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Henry Parnell: The Whole Picture: Remembering ‘Controversial’ Historical Figures

On 7th 2020, Bristol based BLM protestors tore down a statue of 17-18th century slave owner Edward Colston and toppled him into the water at the same docks he helped to build and used to dock his slave ships at. This form of poetic justice sparked both renewed calls for statues representing similar controversial historical figures around the world to be removed, as well as outbreaks of vandalism against them. A figure like Colston shouldn’t be controversial, and neither should the removal of his statue or any other slave owner’s for that matter. This now infamous incident – the vigilante removal of a monument dedicated to a man responsible for the enslavement of over 84,000 people, 12,000 of which were children and 19,000 of which died in-transit alone - has dug up some surprising attitudes.

You might think that such an act might be quite hard to object to; perhaps a call that it is ‘destroying public property’ might rouse a few supporting nods, and that the ‘proper protocols’ such as petitioning should be observed to have it taken down legally – but numerous campaigns have been run, and to no avail. The calls for other such monuments to be removed aren’t new, over the years countless petitions have been written, signed and ultimately rejected for various reasons by local councils and governments alike - it is only with the aid of sudden BLM explosion that these demands, like many others, have had to be taken seriously. 

But others have objected to the removal of these racist statues out-right, regardless of how it occurs. In the case of Colston, weak cries of ‘You can’t just erase history’ echoed around social media. Others even tried to point out that the statue was in honour of Colston’s contributions to building the Bristol docklands. To deal with the first point very quickly: statues don’t equate to historical memory. Does Hitler have any statues? No. Is he remembered by history? Yes. The very same people calling for these statues to be pulled down, those who are protesting against racism, are those who are campaigning and petitioning for the history of British slavery and Colonialism to be taught on the national curriculum. Far from wanting to erase history, these acts of tearing down monuments are designed to abolish the glorification of those who committed atrocious acts throughout history, not to try and forget them. A statue is to honour, glorify and to very literally put on a pedestal any figure which it depicts.

With the statue of Colston gone, the imaginations of others around the world were sparked, protestors in the US turned their attention to the countless confederate monuments across the country and graffiti and defacement began to become commonplace. The resistance to this across the US seemed to be stronger than the UK, with Trump even calling former US President Andrew Jackson - a slave-owner - one of his ‘idols’. Among other things, Jackson was responsible for forcibly taking indigenous land from Native Americans – a bizarre ‘idol’ to have.

The confederate flag, and now both confederate monuments and statues, have been a sore and controversial topic for quite some time now. Defendants have made far stronger claims than the ‘erasing history’ argument, and instead have claimed that confederate history is part of their southern United States heritage – whilst objectors point out that this ‘heritage’ is one of slavery and racism. For those who don’t know, the American Civil War was caused by a division between the Northern (Union) states and Southern (Confederate) states over several key issues – one of which being slavery.

These examples may seem rather clean cut to most of us, with little to object to. But what happens when we turn to the statues of figures like Churchill? Renewed calls for Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square to be removed resurfaced in dramatic fashion last month, with right wing ‘counter-protestors’ descending on London to ‘protect’ the statue. I won’t offer an opinion on whether Churchill’s statue should or shouldn’t be removed, rather echo acts of good, and bad, from this man’s life and career. Most notably of course is the winning of the Second World War, a momentous and sustained act of national service over several years – something embedding Churchill as an icon in British history. However, it is what came before in his early life that makes Churchill a divisive figure, and someone hard to fully embrace.

Churchill makes for an interesting case study, with compelling arguments both for and against the celebration of his history – and rightly so, there are things to be celebrated, and those to be heavily condemned. In 2002 he was voted ‘the greatest Briton ever’, edging out the likes of Shakespeare and Darwin and one can only assume (and hope) that the people voting for this were doing so solely on the basis of WWII and were unaware of his rampant misogyny and racism, to quote him in 1937: 

"I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." – Winston Churchill

         To dive into the actions behind these troubling words would require several more articles, if not books – and needless to say a quick google search will reveal a rabbit hole of similar attitudes to almost anyone non-white. However, it is Churchill’s instrumental role in the Bengal famine genocide, the shooting of protestors and the overthrowing of a democratically elected Guyanan leader (to name but a few) which serve to highlight that in fact his actions did indeed speak louder than these words. More can be found on Churchill here: https://medium.com/@write_12958/the-crimes-of-winston-churchill-c5e3ecb229b3

Statues are a particularly troubling symbol; they immortalize a glorified version of individuals, often glossing over the atrocities they committed and the morally abhorrent views they harboured. Even with the removal of these statues, these people will still be remembered by history, but the issue of how they are remembered, and what they are remembered for, is still a point of contention. Education needs to follow the removal of these monuments to ensure that lessons from the past are taught and that real change is achieved – something impossible whilst statues remain standing and twisting the letter of history.

 Even in contemporary times it is not hard to find figures who divide opinion, for example, how should we remember Michael Jackson? As a musical icon? Or as a paedophile and sexual predator? Can the former be simultaneously be celebrated and his music enjoyed as the latter is heavily condemned? Are the films produced by Harvey Weinstein to be written off now his past as a serial rapist has been fully laid out for the world to see? Sexual crimes ignite a sort of collective hatred on a par with racism, something uncommonly found when discussing other convictions - so why has someone like Jackson not been entirely cast into the ever growing list of ex-communicated paedophilic celebrities like others? The answer to this last question is not something I could even begin to answer.

These examples are still fairly straight forward, yet the scale of bad to good can become extremely murky, and increasingly society is, very rightly, less tolerant of those who stray too far from the straight and narrow. It is hard to say, as we look at examples of people whos crimes are ‘lesser’ – maybe comedians evading tax or rappers serving time for murder - whether the good they produce in the world can still be appreciated. Where do we draw the line? Whatever your opinion, one thing is for sure, historical or contemporary figures with such extreme examples of  maleficence – paedophilia, racism, genocide, slave trading - should not be rewarded with statues and their redeeming qualities (if they have any) should be a footnote in their catalogue of evil.

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