On Sunday 7th June, Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol harbour. The monument, who made his fortune in the slave trade by transpoting about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas, had been a source of controversy in the city for many years, garnering repeated calls for its removal. It was later fished out of the harbour, with Bristol city council saying that the statue will eventually stand in a museum, alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.
The conscious choices to both tear down the statue in the first place, and to preserve it in a museum, are symbolic of the tug-of-war that dominates the history of the world: the lessons that we learn through the decades are founded on what we decide to remember and to forget as a global community. There are always disagreements about what we opt to retain – and occasionally, such disagreements bubble over.
This conflict has been bubbling closer to home as well – People Before Profit recently called on local Galway authorities to remove Irish monuments that glorify slavery and racism, including a Christopher Columbus statue in Galway, as well as a plaque in Tuam that honours Major Richard Dowling, who served with the Confederate army in the US.
Of course, despite these more contemporaneous calls, Ireland is no stranger to tearing down the odd statue. Over the decades of the twentieth century, the attempt to rid Ireland of the relics of British imperialism became an operation of itself, the most famous example being the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 by Republican dissidents. Despite reservations on the aesthetic or indeed the meaning of the Spire erected in its place, I highly doubt that many would prefer to see the Pillar standing in its spot today.
Why, then, the sudden controversy over the tearing down of statues enshrining those who committed racist endeavours?
Diarmaid Ferriter in a recent Irish Times article claimed that “To tear statues down as an act of protest can be deeply satisfying and cathartic, but does it also do violence to historical context and messy, layered identities and inheritances? And how far should it go?” Another call has been made by the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is also the first black woman to become a bishop in the Church of England, for plaques to be erected on statue plinths, explaining the person’s actions and deeds, and putting into context the reason why the monument was erected in the first place. The overall argument is made that we must retain links with our past, even if it means keeping public figures, known to be responsible for inhumane actions, on pedestals, in order to attain maturity as a society and to warn future generations against committing similar wrongdoings.