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In a country with a long history, there’s a target for everyone

June 8, 2020
John Newton

I am, family tradition has it, a descendant of a slave trader who repented. John Newton wrote the words to Amazing Grace. Actually, family tradition is probably wrong, because he had no direct descendants. But there are enough Newtons in my family tree who, like John, became clergymen, for me to feel that we may be distant cousins. Either way, the slaver-turned-abolitionist occupies a special place in my heart.

Proud as I am of John Newton’s redemptive story, I feel conflicted over the fate of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, not because it shouldn’t have been taken down. It should. By legal means, and a long time ago. That it wasn’t is a failing on the part of our society.

What concerns me is that we’ve just endured a long-running saga of public outrage against Dominic Cummings who allegedly broke the law governing lockdown. Or might, according to Durham Police, have done so.

So, by cheering on those who dragged Colston’s statue off its plinth and chucked it off the harbour front, clearly in breach of laws against vandalism, are we not a little inconsistent when we pour shit over Cummings for appearing to break the law on another matter? Do we now pick and choose which laws we obey?

But Cummings is small beer. There are bigger fish to fry.

Once we’re done with the effigies of Bomber Harris, Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, Robert Clive and every other historical figure with aspects of their careers of which we’re not proud, what’s next? Do we go after the monarchs who presided over the deeds of their subjects? Queen Victoria, George III, Charles II, even as far back as Edward I, who decided to rid his country of its Jews?

And when all the offending statues have been cast down and thrown into the nearest water, do we then go for tombs and gravestones? Plenty of them to be found in Westminster Abbey. And once desecrating graveyards becomes a fashion, perhaps there will be another bunch of people who will smash up Jewish cemeteries and daub paint over Muslim gravestones? Oh, wait a minute, we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

After that, how about offending artefacts in the British Museum, and portraits of bad people in the National Portrait Gallery? And how about banning books we don’t like?

In a country with two thousand years of recorded history, you could say that there’s a target for everyone, from Julius Caesar the Gaul-slayer onwards.

None of this takes away from the fundamental righteousness of removing Edward Colston from his plinth, and in the United States taking Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis from their places in the hearts of the cities where their effigies stand.

But those decisions need to be taken in accordance with the law. And if those responsible for public monuments can’t be persuaded to remove images and statues that are offensive to large numbers of their communities, then they should be shamed into doing so, by peaceful persuasion, non-violent protest or even the ballot box.

And I don’t buy into the objection that by confining the statues of people like Colston to a museum, we are erasing or re-writing history. But one of the problems of mass protests is that they tend to allow no nuance. You’re either right or wrong, virtuous or wicked, with us or against us.

But history is all about context, about competing viewpoints, about understanding a world which isn’t the one we’re living in today. Unless we believe that there are certain timeless values that don’t change from one era to the next, we will never understand why those statues were erected in the first place.

Each generation defines its world as it sees it, and bequeaths another layer of perception to the next. What the statues of Colston, Lee, Churchill and Clive teach us is that we should never be so arrogant as to assume that reputations are forever. That for me, is the joy of history, and why destruction will never snuff out nuance and reflection, even if it’s the signature of an age.

So by all means, let’s take down the statues that are offensive to our age, but let’s preserve them and put them in places where they can be seen in context, even if that context – and therefore potentially their location – changes from one generation to the next.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK

10 Comments
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Hurrah!!!
    Yes, don’t destroy! don’t riot! don’t decide for others and for all time!
    take time to discuss, to teach and learn.

    Don’t just look
    SEE
    don’t just hear
    LISTEN
    don’t just feel
    THINK
    then, take the time to converse, challenge your views by discussing with people who have come to other conclusions. Don’t believe you’re right and the other wrong. Don’t preach at

    oh dear, there I go again.
    preaching.
    There is a way forward, but we must do it en masse. Let’s not make the mistake of rushing into desperate situations making them more so.

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Thought provoking article. The answer was provided yesterday by Keir Starmer in his phone-in interview will LBC. Such statues should be immortalised in museums (local or national? ), with a “why they were put up, and why they were taken down” plaque listening commentary over headphones in 25 languages.

    A National Statue Museum would be my personal idea – a tourism and school trip destination – an idea you clearly disagree with – although you agree with the Colston removal. Your opinion is muddied. I personally would not include sarcophagi, for instance.

    What we should keep are the plinths and the BURNING question is, who do we put up in place of those taken down? Answers pn a postcard…..

    Good read! Thanks.

    • Thanks Andrew. I wasn’t aware of Starmer’s comments when I wrote it. Museum’s are a good idea. In Bristol’s case, in a city museum (if they have one) or in a museum dedicated to slavery. Re at national statue museum, perhaps, but the only context would presumably be “famous Brits”. The nearest thing to it that I’ve visited is the Pantheon room in the Prague National Museum. The statues are of famous Czech artists, scientists, philosophers etc. Trouble is that were no bios or translations when we visited, and after a while I lost the will to live! More about it here: https://www.praha.eu/jnp/en/news/the_national_museum_invites_you_to_the.html

      I have no answer to the question on plinths, but in the case of Colston, I’m sure there would be many contemporary sculptors who would be happy to produce a work on the theme of slavery. The plinth could explain what was once there. S

  3. Your soap box will one day be a pedestal, Deborah

  4. deborah a moggio permalink

    Blushing

  5. deborah a moggio permalink

    would rather keep my feet on the ground. Don’t do well at heights.

    • Never been up Liberty then?

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        Yes, when I was a child. My father followed me up and I him down. He had ankylosing spondylitis, and had to go up on hands and knees, down, sideways.
        That’s true love.

      • Sure is Debby. Thanks for sharing.

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