The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston (and its aftermath) did more to educate the British public about the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade than its undisturbed presence on a plinth in Bristol ever could. His statue was neither historic nor informative, it was symbolic, an artificial imposition onto a public space by wealthy and privileged authorities designed solely to honour a man who they felt needed to be honoured. As the historian Kate Williams explained on Good Morning Britain, “statues are not natural phenomena, they’re not a mountain, they are basically who a group of powerful people decide…we should venerate, who we should admire”. In tearing down a statue of a slave trader which was erected some 174 years after his death, Black Lives Matter protestors were making history, not erasing it.
The debate surrounding problematic statues is not a new one, and has been a staple of university debating societies and daytime political panel shows for years. But the Black Lives Matter movement has breathed new life into what had become a cultural stalemate – these statues are now not only seen as an affront to the people of colour they look down upon (and therefore played down and dismissed as a personal issue rather than a political one), but are beginning to be rightfully understood to embody the institutionalised racism which has continued to thrive in this country and many others across the world for centuries. In which case, the toppling of statues like Colston’s is about more than just the removal of the object itself (although that is certainly a primary aim) – it is a symbolic act, the dramatic dethroning of a slave trader and thus a rallying cry to dismantle the systemic racism which is so dominant in modern day Britain. The removal of Colston from his pedestal is not to deny his existence, but to publicly denounce and condemn his actions.
In his Telegraph article on the 15th June, Boris Johnson argued that the persistent scrutiny of controversial statues is “a total distraction from the matter in hand”, but aside from announcing a half-hearted ‘racism inquiry’ (which Labour MP David Lammy has dismissed as being “written on the back of a fag packet”), he has talked of little else. In a desperate bid to rally support, he has returned repeatedly to Winston Churchill, dreaming up tired-out narratives of militant leftist mobs marching to Westminster to desecrate and destroy the statue of our “greatest ever leader”, whilst underplaying his fundamental role in humanitarian atrocities such as the 1943 Bengal famine (not such distant history after all) and accrediting the colossal international effort that resulted in the defeat of Adolf Hitler in World War Two exclusively to his leadership.
Johnson is focusing on Churchill because he knows that in British popular imagination, the wartime leader is no longer a person but a metaphor, an abstract allegory of Britain’s fight against fascism and Nazism. Thus, the statue on Parliament Square is Churchill, more than the man himself could ever be, and Boris Johnson knows that there would need to be a brutally honest national conversation about his murky past before it could face serious amendment or removal. Most anti-racism groups and campaigners know this too of course, which is why there are no serious plans to pull it down anytime soon, but because that conversation hasn’t yet happened (or hasn’t been allowed to happen), Johnson can continue to use Churchill and his statue as synonyms for Britain, and thus lazily label anyone who takes issue with his views and actions as a national traitor. During the Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of Churchill was subject to extremely low-value vandalism, something which has happened multiple times before, but this has now somehow been equated to an Orwellian attack on democracy. In inciting a culture war where there isn’t one, says Afua Hirsch, the government is able to “obscure the very real problems for which it has no answers”.
What we must realise is that these statues have not been elected into office, nor do they have any God-given mandate to be respected. The people of Bristol did not participate in any kind of referendum to erect Colston, so why should his deposition be any more diplomatic? The removal of statues should not be some hypothetical argument of applied ethics – it boils down to whether or not you believe it is appropriate for someone who committed awful crimes to be honoured in the public sphere.
“But where will it end!?” cry conservatives, and Johnson parroted this in his article, as if on cue. The slippery slope argument is a foundational building block of British conservatism, a cowardly form of pragmatism which excuses its own inaction whilst stoking fear of the action of others. Unfortunately, the statue debate is in fact just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger battle; of that between the conservative right and social progression of practically any form. Both big and small “c” conservatives will appeal to history, authority, tradition – anything to avoid facing the harsh reality of the current situation and the speed with which they need to act. They fetishize the bravery of the past, the boldness of romanticised figures like Churchill, but consistently resist any form of positive action to right the wrongs of the present day. It is not that they fear that this change might go too far, it is in fact that they fear it might happen at all.
The Oxford Union, billed as perhaps one of the central pillars of civilised debate in this country, voted in favour of removing the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College over 4 years ago in 2016. But it is only as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of Colston that the college has finally come out in support of the cause. It is shameful that illicit direct action is the only thing which can inspire any kind of real change in this country, and it is a disgrace that it took the murder of George Floyd to trigger an international conversation about racism. But that is the reality we are faced with, and therefore the tearing down of Colston, despite Nigel Farage’s best attempts to compare it to the Taliban, was an act of justice, and must be accepted as a necessary act in dragging Britain into what Owen Jones has called “a mass history lesson”.
Goldsmiths itself is also certainly not exempt from criticism, both in its action and its architecture. Deptford Town Hall on New Cross Road is adorned with statues of Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson, the former deeply involved with the transatlantic slave trade and the latter a vehement opposer of abolition, and the weather vane in the shape of a galleon on top of its clock tower is most likely representative of a slave ship. These issues were the subject of Les Back’s essay Written in Stone (available online on the Goldsmiths library website) and were also addressed in the public statement from Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) at the end of their occupation of the same building in 2019. Among other points concerning the shortcomings of Goldsmiths on anti-racism, GARA called for “a public conversation with the local community to decide what is to be done with the statues of slave-owners and colonialists at Deptford Town Hall”, a step which is yet to be properly initiated by the University. More recently, the anti-educational marketization collective ‘We Demand More’ have created a petition in collaboration with GARA, in which they demand action towards removal of the statues: “We do not accept colonial imagery deeply connected to the horrors of slavery and the telling of history through the eyes of the oppressor. That is what these statues represent.”
There is much more to be done, and of course statues are not the be-all and end-all of racism in this country (or indeed at Goldsmiths University), nor is anyone accusing them of such. But what moments like the toppling of Colston do is distil a movement into a single symbol, and have a powerful, positive effect in changing the views of the general public. Even Piers Morgan, the court jester of the moderate right who only a year ago was throwing around one-liners like “it’s erasing history!” and “it’s undemocratic!” when talking about the removal of statues, has expressed his support of Black Lives Matter protestors and their removal of Colston. He is obviously still an antagonist of the left, and is most probably just trying to appeal to a wider base, but his conversion marks a potential shift in the general mood of the country. The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan on London Docklands was removed last week peacefully and legally without a fuss, and the momentum of these protests must be maintained in order to continue the conversation and shine a spotlight on contemporary racism in Britain, which is inherently rooted in our past.
Boris Johnson wants to “fight racism, but leave our heritage broadly in peace”. What he clearly doesn’t understand, or indeed refuses to admit (as does the whitewashed curriculum which teaches children little or nothing about the realities of the British Empire), is that our heritage, or the heritage of Britain, is racism, and that is something which we need to stand up to and address if we want to tackle the issues of today.
Words, Joseph Hewlett-Hall
Images, Colston – Unknown; Churchill – Isabel Infantes; Deptford Town Hall – Matt Brown.