Colonialism & Me: Should All The Statues Fall?
In response to the Black Community's call to educate ourselves on issue's of race and racism, history graduates and brothers, Niall and Nathan Moorjani, are sharing their own personal educational exploration of Scotland's role within the British Empire.
The Debates Surrounding Problematic Statues And What To Do With Them:
On the 7th of June a group of Black Lives Matter’s protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston, an infamous trader of enslaved Africans. They brought it to Bristol harbour and allowed it to sink to the bottom. Regardless of opinion, this is a historic moment for Britain itself; for years debates have bounced around our controversial statues and very rarely do local authorities respond. The fact that protesters felt moved to take matters into their own hands highlights the lack of faith in the authorities’ ability to hear calls for change. The response has been polarised between two end points, with some firmly in support and others utterly opposed to the protester’s actions. Naturally, this moment, as well as making a profound and powerful statement, raises questions. What do statues say about our society? Why would protesters feel the need to tear the statue down? Is what we call “contextualisation” an alternative way forward? Statues and Our Society: Although easy to walk past and think little of, statues form a visual and physical link with our past. They tell a story of our cities and towns. At their best they remind us of our finest moments and at their worst they celebrate controversial figures who no longer represent our modern values. They may stand silently but they do speak, of their pasts and our presents. They tell us about the cultures which came before us and they also tell us about their deeds. Some are anonymous but many statues are of individuals. This is where they can become problematic. Colston represents an excellent example of this and clearly protesters felt so horrified by the presence of his statue in their city that they felt the need to tear it down. If you are wondering why a historical statue, of someone long dead, could move people to such anger let us try to help with understanding. We invite you to consider a historical character you personally believe represents the worst of humanity, and then imagine that statue proudly standing in the middle of your hometown. Imagine that they were personally responsible for the pain and suffering of your ancestors. You may not feel compelled to tear it to the ground, but you would probably want to complain about it at the very least. Imagine you and your community constantly implored local authorities to add a plaque to recognise this character’s crimes. Imagine you were ignored time and time again. Imagine you take matters into your own hands and place a memorial to those this statue had wronged, simply to see it taken away. It is surely not hard to see how you would feel driven to act. This is not fiction; it is what those communities endured in Bristol prior to the Colston statue being pulled down. There are many statues in the UK which evoke these feelings from its population, particularly the black community and wider communities of colour. For those reading who wish to simply see statues left untouched, a difficult truth is that many of our historical heroes were horrific violators of human rights from other perspectives (including the perspectives of their own age). Today perspectives are often held by the communities who originated from cultures which were oppressed, such as the dismay of the Bristolian Black community for the Colston Statue. While this doesn’t mean that people aren’t allowed to take issue with the tearing down of a statue, we must all at least recognise why any of these mentioned communities would feel exceptionally passionate about seeing them removed. What to do with our controversial statues? Some Scottish Examples:
While the writers of this content stand in solidarity with the Bristol protesters actions, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential issues raised by them. When a problematic statue is standing without context it can indeed be seen as a celebration of that individual. For us, it is hard to argue that statues such as Colston should be left unchanged. However, if taken down, even though the moment itself is of course highly powerful and evocative, we as a community have acted to remove visual reminders of that same uncomfortable history. Take Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, his statue sits atop a 150ft tall column in one of the most iconic parts of the city’s new town. He was one of Scotland’s most prolific owner of plantations and enslaved Africans. His actions in the Anti-Abolition movement delayed emancipation for these same people for decades yet he stands above the city. There are now very reasonable calls to have him taken down. However, Black rights and human rights campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer urged attendees at Edinburgh’s own BLM protesters to leave the statue standing and to contextualise it. Perhaps you do both, remove Dundas from his pedestal and replace him with a statue to those he enslaved. Have Dundas placed below and with information clearly visible nearby? He would forever more stand below those he stood upon, an education tool to all those who would seek to do differently from him. Glasgow is not exempt from this with many calling for the rapid change of the many street names named after those who gained so much from the blood and sweat of enslaved Africans. Protests for the government to act on this matter have arguably led to a better solution for the time being. The names of famous Black civil rights activist have been placed underneath the names of these immortalised slavery profiteers. This opens up a dialogue regarding Glasgow’s historical relationship with slavery rather than simply removing it from sight- ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is not what we are going for. Location talks are ongoing for the creation of a Scottish Slavery Museum which is a huge stride towards the successful education of Scotland’s slavery past. However, until this exists the very statues we want to tear down and the streets we want renamed are the best educational tool we have. Glasgow, like many other British cities is in ways the best museum to Slavery we have, and contextualisation for the time being, may provide the best answer in how best to show it.
