slave trade ended 1807 in the UK, so at what point do we all rally together and say, let’s vow to give no more praise to one of humanity’s cruellest and most brutal failures. Perhaps instead we give the spaces to those more deserving because whilst there are many evil figures that haunt our past, there are also many heroes whose stories are barely told, let alone given praise.
Ultimately, I would like to think that in our modern world we have progressed far enough to make the conclusive decision to not give those who have built their legacy by harming others a spot of glory on our streets. Instead, we keep them confined to the history books where we can debate, learn and never let the situation which allowed them to thrive be repeated.
During this debate, a lot of people have raised the point that by removing statues like that of Colston, perhaps all we are doing is trying to change and manipulate history – which cannot be a good thing! But let me ask you this, when was the last time you learned about history from a statue? (be honest) and if you did was the version of history you learned just a glorified tale of that person’s life or was it the whole story, good and bad?
In a way, these statues themselves are the biggest contradiction to that argument because they are a manipulation of history which creates a positive legacy for men like Edward Colston, Robert Clive and yes, even Winston Churchill – all of who have committed humanitarian atrocities and yet are standing majestically tall in our streets ready to receive our admiration. By putting historical figures on a pedestal it leads to the notion that they have led good, honourable and deserving lives which we should gain inspiration from, and yet for so many of these figures, that just isn’t true.
All I ask is we don’t mistake asking for the removal of these figures as a history rewrite. No one wants to rewrite history, especially Black Lives Matter activists because what purpose would that serve the cause? If we pretend these atrocities did not happen and the people who orchestrated them did not exist then we are ignoring the BLM movement’s request for us all to learn from the past and adjust the present. The aim here is to create a world which condemns racism and the institutions that still uphold it so we can give black communities the same opportunities to thrive. These statues are part of the problematic narratives we tell which prevents this from happening.
How can we say equality has been achieved and our systems are fair whilst in the same breath we use historical figures guilty of unthinkable evils to symbolise the parts of our country’s legacy which we are most proud of – what message does that send to BAME citizens? If you still don’t understand then let me share these comparisons for you below:
Every year I send my grandmother a very small statue of Hitler so she doesn’t forget she survived the Holocaust. It’s not fun for either one of us, but it’s literally the only way.— Ian Karmel (@IanKarmel) June 7, 2020
So what’s next? or shall we say who is next? Yes, unfortunately, the problem is far greater than just one or two ill-conceived statues and if we want to throw conviction behind our endeavours for change then the other statues and the devastation they represent also need to go. Perhaps this time if we all get behind the cause then this can be done by local governments and not protestors.
To get involved check out the site toppletheracists.org who have created a map to highlight where these problematic statues still remain across the UK, perhaps even in your hometown. Their mission statement is as follows:
We believe these statues and other memorials to slave-owners and colonialists need to be removed so that Britain can finally face the truth about its past – and how it shapes our present.
All that remains is for us to take some action, whether that is signing petitions to remove other problematic statues across the country or supporting the first-ever major UK memorial for victims of the slave trade. Yes, the FIRST because whilst we’ve dedicated many spaces to those who perpetuated and profited from slavery, we apparently never found the funds or space on our streets to commemorate the victims.
It might seem like just a statue, but it’s not just a statue. It’s many statues, all of which perpetuate a biased narrative that is reductive of past suffering and remains a constant reminder of the praise the white western world is still willing to give to those who caused it. We can do better, we must!
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