As I watched last night’s news coverage of the statue of Edward Colston being pulled, Saddam Hussein-like, off its plinth before being dragged to the harbour and thrown into its depths, I wondered how long it would take before the name of Cecil Rhodes was mentioned. The answer came with today’s BBC 1pm news – just over 15 hours.
There can be no escaping the fact that statues of historical figures are not simply inanimate sculptural artefacts that have been erected as historical records of what their subjects looked like. They honour particular individuals and embody the values that informed the life-story for which those individuals are recognised. So Saddam Hussein honoured himself with his many statues, and the destruction of the statue in Bagdad represented a symbolic rejection of the values represented by the statue as well as marking the end of his rule. Edward Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol towards the end of the nineteenth century ostensibly to honour his very extensive philanthropic legacy in Bristol, but that, critically, was not all he was known for. Many of the now highly contentious statues of Confederate generals in the Southern United States were not erected at the time of, or shortly after, their deaths but rather in the 1950s and 1960s in tacit opposition to the Civil Rights campaign. Their erection embodied a particular set of mid-20th century values as much as any 19th Century ones.
The mention of Rhodes by the BBC was via reference to the highly contentious ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, which started at the University of Cape Town and then spread across South Africa, before being taken up at Oxford. Its original focus was on a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who had donated the land on which the University was built. The statue dominated the approach to the University and had to be passed by students walking up the hill to go to lectures, including steadily increasing numbers of black students. It honoured a very driven man who achieved a remarkable amount in his relatively short life, acquired a vast amount of money, seized a million square miles of land in the process and, like Colston, was a benefactor to many good causes. But in achieving what he did Rhodes was utterly ruthless, occasioned a great many, mainly black people’s, deaths and operated on the basis of a wholly repugnant racism, best exemplified by his bald five-word statement to the House of Assembly in Cape Town: “I prefer land to Niggers”. It was Rhodes who pushed the Glen Gray Act, a blueprint for apartheid, through the Cape Parliament in 1894. How could it possibly be appropriate for a statue bearing that weight of history and racist ideology to preside over the physical access to a post-apartheid South African University? The statue had been a bone of contention for a number of years before a bucket of excrement thrown over it by a student heralded the protests that led to its final removal by the university. With hindsight, it would have been far more sensible to celebrate the new dawn in 1994 by having a statue that was bound to be seen as a provocation quietly removed, instead of keeping it in its place of honour for fear of offending the university’s alumni and the more conservative white citizens of Cape Town.
Edward Colston was a very significant benefactor to Bristol, but he only had the money to give away as a result of wealth gained from the transportation across the Atlantic of around 85,000 African slaves. The presence of the statue, with its highly visible demonstration of implicitly on-going admiration for Colston, had been deeply hurtful to many citizens of Bristol, and the subject of petitions for its removal for many years, to no avail. It should have been removed via peaceful processes decades ago, as its presence was a gratuitous and wholly unnecessary provocation, just as the statue of Rhodes was. The much less prominent statue of Rhodes at Oriel College is still in place. After extensive debate and, one gathers, threats from donors to withhold their donations to the college, it was decided to keep it. It was argued, as it was in Cape Town, that one shouldn’t judge 18th of 19th century figures on the basis of 21st century values and thereby ‘rewrite history’. But the decision to retain the statue is not a ‘historical’ decision, it is a contemporary decision made in the context of 21st century values. It is very difficult to argue that it is not an implicit endorsement of Rhodes’s own repugnant values, which, as it happens, were extreme even for the late nineteenth century, and were regarded with suspicion by many prominent figures in England at the time.
Our hopelessly tone-deaf Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have, with depressing predictability and lack of emotional intelligence, been castigating the ‘vandalism’ and thuggery involved in pulling Colston’s statue down, beating the Law and Order drum to appeal to the elderly Tories in the shires. For my part I would much prefer Bristol to have found a more orthodox way to remove Colston’s statue long ago, but what I took away from watching the news reports of yesterday’s protests was an unexpected sense of optimism for the future. The large crowds of mainly young people who took part in the protests were strikingly integrated. Black Lives Matter very much, and it very clearly isn’t just black people that they matter to.