Everyone’s attention is to various extent attracted by the recent events linked to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests going on around the world. A significant part of the demonstrations has involved the tearing down of several confederate statues in the US, and slavery-linked statues in other countries. The symbolic value of destroying statues is enormous and its impact has important cultural implications that go beyond the moment of the protest. For all those who have an interest in history, from amateur historians to students and professional researchers, this aspect of the protest is incredibly appealing. It is therefore necessary to analyse this phenomenon objectively and this is my attempt at offering my perspective. I must clarify that I am definitely more acquainted with Ancient Mediterranean history than with modern and contemporary history. Nevertheless, what is at issue here is our perception of historical events and figures.
A statue is never just a statue. A statue is not just its subject, the person that it represents, but also the people who commissioned it, the artist who made it, and most importantly its purpose. The intent is usually a celebratory one – a statue is there to celebrate someone. The initial question is should we celebrate that slavery-linked historical figure? The only reasonable answer is no. No country, especially those with an imperialist past like the UK, France, and Spain, should have statues of slave traders. Moreover, we need to bear in mind that in order to tear down a statue, that statue must be first put up. And here we come to the real question concerning our perception and manipulation of history. What is rewriting history?
The main accusation against those who want to remove controversial statues is that they want to rewrite history, as they fail to contextualise. From this perspective, removing a statue represents an example of ignorance and an act of vandalism. In some cases, the removal of a statue is seen as outrageous, an offence to the nation’s glorious past. It suffices to read the headlines of newspapers and online news websites. Whereas CNN states These controversial statues have been removed following protests over George Floyd’s death, Fox News writes Vandals target historic monuments amid George Floyd protests. Yet, what we need to understand is why statues of slavery-linked historical figures were erected in the first place. Indeed, this has much more to do with the way we understand history, the way we teach it and we learn it.
We do not need to worry about the removal of controversial statues (maybe they would be much more useful in a museum with notes explaining what disgraceful deeds these figures accomplished, including the good ones, if any. Or maybe not, museums are not storerooms.). It is much more concerning to see that an outdated, inadequate, partial view of history is still alive within certain circles and in part of public opinion. This tendency comes from afar, from 19th century Romanticism. In that period, history-writing was heavily influenced and Romantic nationalism had a largely negative effect on it. Each nation tended to produce its own version of history, based on myths such as racial coherence and continuity as well as the antiquity and purity of peoples. History was seen as the spirit itself of the nation. Moreover, in England, Thomas Carlyle lavished uncritical praise on strong leaders who were depicted as flawless heroes. This last element is still very influential in our times.
It is extremely important to consider this when dealing with figures (and statues of figures) like Winston Churchill. The example I am making is not random. The famous statue of the former PM towering on Parliament Square has been defaced by anti-racist demonstrators. Then, far-right protesters claimed they were in the city to protect monuments and clashed with the police. The “heroification” of historical figures is the real danger in this case. Churchill was a flesh-and-bone man who made good and bad decisions. Had he not stood up to Hitler’s war in Europe, many of us today would be living in a different world. However, no one can deny that he contributed to many atrocities like the famine in the Bengal province of British India. Moreover, he “exhibited a romanticised view of the British Empire” (Jenkins 2001: 22) and he adhered to a form of imperialism that posited racial superiority according to which “by conquering and dominating other peoples, the British were also elevating and protecting them” (Addison 1980: 32).
Similar considerations apply to all figures in history, from Pericles to Ronald Reagan. In this respect, I would like to remind the reader of the Roman biographer Suetonius who in his Lives of the Caesars included both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ deeds for each emperor. I do not want to go into details about this, but the structure of his biographies highlights that the world, and indeed history, is not divided into goodies and baddies. Suetonius acknowledged that some of Nero’s acts deserved ‘no criticism, some even (being) praiseworthy,’ before listing all the wicked deeds that the notorious emperor accomplished (whether or not the anecdotes are true or even likely, they tell us a lot about Roman culture and the sensibility of the Roman upper-classes). No man is just good or just bad. Individuals are complex and we cannot draw a line, exclude those we do not like, and make heroes out of those we like.
All those who take history seriously know that ‘Romantic’ trends can be dangerous inasmuch as they produce a distorted historical narrative that lends itself to the worst propagandistic intents. For instance, fascist propaganda in Italy tried to place the totalitarian regime and its imperialistic ambitions in continuity with the Roman Empire which centuries before had ruled over the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, myths such as racial coherence are evoked still today and not just in Italy. There are people who cannot accept the complexity of ethnic diversity around the Roman territories. Think about the criticism that the BBC cartoon about life in Roman Britain received for including a high-ranking black soldier in a typically ‘Romano-British’ family. Cambridge classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard pointed out that the cartoon was ‘indeed pretty accurate’ and suffered a disgusting barrage of abuse on social media.
To those who fear that tearing down a few statues of controversial figures during the anti-racist demonstrations represents a threat to our historical heritage, I say that they need not worry. The preservation of historical memory can only benefit from an objective reanalysis of certain events and figures. This is the only way to recover nuances and details that have been lost and increase our general knowledge of history.
Addison, Paul (1980). “The Political Beliefs of Winston Churchill”. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 30: 23–47.
Jenkins, Roy (2001). Churchill. London: Macmillan Press
See also Mary Beard’s TLS blog post “Statue Wars“