We’ve all heard the story. The men and women of our history, although mostly the men, erected statues of those they admired. An awful lot of them. Some of us are concerned that these statues perpetuate a dangerous, mythologised whitewashing of our past. We might even feel so strongly as to dump them in a canal. Others of us feel equally strongly that these statues are an integral part of our history, and that attempts to remove them are an affront, even a threat, to that history.
Our Prime Minister is among the latter group. In a recent interview with the Evening Standard, he unequivocally set out his stall on the Rhodes statue: “If we try to bowdlerise or edit our history in this way, it’s like some politician sneakily trying to change his Wikipedia entry,” a skill he presumably wishes to pick up, given that his own entry tentatively lists his number of children as “at least six”.
Expounding his position on Twitter, Johnson condemned attempts to edit Britain’s iconographic Wikipedia entry, adding, “we cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations…to tear them down would be to lie about our history”.
Herein lies the myth of the statue. Our statues are not a record of our collective historical memory. Rather they are a record of successive attempts by elites of all stripes to pervert such a memory to suit their own ends. Boris does not understand this. He cannot understand this; for he is one in a long line seeking to manufacture a collective historical narrative for their own political and economic benefit.
Another day. Another monument. The same story. At the base of the statue of Edward Colston, which now laid sodden in the canal basin, read the plaque “erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”.
They were wrong. Colston was an evil man, who sold tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children into slavery. That he was dumped unceremoniously in the port at which his own ships once docked is an appropriate, but woefully insufficient penance for his crimes, some say. Others, doubtless including our Prime Minister, remonstrate that to cast aside the wishes of Bristolians bygone is to “lie about our history”. They wanted him there, and we should respect that.
But it was not them who put him there. That plaque holds its own myth.
Edward Colston died at the age of 84, in 1721. No statue was erected by the “citizens of Bristol,” for over 150 years. And this statue was not erected by the “citizens of Bristol,” at all. By 1895, Bristolian business faced a crisis. Unions. The dockworkers’ strikes of 1889 had been a watershed for the industrial elite, with the historian S. Bryher later describing the town as “a seething centre of revolt”.
And what better way to calm a simmering dockyard than to reinvent Colston as the, ‘father of the city?’ To remind a convulsing populace of the duty it owes to a paternalistic industrial and mercantile elite? After a failed attempt to secure funding from the “citizens of Bristol,” the statue was eventually bankrolled by James Arrowsmith, a local publisher. To tear down such a statue is not to “lie about our history,” but to correct a historical record built retrospectively and reactively by the elite.
The myth is not confined to our islands. Speaking at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, President Trump bemoaned a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history,” no doubt referring to the efforts of Black Lives Matter campaigners to remove monuments to the Confederacy. But to whose history does he refer?
Not a history of those seeking to quietly mourn the dead, but the history of those who sought to ‘sneakily edit’ the past during the re-assertion of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era. The modal year for the erection of Confederate monuments was not 1865, but 1911. For context, the NAACP was founded in 1909. They do not represent heritage. They represent a white backlash against black empowerment.
It is not only that our statues represent myths. It is that they are myths in themselves. Not only do they propagate a mythologised image of our past, but the idea of statues erected “by the citizens of Bristol,” is its own myth. The truth is that Boris is defending a manufactured history with an appeal to a manufactured citizenry.
There were no “citizens of Bristol,” in the first place. That was another sneaky edit.