The Changing Meaning of Statues: Actual and Potential

The extent of his [Edward Colston] charity was immense, exceptional and nationally recognised. When his portrait was published in London a year after his death in 1721, the engraved description described him as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” For two hundred years Colston was revered and repeatedly memorialised in Bristol.”1

Background

The attack on Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol is interesting. The statue was prominent on a plinth at about six metres high. It was was funded through donations,Two appeals to Colston-related charitable bodies raised £407 towards the cost of the statue. Further funds, to a total of £650, were raised through public appeals after the unveiling…”2 Bristol was celebrating Colston’s philanthropy in 1895. Recently his role as a slave trader was felt to be more significant than his philanthropy. The attack was led by people outraged by a slave trader being memorialised.

Discussion

Statues are in public spaces. Billy Bremner was an iconic footballer for Leeds United and his statue is outside their stadium.3 Similarly the Beatles’ statue is outside the club where they found fame. Churchill’s is in Parliament Square.4 Statues enrich and inform the space where they’re placed. They’re saying this is of historical importance. Bremner died in 1997, the Beatles broke up in 1970 and Churchill died in 1965. The degradation of memory means they’re increasingly part of history with fewer people remembering their greatness. Removing statues destroys the shared historical memory.

Edward Colston has become a hate figure for some in Bristol. They were then motivated to destroy his statue. “The elevation of a slave trader clashed badly with our civic identity. A philanthropy derived from crimes against humanity is as hollow as the statue itself.” 5 (my emphasis) Colston’s virtues are buried in a unidimensional narrative. Should it be, “…in a museum” as they suggest?6 No it shouldn’t, because museums change the meaning of statues by withdrawing them from a public space. They lose their role in the living environment: informing and enriching.

Asha (surname not given), 25, from Bristol places her dedication on the empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol once stood after it was taken down during a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday June 8, 2020. See PA story POLICE Floyd. Photo credit should read: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Philanthropy is a source of pride in Bristol’s history and Colston’s the outstanding representative. Those who funded the statue thought he was so important that 174 years after he died they paid a substantial amount of money to memorialise him.2 It was seen as a major omission there wasn’t a statue and this was rectified. The conclusion was that Colston’s very substantial redemptive philanthropy mitigated his slave trading past.

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Lord Nelson was virtually blind in and lost his right arm whilst fighting in the Canary Islands, 1798. In a 21st century workplace he’d be labelled ‘disabled’.8

Nelson towers above Trafalgar Square and three plinths, on two of which are soldiers: Charles Napier and Henry Havelock. (The third plinth has George IV.) Could Trafalgar Square be repurposed as a centrepiece for courageously dealing with disability? Nelson’s crippling injuries could inform a new narrative, as it were, in a space currently devoted to celebrating war.

Conclusion

Watching protestors explain why they toppled Colston’s statue was depressing. There was an intellectual monotone indicating a lack of understanding of Colston’s place in Bristol’s history. They privileged themselves with no belief in redemption, the key route to righting personal wrongs. Worse, democratic routes to solve the alleged problem through debate was dismissed out of hand. Taking a wrecking ball to history is entirely the wrong route and has many unfortunate outcomes, none of which they appeared to be aware of.

Notes

1 Edward Colston, the Dolphin Society and 270 years of letter-writing…History / Background | The Dolphin Society (dolphin-society.org.uk) See also Edward Colston – Wikipedia

2 Statue of Edward Colston – Wikipedia £650 in 1895 is roughly equivalent to £87,000 now see Inflation calculator | Bank of England So if protestors wished to crowdfund an appropriate statue that’s the sort of money they’d need.

3 In pictures: Elland Road deserted as Billy Bremner statue is given subtle addition during coronavirus lockdown – Leeds Live (leeds-live.co.uk)

4 The Beatles Statue in Liverpool – 4 Hidden Details You May Have Missed (winetravelandsong.com) and for Churchill see Statue of Winston Churchill, Parliament Square – Wikipedia

5 Massive Attack say Colston statue should never have stood in our city – Bristol Live (bristolpost.co.uk)

6 loc.cit.

7 He died in 1721 but the charities he funded continue.

8 A very interesting article in the Daily Mail illustrates that the Black Lives Matter campaign of 1806 altered a letter to suggest that Nelson approved of slavery. This wasn’t so. See Expert has ‘proof’ that Admiral Horatio Nelson did NOT support slavery | Daily Mail Online

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