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The snakes and ladders game of statues

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PROTESTERS toppled the statue of Edward Colston rather as the Taliban destroyed those massive Buddhas carved into the rock in Afghanistan 2,000 years ago. Eric Gill’s Prospero and Ariel carving has been damaged – further cultural vandalism. Karl Marx’s bust remains intact in Highgate Cemetery, but Churchill is under attack for some reason. General Robert E Lee, talisman for ‘the South’ in the American Civil War, has been removed Charlottesville Robert E. Lee statue to be melted down for public art project (nypost.com) and will be melted down for new art, along with many other Confederate statues.

Different reasons and motives lie behind such removals of iconic figures. Eric Gill was a great sculptor but his sexual abuse of his children and sisters stains his biography. Does that necessitate smashing his art work, as if somehow purifying the world from his sins? No one is claiming that Gill’s statues endorse his worst personal wrongs. Tolstoy would suffer cancellation for his treatment of his wife, and Dickens for his, and so on. The Taliban’s destruction of those astonishing Buddhas was an act of cultural imperialism, of symbolically eradicating any religion in Afghanistan other than their own, as did the Conquistadors to their vanquished South American Indians. Should Spain destroy statues of Columbus?

How does the passage of time affect this judgment of statues; how do we relate the ‘then’ and the ‘now’? Historical interpretation goes beyond antiquarianism on the one hand and anachronism on the other, that is freezing the frame 300 years ago on Colston or using modern cultural norms on figures of the past, as perhaps assuming that Gladstone was using prostitutes when he was trying to convert them to Christianity on his midnight walks. Historians won’t let the horizons of the past be determinative for their present interpretation, nor try to impose the horizons of the present on the past.

The notion that Colston’s slaving is approved of now is grotesque. Why not leave him there as a reminder of that? Prime Minister William Pitt repented on behalf of the nation for ‘this abominable traffic’ in his motion of 1792. Urging the abolition of the slave trade, he told the House of Commons: ‘We may now consider this trade as having received its condemnation; that its sentence is sealed; that this curse of mankind is seen by the House in its true light; and that the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed, is about to be removed.’

History continues, it is not just a freezing of the frame, and the repentance of the British state was also enacted in its suppression of the Arab slave trade by the Royal Navy. Freezing the frame with Colston as the ongoing marker of British morality and policy is bad history, antiquarianism. Britain’s history post Pitt has been what the statue wreckers desired. There is no pro-slavery movement in Britain or Europe. But I very much doubt whether the Colston statue wreckers will be wanting a William Pitt or William Wilberforce celebration day or statue. Their real motives for going back 300 years are more anarchic and less positive; they want to undermine British values and history. What is going on is the use of statues on which to project the ideology of a political movement. 

Karl Marx’s bronze bust symbolises their anti-western motivation, I guess. Marx’s doctrines lie behind immense Soviet murder, racism and oppression, but his bust remains in Highgate, rightly, as a deeply influential thinker, and in fact his thought might be relevant to the BLM attacks on western civilisation, a version of Nigerian ‘Boko Haram’.

Speaking of Nigeria, Robert Tombs’s account of a Woke event in Jesus College Cambridge might be apt in closing, and a reminder to historians to ensure that they do rigorous work on the ‘then’ pole of history writing. This story is about a bronze figure of a cockerel taken from Nigeria in the 19th century and kept in Jesus College. Tombs’s last two paragraphs are worth quoting – beyond parody and hardly an advert for the Cambridge History Faculty:

‘Jesus College has also just ostentatiously returned to Nigeria a “Benin Bronze”, seized during a British punitive expedition against the slave-owning Kingdom of Benin in 1897, following the slaughter of a diplomatic mission. Of course, the college is free to donate its property as it wishes, and it could have decided, unobtrusively, that a brass cockerel from Nigeria would be more appreciated in its ancestral homeland than merely by being placed on a dinner table in Cambridge during feasts.

‘But instead, the college staged a fulsome ceremony, in which the statuette was handed to a descendant of the Obas of Benin, the slavers from whom it was confiscated. The British who freed the Obas’ slaves were described by the Master as having committed “a wrong that is so egregious”. Slaving by Africans, it would seem, is not worth a mention. At Jesus College, the Master added, “we teach, we educate.” It is hardly surprising if Cambridge students thereby acquire strange notions of history.’

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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