The Case Against Colston: Why it’s Time to be Honest about the Public Past

On Sunday June 7th, a public memorial in the centre of Bristol, England, was defaced and unceremoniously rolled into the harbour. The artefact in question was a statue to colonial-era slave trader Edward Colston. It was removed by protesters as part of the global outcry following the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

There were two main variations to the condemnation this act widely received. Some, such as Bristol’s black mayor, Marvin Rees, argued that while he wouldn’t mourn for Colston and his statue which had to come down, bringing it down in this way was wrong. Others had a far more sweeping critique. Mostly conservative commentators condemned the act as at best a wrongheaded attempt to grandly signal virtue, and at worst an attempt to rewrite the city’s history. This was put most eloquently by Tom Slater in Spiked Magazine, who argued that there was an emerging tendency in the British left to sanitize history, only allowing the memory of the righteous and the oppressed to survive. Rather than an anti-historical act of vandalism, however, the removal of Edward Colston is an opportunity to rethink how we, and our public spaces, relate to history.

The critique that people on the left prefer to view history as a morality play, acted out by heroes and villains, feels broadly accurate — at least among non-historians. Certainly, from anecdotal experience, historical discourse in online left-wing spaces, often veers beyond a revisionist critique of cultural idols, and into the more reductive binary Slater describes. Such an approach won’t tell you very much about the figure, the forces acting upon them, or how they relate to their time. The qualities needed to ascend to historical significance are rarely virtuous, and if you seek power to act, power has a habit of acting on you.

Equally problematic as the determination to prove a villain is the instinct to heroify. Perhaps nobody exemplifies this problem more than ‘tankies’ — a pejorative online term for leftist apologists for Communist governments. Tankies take refuge from the complexity of history and the bloody inheritance of their own politics by rejecting all criticism of Communist dictators. Ceaușescu, Khrushchev, and for some even Stalin, can be glorified if you start from the position that the USSR and its contemporaries were the misunderstood ‘good guys’ of the Cold War. The inconvenient truths of Communist authorities’ crimes against their own peoples, meanwhile, are dismissed as Western propaganda. Tankies are the extreme example of this attitude, but the often-absurd levels to which they heighten it illuminates the issues with approaching history in that way.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you need treat all figures equally. It is possible to make moral judgements of historical characters, including Colston. The idea that his philanthropy even comes close to making up for his profiteering from chattel slavery is rendered absurd by the simple fact that he wouldn’t have had so much disposable money lying around without selling all those people. Nevertheless, if you are approaching history primarily to figure out who the good and bad guys are, you are liable to make some pretty serious misjudgments.

However, contrary to Slater’s argument, you don’t have to believe that history is a morality play to think we should remove historical monuments to morally bankrupt people. The subtitle of Slater’s article succinctly makes his point that “This bizarre war on the past will do nothing to carve out a better future.” To him, the idea of focusing on the past and its artefacts is no replacement for changing the present. On a purely pedantic level, it is hard not to agree. No number of statues removed will abolish hate crime, intergenerational poverty or institutional racism. The past is another country; from our position in the present it is static and unchanging. The point of studying history, therefore, is to preserve and categorise as much of that other country as possible, to add to the accumulation of knowledge and, if necessary, to deploy that knowledge as evidence in an argument.

The idea that we no longer live in the past, but a de-historicised present, is a powerful one, most famously articulated by Francis Fukuyama in ‘The End of History and the Last Man.’ Few now would go as far as Fukuyama did in 1989. But as Slater’s article shows, the basic assumption, that past and present are apart from one another, is still pervasive. However, this isn’t the only way to think about the relationship between past and present. And the alternative is anything but bizarre.

The conception of time and history I’ve described above is a relatively peculiar one. Actually, it is a far more common to see continuity between past and present.

Last week was the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon. This post-World War I agreement divided up the Kingdom of Hungary between its various neighbours, shearing the new Hungarian state of two-thirds of its land and population. The result is a psychic wound from which Hungarian national memory has never recovered, and it is a pain that crosses the country’s usually bitter partisan lines. Both Hungary’s autocratic conservative prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and the liberal mayor of Budapest organised official ceremonies to mourn the people and land lost to the stroke of a pen. Trianon is still a live political issue for Hungary and its neighbours. In the leadup to the commemorations, the president of Romania faced censure after baselessly claiming that the opposition were plotting to give Transylvania back to the Hungarians.

This is but one example of a historical grievance, the kind of which lives long in almost every nation, and provokes deep feeling to this day. I’d advise the following to anyone arguing that Bristolians should have left Colston in place and abandoned their obsession with the symbols of the past: go to a bar in Budapest, and try to explain to Hungarians why they should move on from Trianon. After all, the obsession with the past won’t bring them higher wages, nor will it help the position of the ethnic Hungarians which Trianon trapped in other nations. For most people, past and present are different places in the sense that Edinburgh and Glasgow are separate places: it’s incredibly easy to pass between them, and seeking to understand the one without the other gives at most a partial picture.

I would be lying to you by omission, however, if I implied that putting a barrier between past and present is something people choose to do arbitrarily. In reality, it’s more common that the only people who erect such a barrier are those who can. For those who live with the consequences of injustice, however, the past is now.

