Tearing down statues of oppressors is not censorship

A bronze statue of Edward Colston atop a stone monument with four figures on a lower plinth.
Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol (erected 1895, toppled 2020)

Murderers are not a section of society that is held in great respect in our society, much as in others. Until the 1960s if convicted they were hanged; since then they have been subject to life imprisonment, and if released, they will be on lifetime supervision. Those who kill multiple victims or who sexually abuse or otherwise torture their victims first are often given whole-life sentences or in any case are never released. Their name will live on in infamy for a good few generations. There is one exception, however: people who were responsible for sometimes hundreds, thousands or more deaths in the service of their country, or whose victims were foreign and deemed “less than”, and who splashed money around their home city, will live on in statues and places named after them: concert halls, hospital wards and wings, railway stations, colleges, streets, squares.

Last year in Bristol, a statue of the slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston (1636-1721) was torn down and toppled into a harbour by a group of protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. A concert hall that had been named after him (on the site of a school he founded, which has since relocated to the suburbs) was renamed Bristol Beacon. A society which had existed to commemorate Colston for 275 years also disbanded last year. Colston had traded wine, textiles and fish but was also a member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on English trading along the west coast of Africa, from 1680 to 1692 and served as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690 (the king or queen was governor) and during his involvement, 84,000 Africans were transported to the Americas of whom well over a fifth died along the way. The appalling treatment of slaves while being transported to the Americas is well-known: being walked for hundreds of miles in chains, being kept chained together naked in the hold, being whipped, being thrown overboard if sick. (Another detail that might interest a Labour council is that the crews of these ships also had a 20% mortality rate.)

Yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government, announced that the government would be bringing forward legislation to make it more difficult to remove statues and other memorials such as the Colston statue (the article is paywalled but there is a Twitter thread summarising the article by the paper’s assistant editor here). He claims that the memorials were often erected by public subscription and its removals are “an attempt to impose a single, often negative, narrative which not so much recalls our national story as seeks to erase part of it”. He attributes this to both “the flash mob” and “the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants or woke worthies”. He accuses the Labour Party, including the present leadership, of threatening to remove tombs of those it calls “offenders” and of changing Birmingham street names from those of historical figures to names like “Diversity Grove” and “Humanity Close”. (This is a modern-day Winterval myth; the streets in Perry Barr given these names were new, part of a redevelopment of a former university campus.) Councillors are elected, so their decisions are quite distinct from self-appointed mob violence, although if such things cannot be carried out by a local democratic process, the danger of such monuments being sabotaged is that much greater.

Jenrick then claims that “at the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored”. Memorials are not ‘history’ but are a statement about history. We still know who Colston was and what he did without having a statue of him — indeed, we know better thanks to the BLM protesters. A statue of someone or a street or building named after them is a testament to their worthiness and greatness. If a statue towers over people as they go to work, if people have to travel every day through a railway station named after a particular person, if a town hall is named after them, it tells people that this person has official approval or is celebrated. It may not hurt if the people oppressed by that person were not your ancestors, but if they were, it might well do. If the person celebrated by a street name led the army that repressed your people’s movement for self-determination so that they could profit from your people’s labour and country’s produce, or enslaved your ancestors, it might well rankle. When people first arrive in a country, of course they do not have the right to tear down monuments or insist streets or buildings be renamed to suit them, but when they have been with us for two or three generations, they have a right not to be offended on a daily basis by monuments to their forefathers’ enslavers or oppressors.

Jenrick proposes that a “proper process will be required” and that removals of “historic monuments” be performed only after consultation with the local community and if councils fail to do this, the Secretary of State will use his powers to “reflect the Government’s planning policies”. I am sure he is well aware that councils of all parties are notorious for conducting ‘consultations’ that hardly anyone hears about and the results of which are interpreted selectively, so if he seeks to remedy this so that unnecessary 20mph speed limits can no longer be inflicted on whole boroughs on the basis of no public demand whatsoever, that will be very welcome. However, it could be that some people are not bothered by a statue of a politician or financial benefactor from decades or centuries past but a substantial minority, descended from people they oppressed, is offended by being reminded of their ‘greatness’ every day. The greater good is not always the same as what the majority want.

Myra Hindley, one of the two notorious “Moors murderers” of 1960s Manchester, spent most of her life imprisoned for the five murders she and Ian Brady committed when she was in her twenties. Later in her life, she sent a cheque for a small amount to a children’s charity; the cheque was returned. They did not want her money, even though it had nothing to do with her crimes; it may have been earned while in prison or had been given her by relatives or supporters. If we believe that the lives of African people are worth as much as those of the children of Manchester, we really should not be protecting monuments to a man closely involved in a trade that treated human beings like mere inanimate property, tossing them into the ocean or sinking whole ships full of them for money. At a certain point, someone’s largesse becomes less significant than their crimes and the suffering and death they cause.

Image source: William Avery, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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