Toby Shields considers the conservative arguments made against taking statues down and why these are necessary acts in any move toward a progressive political future.
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a member of the Minneapolis police department. His death served as a catalyst for the recent series of worldwide protests which have been fuelled and kept alive by years of dissatisfaction with institutionally racist systems. In the UK, perhaps one of the most powerfully symbolic moments came when Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol tore down the statue of Edward Colston—which had haunted the city centre since 1895—and cast it into the same harbour where his slave ships had docked centuries before. In the words of one of the Bristolians who were kind enough to speak to me about the matter, ‘the majority of people agree it was the right thing to do’. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Colston was not a good man and clearly Bristolians are overwhelmingly happy with the removal of his statue, yet it has provoked a strange backlash, predominantly from middle-aged, white men who are using social media to insist that this is some sort of violent affront on history. I hate to break it to the somewhat unbelievable amount of lifelong members to the Edward Colston fan club who have suddenly emerged, but this is not the case.
Colston was a slaver, responsible for the ‘enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died’ crossing the Atlantic. Furthermore, the extent of his philanthropy is often romanticised, with Kenneth Morgan noting how those hoping to benefit from his work had to adhere to ‘strict rules, in a way that emphasised his Anglican and High Tory beliefs’. As someone who is indisputably unqualified to comment on the movement, my support has taken the form of solidarity at protests, donations and self-education, yet as a recent history graduate, I felt compelled to express my thoughts on this issue. The term ‘history’ has been thrown around somewhat carelessly by those who not only have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it entails, but are attempting to satisfy their own ideology through its misappropriation. This must stop, and I hope that if someone who has previously condemned the removal of Colston’s statue reads this they are able to reconsider their former ideological incoherence. Here, some of the main arguments that have emerged from the endless stream of increasingly depressing opinions shared over the internet are examined, and hopefully, significantly challenged.
‘Removing the Statue Erases History’
The claim that the removal of Colston’s statue erases history is a bold one which requires a certain degree of scepticism to examine. Is it possible to erase all the past pain and suffering through the removal of a monument, especially when the legacy of the slave trade is still negatively affecting the lives of black people in the present? Those who are now so keen to preserve Colston were not equally invested in the preservation of history over the past years which have seen peaceful attempts to remove the statue from ‘Bristol’s black community, historians and campaigners’. Now the issue is in the public eye however, those have not demonstrated a previous interest have appointed themselves as the brave defenders of history, yet ascribe to an outdated, ‘whiggish’ interpretation of the subject. These people are not defending history, but rather their preferred narrative of the past which they view as a linear progression of interconnecting events with a continual focus on progression. As the Whig interpretation of the subject is so wrapped up in this idea of progress, those who ascribe to it will likely consider Colston one of history’s ‘heroes’ for his philanthropy. This way of studying history has been drilled into us from a young age in our schools which predominantly focus on examination success rates as opposed to historical accuracy. We are taught stories, yet left in the dark when it comes to the agents and events which challenge them, leading to a failure to grasp the proper historical context (incidentally, this is partly why it is vital we decolonise the curriculum).
Ascribing to certain narratives that come hand in hand with Whig History such as progress and (not so shockingly) English exceptionalism, is not only incredibly reductive, but also dangerous. If we’re really going to talk about the erasure of history, why are the black histories that would be overlooked if Colston’s statue remained in place not so staunchly defended? Statues feed into these narratives, as they do not provide an adequate contextual representation of those they depict (anyone who believes they do is fooling themselves). Instead, they glorify their subjects, placing them on a quite literal pedestal, and no plaque that may or may not be placed at their base can change this. As one Bristolian notes, the Colston statue was ‘idolising someone who was a massive part of the slave trade’. Had it remained, this would have continued to feed into these people’s preferred and simplified narrative; that he was a complex historical figure who brought progress to the city of Bristol. In turn, this would only have ensured that the voices of black people remained unheard. The removal of Colston did not erase history, as the very act of toppling the statue is history itself. Instead, what was erased were these dangerously false narratives, as history is not just one linear progression, but constructed from a plurality of ideas, identities and events.
Once it has been established that an understanding of history depends on an understanding of this plurality, then the removal of the statue can only be understood as a good thing given that it is now to be displayed in a museum, ‘alongside Black Lives Matter placards’. In other words, within its proper historical context (a change welcomed by the city’s residents). Furthermore, ‘a commission of historians and other experts’ will now delve into Bristol’s past in order to better understand its ‘true history’. If someone still finds themselves disingenuously opposing the events of the 7th of June in the name of ‘history’ with this knowledge in mind, then they need to think about what it is they truly object to.