In 2015, then mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, announced that the city’s four monuments to politicians and generals from the renegade Confederate States of America were to be removed. The speech he gave to justify it quickly went viral. Landrieu argued that “asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.”

The Confederate monuments which dot the American South are arguably a special case: they are almost uniquely politicised by the Cult of the Lost Cause which erected them long after the fall of the Confederacy. The essential crux of Landrieu’s appeal to white Americans, however, is applicable to the Treaty of Trianon and to every other historical grievance. If you live with the pain of the past, how can you believe that that pain is fundamentally of the past? The idea that the past and present are linked by pain is not something spun out of whole cloth a week ago. It is not the preserve of Black Lives Matter, or the political left more generally. It is a normal, maybe the normal, way that people think about history.

Statues exemplify this problem possibly more than any other form of public commemoration. When you see a statue, very rarely is it what you might call historicised. Indeed, from the inception of the statue as a form of visual communication, it has been a way to project a very contemporary power — either visualising a reigning monarch, or consciously linking the authority of the day to a historical tradition. As society has modernised, and the political community has expanded, the ideas we want to communicate through statues often have become more abstract. Take, for example, another recently-vandalised statue: Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square, London. If anyone missed the symbolism of the capital of the Empire Gandhi fought appropriating his image, the politicians who attended the unveiling made it clear. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron pronounced that “This statue celebrates the incredibly special friendship between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest, as well as the universal power of Gandhi’s message.” So, when someone is immortalised in statue form, it’s a blazing beacon, communicating “This is who we are.”

But of course, “who we are” and the values our societies hold are constantly changing. Statues, however, are almost uniquely bad at adjusting to communicate these new contexts. Plaques can help to recontextualise a statue, but the focus will never be on the plaque, because that’s not how statues are designed. At the end of the day the visual focus will still be a giant metal effigy of a person glaring down from on high. It will only ever be a partly historical artefact, unless it is recontextualised in a totally radical way; for example, being put in a museum.

The contemporary nature of statues’ meaning can be seen in another controversy about another statue, where the left-right divide over the Colston was inverted. Back again in Budapest, there is a relatively small statue of Imre Nagy, which until 2018 gazed on the Hungarian Parliament. Nagy had served as Prime Minister during the country’s period as a Soviet satellite state, but as a socialist reformer who wanted more democracy and independence for his country. For this impertinence, Nagy was deposed by pro-Moscow Communist hardliners — but he then became the leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When the Revolution was crushed, Nagy was hung by the Soviets.

Nagy’s fate made him a martyr for the Hungarian nation, and his reburial in 1989 was widely seen as an enormous concession by the communist government, symbolic of Hungary’s transition to democracy. However, in 2018, Orbán ordered his statue to be moved to a new, much less prominent location. The move was widely condemned by Hungary’s liberal and socialist opposition, as an attempt to rewrite history. This backlash, however, was just as much about arguments rooted in the political present. Orbán’s political project is to place illiberal conservativism at the heart of the Hungarian nation, to the extent that right-wing orthodoxy has now been woven into the very text of the country’s constitution. Nagy’s memory is an inconvenient one for the government: a socialist and democrat simply will not do as a Hungarian national hero. He has no place in the Hungary Orbán wants to construct. This is what the erecting, removing or maintaining of a statue of a political figure always is: a statement about the present. In moments such as this, we have to ask: who do we want to commemorate? Democrats and freedom fighters like Nagy? Or slavers like Colston? It is, I concede, an ultimately arbitrary choice, but it’s one we have to honestly admit we are making.

There are, therefore, two fundamentally opposed ideas of looking at the past. In one, the statue of Coston stands as a record of a history that should be preserved for posterity. In another, it’s a painful glorification of a man who helped build a world black people are still fighting to escape centuries later. The past can’t be escaped and shouldn’t be forgotten, but equally clear is that Edward Colston and his statue represent values that are fundamentally opposed to those modern Bristol wants to embody. Is there a way to communicate the past, while ensuring it is properly historicised?

Perhaps the protesters have already given us the answer. Personally, I would have preferred the statue come down through official, democratic channels, as was done in New Orleans. But in the way in which they removed it, protesters changed the meaning of the statue once again. It has, through extensive and visually striking damage, been recontextualised, and in doing so has become an amazing artefact through which you can tell the story of racial politics in Bristol, from colonial times to the modern day. Its capacity to educate has increased exponentially. Isn’t that what we all want?

The past is not another country. We live it, in a very real sense, and nowhere do we experience that more materially than in our public spaces. These places are not natural. We make them, and in doing so we suffuse them with our ideals. Public statues exemplify this. Who we choose to immortalise in iron and bronze is a statement about what we want our public spaces to communicate. Therefore, you don’t have to want to flatten history into a morality tale to sympathise with the desire to change our public spaces. Statues are as much of the present as they are of the past, and pretending that there is much of a difference between the two is to misunderstand how people live them. Our squares, streets and plazas should not be cleaned of the bloody stench of history. To do so would be to pretend we live in some utopian year zero, and that helps no-one. But there are more tasteful, educational ways to do that than statues.

[Aran Prince-Tappe – he/him]

[Image Credit: Shane Aldendorff] 

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