Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Far from an attempt to write out history, the toppling, tainting and debating of our nation’s statues and monuments is a writing in of history. If the past couple of weeks have taught us anything, it has shown that our era is entitled its own response. If we are entitled to feel pride in the achievements and virtues of those who came before us, then why should we not feel ashamed for their sins also?
I couldn’t disagree more with Sir Keir Starmer’s argument that the toppling of Colston’s statue ‘shouldn’t have been done in that way’, or Boris Johnson’s claim that, ‘if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed’. There was something emblematic about the Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol throwing the statue of Sir Edward Colston into the harbour; drowning a monument to a man whose trade was notorious for throwing sick slaves into the sea.
How debilitating it is to suggest that Britain’s other Colstons must be privately debated in front of a committee of local worthies, and transported to an underfunded local museum. The significance and reasoning behind the downfall of these statues is grounded in the modern mausoleum that is the internet. The video of the Bristol protestors tearing down Colston’s monument and tossing it over the quayside is, in itself, history.
Heroic sculpture is a commentary on the past. Colston’s statue was built in the 1890’s to celebrate Britain’s imperial legacy, but its toppling is not an attempt to remove any evidence that Britain was a key player in the slave trade; it is a proclamation that an imperial past no longer has a place in shaping the future.
Britain’s bronze Colstons, Churchills and Gladstones are more than just examples of un-exceptional art, or items on a bureaucrat’ s agenda – they are proxies to the past. Art empowers people just as much when it lifts, inspires and pleases us, as it does when it infuriates and hurts us.
Destroying a monument does not erase history, raging against a material object brings it to life. If late-Victorian Britain was free to commission a statue of a man whom many of the residents of Bristol wished to salute, 2020’s Britain should be free to applaud its pulling down.