July 2020 Pulse

On 7 June 2020, thousands gathered in Bristol to watch and cheer as the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, was torn from its plinth and thrown into the harbour in protest against racism. As Gurminder Bhambra of The New York Times writes, ‘Protestors in the city of Bristol drew connections between a white police officer’s killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, and the histories of colonialism and the slave trade.’

This spate of destroying and defacing public monuments in the name of social change has spread to other parts of the United Kingdom, and, indeed, to some countries in Europe. In Oxford, a crowd of protestors demanded the removal of the likeness of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. This is an extension of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement which began in South Africa in 2015 that saw the removal of the statue of the 19th century British imperialist from Cape Town University.

Statues that are too enormous to be toppled by the mob are abused or vandalised. Thus, Churchill’s monument in Westminster had the words ‘was a racist’ spray-painted on it. In Leeds, the statue of Queen Victoria was vandalised as protestors sprayed pink paint on her breasts and crotch. And in central Paris, the words ‘down with the official version’ were scrawled on the statue of French military commander Joseph Gallieni, who was the military governor of Paris during World War I.

In an article published in the Nikkei Asia Review, former Financial Times correspondent, Jeevan Vasagar, argues that Singapore should remove the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles which stands proudly on the bank of the Singapore river because it distorts the history of the island-state and signals the excessive homage that Singapore pays to the West.

‘Singaporeans are now openly questioning this version of history’, writes Vasagar, ‘with its – correct – suggestion that Singapore pays too much respect to the West and not enough to its neighbours. It is time for the government to heed them.’

The destruction of public monuments is of course not new in recent history, and, in some cases, this highly symbolic act may be said to be justifiable. A good example is arguably the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdaus Square, downtown Bagdhad, on 9 April 2003, which signalled the end of what many have regarded as an oppressive regime.

Another example is the so-called ‘Leninfall’ of Ukraine which laid the foundation for the extensive policy of decommunization and the transition to democracy. This was accompanied by a comprehensive purge of communist symbols which saw the demolition or removal of statues and the renaming of streets, squares, and metro stations to mark the end of an era.

But this more recent frenzy is somewhat different, and it has sparked a debate among British historians and academics for which no agreement is in sight. Some see it as an important moment in history to be celebrated, while others are worried of the profound cultural and societal consequences of this trend.

The Significance of Public Monuments

At the heart of this new iconoclasm is the way in which history is told, and with it the values and norms that are allegedly endorsed by the monuments that are erected in public spaces. As Martin Grayford has observed, ‘Public statues are intensely political.’

Some have argued that a distinction must be made between recounting history and the symbolic significance of the historical monument. As Christopher Phelps explains:

History is one thing, memorial another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone, or erects a statue of that person, it bestows honour and legitimacy.

This is certainly the way in which the protestors understood the symbolic significance of public monuments and the reason why they wanted them destroyed or removed. In the minds of these protestors, the immortalisation of these historical figures somehow legitimises their bigotry and racism.

But the distinction between recounting the past and symbolic significance of monuments can be (and often is) exaggerated. A more nuanced understanding of the place of public monuments and what they are meant to commemorate is therefore sorely needed.

Public monuments of certain figures are erected basically to recognise the significant role they had played in the history of the nation, county or city. They pay tribute to the positive contributions that these figures have made to the origin or the development of the region, county or city.

These monuments are not erected to endorse the views on slavery or colonialism that these personalities may have held. Neither are they built to celebrate or legitimise their involvement in the slave trade and therefore should not be interpreted as doing so. Thus, the reasons why a particular monument is put up must be made clear, and these reasons must withstand the scrutiny of history.

If public monuments are associated with – among other things – the history of the city or county, their removal does in some significant way impoverish our understanding and appreciation of that history. As historian Mary Beard has rather persuasively argued, instead of merely tearing down the statues of these controversial figures, it is more important ‘to look at history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it … not simply photoshop the nasty bits out.’

A Cultural Revolution?

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, compares the statue defacing spree to China’s Cultural Revolution! Of the ‘striking’ similarities between the two O’Neill writes:

In that feverish war on the past, statues were torn down and cast on to fires, as happened in Virginia yesterday. Buddhist statues were a favourite target because they embodied the ‘old customs’ the Red Guards longed to erase. It was a ‘frenzy of smashing’, as one account puts it. Any statue that depicted ‘political swindlers’ was torn down. The Red Guards were as offended by monuments to Confucianism as the Work Guards are by monuments to long-dead slave traders. Like today’s giddy statue-smashers, they, too, thought they were being progressive by sweeping aside memorials to oppressive ideas and people.

Whether the comparison is entirely justified is, of course, debatable. But the ‘statue-smashers’ of today do seem to project a certain outlook, a particular approach to history, which Mary Beard has perceptively discerned. There is embodied in their actions what may be described as a pathologizing of history, almost to the point of being a fixation. As O’Neill has observed: ‘What is most notable about Rhodes Must Fall is its treatment of history as a source of psychological trauma.’

A more sensible approach is surely to confront history and its significant actors for what they are, giving credit where it is due but without sanitizing them in any way. This means that figures such as Colston and Rhodes should be objectively recognised for their legitimate contributions, but they should never be excessively valorised or canonised as saints.

But to reject the good that they have done because of the bad with which they are associated would be just as unacceptable – not to mention imprudent – as to turn a blind eye on their sins because of their laudable accomplishments.

Take the case of Winston Churchill. To sweep away or rubbish the achievements and contributions of this remarkable figure in the history of Britain (and Europe) because of his racist outlook or remarks (Churchill reportedly said: ‘I hate Indians … they are beastly people with a beastly religion’) is surely to adopt a blinkered view of history.

Now, I am not here condoning or legitimising racism or attempting to whitewash it by redirecting attention to Churchill’s glaring accomplishments. I am merely making the point that we should look at history in all its wonderful and disturbing complexity, and – to borrow Mary Beard’s expression – ‘reflect on our awkward relationship to it.’

There is therefore a profound sense in which to remove these monuments because the people they immortalise fail to meet the selective criteria we set before them is to do a disservice to history and to tarnish our own understanding of the past. For it forces us to take a naïve and distorting ‘black-and-white’ (no pun intended!) view of history. In addition, in some significant ways it infantilises the public by thinking their views on the social issues of today can be so easily swayed by the silent presence of these monuments.

Put differently, what we need and should advocate is a realist view of history, and an honest and objective appraisal of its most celebrated personalities. I am suggesting that we should all check ourselves for those oft-hidden and unarticulated ideological assumptions and biases that colour (again, no pun intended!) our reading and appreciation of history, assumptions that often fuel our thinking and discourse on race and racism (such as white supremacism or black exceptionalism).

Demolishing or defacing statues in public areas may be an electrifyingly satisfying experience for the protesting mob because it gives voice to all their pent-up angst. But it does very little in the long run to address issues that are deeply entrenched in society, such as inequality and racism.

To be sure, the current manifestations of racism in the United States and Europe have much to do with their respective histories. But these deep faultlines cannot be addressed by these superficial attempts to ‘edit’ history by smashing public monuments, however boisterous, loud and triumphalistic these public acts may be.

Edward Colston’s statue may be submerged in the chilly waters surrounding Bristol Harbour, but the hot button issue of racial inequality and its deep roots in British society are left unaddressed and will continue to fester and resurface.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.