Differing opinions: Niall and Nathan debate Churchill’ Statue:
“Winston Churchill is probably the most famous figure who has seen his statue “contextualised” by protesting groups. The words “was a racist” were spray painted on his plinth and a ‘black lives matter’ sign was strapped to his chest. If anyone is wondering why Churchill would be seen negatively by communities of colour, a quick google of his role in the Bengal famine and general attitudes to non-white people, should give context. His role in one of humanities great tragedies, the partitioning of India, also does him little credit as he sabotaged talks which may well have led to a peaceful settlement. This is simply my opinion, but as someone whose grandparents were made refugees during the Partitioning of India, to see Churchill’s statue in such shape brought me little sorrow. In fact, to see it remain that way, stewing in the horror if its own history would make me quite pleased. However, I understand that people may take offence to the spray paint, as compromise a list of Churchill’s racist deeds giving him context on a plaque would bring me a great sense of catharsis. The man Churchill was would have arguably detested being vandalised and to have his shameful decisions laid bare to all who visit him would have been of great frustration to him. I think in this instance, this is more powerful than taking the statue down, but this is very much just my opinion.”
“I feel compelled not to widely support the vandalism of all our more controversial monuments straight away. In fact, it’s most likely we could find ethical issues with many statues of people from the past. I do however, invite an acceptance of the truth. When it comes to Churchill’s statue, I differ slightly from Niall, less so on how I feel about the man himself, but more on what I feel can be misrepresented from vandalising the statue. For many, Churchill is the hero who won the war and to vandalise his statue could be perceived as an attack on those who sacrificed their lives in the Second World War. For me, contextualisation helps with my dilemmas on the matter. Too often our national heroes are represented as flawless characters, but this doesn’t have to be the case. We should be capable of understanding that Churchill’s statue to many is an immortalisation of defeating the Nazi’s, a good thing which should not be taken away. Whilst we should simultaneously recognise that to many of colonial British descent, Churchill represents a time of disease, death and a callous lack of humanity. Examples of contextualised monuments we came across in our research suggest to me that a memorial to the Bengali famine situated alongside Churchill’s statue would help to educate us on his successes in war; but ultimately his failure to place the lives of those he deemed less human first. I think we must be considerate not to accept a history that has been written by those who view him solely a hero, nor am I entirely rejecting this fact, I am merely exploring how better to represent a multifaceted history.”~
Final thoughts on a complex issue: For David Olusoga, the “Toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history”. We couldn’t stand more firmly behind this sentiment. At the same time it is vital that we discuss how best to ensure this moment is memorialised within itself. We personally hope that the statue does not remain sunken at the bottom of the dock. Not that it would make us sad to see it remain there for eternity; more that we understand how important a moment the memorialisation, not of Colston’s statue, but of the removal itself can be. If not, we run the risk of drowning the truth with him. Communities throughout the UK are divided as to what best to do with statues. Regardless as to how we and the reader feels about them, it is important that all of these views are reflected in our remembering of these moments. Our next article will explore how it was possible for Scotland to successfully distance itself from its slavery past. Until more recently our history was written to celebrate Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery. However, in doing so, these celebrations aided the one-sided presentation of our role in Abolition and have been part of preventing us from recognising our role in the Slave trade itself. Due to one- sided memorialisation and commemoration it became possible to see the UK as part of the solution and not part of the problem. By immortalising the toppling of the Colston statue with a memorial of its own, we can keep to the truth and highlight the realities of the fight for equality we face at present, one which is not yet fully supported in the United Kingdom. In years to come we do not wish for a false memory of the UK’s response to the Black Live Matter movement. Though inspired by just how many have responded to the call for racial equality, there are still those who dispute the movement and stifle progress. It is crucial we do not remember this as a national victory and fool ourselves once more into a position of moral superiority. We, the editors of this blog are generally firm believers in the contextualisation of statues. We hope that we have given clarity to those who were confused about why people were angry about them in the first place. We also acknowledge the power of the cathartic triumph the Black Bristolian Community felt in doing so. However, there is an argument that to take statues down inhibits our chance as a society to acknowledge our uncomfortable past and to learn from it. This will only be achieved with widespread contextualisation of problematic statutes. If councils continue to refuse to acknowledge the calls for change, there will be further examples of what has occurred in Bristol, and with good reason. We would argue that the only wrong thing for us to do is to leave the statues as they are. Beyond that there are no right answers in this debate, which evokes differing opinions across communities of colour in the UK. Our opinion is just one of many, equally as valid as our own. All we must remember as a society is that our moulding of the past will inevitably have consequences for the shaping of our future.
Niall and Nathan Moorjani
Further Reading: https://theconversation.com/public-sculpture-expert-why-i-welcome-the-decision-to-throw-bristols-edward-colston-statue-in-the-river-140285?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20June%209%202020%20-%201645215821&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20June%209%202020%20-%201645215821%20CID_aba63a5b3944550e4972ece8f5ddfa6f&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=a%20more%20truthful%20discussion%20of%20the%20man%20and%20his%20legacy&fbclid=IwAR076H-8dT8eUIZGjaZn2OO0dwWzKi_Rx793ilxcodx9NlcVqQlZoWx3paE https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-52965230 Raphael Samuel, ‘Theatres Of Memory’ Hilda Kean and Paul Ashton, ‘People and their Pasts’, (intro avaliable free on google books). https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/People_and_Their_Pasts.html?id=r6eGDAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false