Statue toppling: actions that are often only seen on the news when witnessing things like regime change or the ending of a dictatorship. Yet the practice has expanded beyond the literal toppling of a ruler and has taken on a different form — a paradigm shift in a society which wants to choose and remove who is displayed on our streets.

Significance of statues

Statues hold power. So much so that when Iraqis congregated around the towering monument of dictator Sadam Hussein during the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, US soldiers aided the civilians taking to the behemoth with sledgehammers by wrapping a chain around the statue’s neck and pulling at it with their Hummers until it fell. This scene was then plastered on every front page of the papers, with the Independent‘s headline reading: ‘The toppling of Saddam’ and the Express bearing the words ‘Historic Edition’.

Yet perhaps for any recent overthrowing of dictators or changing of regimes, statues as a symbol have remained largely unimportant in world affairs. That is until recently when on June 7, Bristol protesters at the ever-growing George Floyd movement tore down and threw in the river the city’s statue of the merchant, philanthropist and slave trader, Edward Colston starting a domino effect of demands for other statues to be removed — with some local councils taking the initiative to do it themselves.

This prompted an outcry from many, with claims of erasing history and the beginning of a slippery slope where we’ll be ‘tearing down the pyramids next’. But can you really compare a statue of someone like Colston to the Egyptian pyramids?

Defining the distinction

Just because something is historic doesn’t mean it has value. After all, we no longer ride around in a horse and cart or practice human sacrifice. Yet it is important to be aware of these things, as they’ve contributed to the human experience. But as many of these statues from history were often built as late as a hundred years after the event or person (such as the Colston statue), they are not all there to serve purely as historic monuments, but as ideological ones too; reflecting what we as a society think has worth.

This is where the pyramids come in. Were slaves used to build them? In some cases, yes. Would they have been built without slaves? Yes, many were. Would we lose a fundamental glimpse of human history by dismantling the pyramids? Yes, thousands of years of historical insights. Now ask yourself: do the actions of what the Egyptians did 4000 years ago still affect people in society today?

Back to Edward Colston. Was his influence assisted by some of the money he made in the trading of human beings? Almost certainly. Would he have a statue if he did not have money and therefore influence? No. Would we lose a fundamental understanding of British history by removing his statue? A man, who up until recently was entirely unknown and not even thought of when learning about subjects he was directly involved in. Again, ask yourselves: do the actions of people like Colston still affect people in society today?

So is the Colston statue a monument to history? Or to the individual?

Contentious characters

But what to do when you have a figure, who undoubtedly contributed to the course of world history, but has a less than savoury past? The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has come up frequently as a potential target. But should it be torn down?

Churchill, who led Britain during WW2, perhaps saved Europe from Nazi rule. It was not only his wise decision- making that stopped Britain from appeasing Adolf Hitler, or his determination to stay in the war which would later provide a base of operations for US forces to invade Europe. Rather, it was specifically his persuasion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led an isolationist USA at the time, to see the bigger picture of a Nazi threat and join the war effort.

Yet, he is a man mired in allegations of racism. The 1943 Bengal famine, where up to four million Indians starved to death, has been in part contributed to Churchill diverting food to British soldiers and countries instead of providing relief to what was then a subject of the British Empire. He defended his actions by saying that Indians ‘breed like rabbits’, and so relief efforts would accomplish nothing.

Still, Churchill arguably has more right than Colston to be remembered. But does he deserve to be displayed with such prominence not only in statue form in Parliament Square but in our national psyche?

We’ve heard it said throughout this debate, that ‘we should preserve history, warts and all’. If we do want a statue of this contentious, multi-faceted man, it should perhaps not be the 12-feet high bronze figure that towers over passers-by in military attire, but something more befitting of a country wanting to understand the importance of history but also needing to move forward with positive change.

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