‘The Statue Should Have Been Removed Peacefully’
The condemnation of protests which utilise violence to achieve their aims is always to be expected. Boris Johnson, for example, has dismissed the protests as ‘thuggery’. In the case of Black Lives Matter, this accusation will always be levelled against those fighting for a fairer society given the polarised nature of the country. In a recent analysis, Peter Pomerantsev has acknowledged how a society prone to tribalism is also prone to ‘knowledge rejection’ where ‘identity trumps truth’. In such a society, those who are more conservative, traditional and (in their minds) patriotic in nature will be keen to dismiss challenges to their preferred historical narrative as violent thuggery, regardless of the information presented to them. We can see this phenomenon clearly happening in increasingly polarised societies. In the United States, for example, the idea that protestors need to operate non-violently is a regular talking point for the pundits, yet Colin Kaepernick is still condemned for taking a knee in protest of police violence. His actions were dismissed by those who belong to a section of society who could not reconcile their worldview with the points he was trying to make.
There are, however, those who seem more genuine in their support for the protests but still question (or believe they are qualified to lecture the oppressed on) whether violence is a proportional response. Keir Starmer deemed the removal of Colson’s statue to be ‘completely wrong’ whilst answering questions from the public on LBC. Bizarrely, however, he stated that it should never have been there and wished it had been brought down with ‘consent’. Given that the aforementioned peaceful attempts to remove Colston failed to bring about any positive change, it rather begs the question: how does Starmer believe the statue should have been removed? He believes it should be placed in a museum, which is now happening, and he believes it should have come down, which it did. So why question the means through which his supposed goals were actually achieved when his preferred method of accomplishing them has not worked in the past? You cannot truly be in favour of the removal of racist statues whilst simultaneously giving salience to the idea that those who removed them are also at fault.
Anyone who really believes that the statue coming down is more important than the manner in which the protestors conducted themselves recognises the inherent value in non-peaceful protests. As academic Gene Sharp states: ‘obedience is at the heart of political power’. Governments rely on the skills provided by the populace to operate; the greater the disobedience, the more likely it is that the disobedient act will have an impact. In the case of Colston, this is becoming abundantly clear given the elevated level of discourse now surrounding what a statue represents, the placement of Colston within the correct historical context and the renewed focus on removing racist figures from the elevated positions which they had previously occupied and been idolised in. The removal of Colston sends a strong message that would not have been received through a peaceful protest; that the integration of racist statues into Britain’s infrastructure will no longer be accepted, and, if necessary, separated from it by the people who inhabit these spaces. This is an important message to send to those will attempt to dismiss a strategy that has proved itself more effective than their preferred option. Now, there is a still huge amount of progress to be made if we are to truly combat systemic racism, after all the first thing the establishment will concede on is the aesthetics. The removal of Colston, however, is still ‘a really progressive change’ and the way in which it was removed would always have been condemned, yet was necessary given its effectiveness.
‘Colston Did a Lot of Good in His Time’
There are two points here which need to be challenged in order to understand the incoherence of this argument. Firstly, when people are weighing up what they perceive to be the good and bad parts of Colston’s past, they are essentially making a utilitarian calculation, the implication of this being that the happiness his philanthropy may have brought could possibly outweigh the pain and suffering caused through his role in the slave trade, therefore justifying his place in Bristol’s city centre. If we are to actually entertain this, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to accurately measure concepts such as happiness or suffering, or how deeply twisted it is to suggest the benefits of slavery offer some sort of justification, the supposed logic of this argument still doesn’t make sense. Assuming that the positive or negative change in each individual’s life as a result of Colston’s actions can be quantified and ranked, between 1672 and 1689 his company transported 100,000 slaves, yet Bristol’s population was only at 18,000 in 1670. Further, those who argue that future generations may have benefitted from his philanthropy are conveniently forgetting the poisonous legacy of slavery which has had enduring effects.
Secondly, this argument carries with it the implication that Colston should not be judged in the present by our moral standards, but rather those of ‘his time’. But would anyone suggest that the opinions of those who have always opposed slavery can’t be considered valid because of the time in which they were shared? This argument implies that throughout Colston’s life slavery was universally accepted, yet—as was brilliantly articulated by Dalia Gebrial in a recent article from Novara Media—the existence of these statues ‘negates the moral standards of those who revolted against their conditions from the very beginning’. This further highlights the absolute necessity that we begin to understand history as a plurality of viewpoints. The statue was an obstacle on the road to a well-balanced understanding of history, invalidating the moral standards of the oppressed and glorifying an abhorrent man with no such standards. To leave it in place would have been to send ‘a horrible message’ to Britain’s black population; that they must adapt to a society which is happy to immortalise and idolise those who enslaved their ancestors.
I hope the replies given to these arguments are sufficient, and someone may be able to reconsider why it is they really oppose the removal of Colston. Ultimately, however, it is just as important to make the emotional case as well as the historical, logical and moral ones. I am not suggesting for a second that it is possible for a white populace to imagine how it must feel to be a black person who has had to walk past Colston’s statue ‘for years and just felt demeaned’; they will never know that pain. But what we can do is ask ourselves if we are happy to live in a country that accepts this to be the case. If the answer is no, then we need to re-educate ourselves with regards to the past, listen to those whose voices have historically gone unheard and help fight for a better, more progressive society.
Toby Shields is an aspiring journalist who has just completed his undergraduate degree in History and Politics at the University of Sussex, Brighton. He has previously written for ‘Left Foot Forward’ and is interested in the application of critical theory to contemporary events.