Britain has a complicated relationship with its past. It loves it. It builds an entire tourism industry upon it. It builds an entire entertainment industry of it. It hates it. It conceals it. It ignores it. At the moment, it’s defending it (selectively, of course). For once, debate over the need to preserve history has come out from the shadows of academia and into the eager hands of the public. The recent #Rhodesmustfall campaign at Oxford University, following on from student protests around South Africa last year aimed at the removal of the numerous statues of imperialist Cecil Rhodes offensively permeating their cityscapes, seems to be both gripping and dividing the country.
(Social) media is distorting the intricacies of the argument and decontexualising the reasoning of both sides. No surprises there, but as a result the public seems to be forgetting the larger implications of the movement and reducing it to a clear-cut dispute: ‘statue’ vs ‘no statue’. While the explicit crimes of Cecil Rhodes (engineering South African apartheid, stealing millions of miles of indigenous lands, exploiting black labour, prompting the Second Boer War, ETC…) are certainly not to be side-lined, protestors are also keen to situate their campaign within the more pressing issue of entrenched racism and discrimination continuing to saturate Britain’s institutions, universities and educational curriculum.
Rhodes was a real person; this point is vital to remember. Yet he has also become a symbol through which change can be positively enacted. As such, another aspect of the debate asks questions about how countries choose to interact with their past. Instead of prompting knee-jerk reactions denouncing the opinions of both sides, it should stimulate discussion about the purpose of historic statues and their evolving place in civic commemoration.
An argument that keeps cropping up from the ‘pro-preservation’ faction is that the translation of Rhodes’ statue to a more appropriate setting amounts to an erasure of history, the equivalent of book-burning, violent iconoclasm, censorship, essentially. This is a bit silly, really, considering that nobody in Britain was talking much about him until recently; that Britain’s engagement with the atrocities of its colonial past has always been quiet, to say the least; and that the entire campaign is centred upon the exposition and discussion of a rather dominant section of our history. Even the more thoughtfully-composed discussions that suggest removal of Rhodes is akin to photoshopping out the dislikeable bits of history ignore the fact that the campaign is not being fronted by those who have the most to lose from acknowledgement of our severely blemished past, but by those who continue to be negatively affected by its absence from public consciousness.
While the Rhodes debate is about more than just a statue, it is also about statues, which in themselves are about more than just statues (…get it?). The creation of monuments as a method through which to remember, honour, mourn or celebrate pasts events and people has long been a cultural (and often, political) approach to memory. There is something in the visual and artistic nature of monuments that expresses a connection with, and reflection on, the past – in a way that words sometimes cannot. At the same time, monuments, because they have been built for a particular purpose, and (in the case of Rhodes) because they continue to stand, are not just about the past, but also about the present.
I see no implicit problem with the application of twenty-first-century values to historical figures, as others seem to. The manner in which we engage with the crimes of our country’s past is not anachronistic or futile. Rather, it defines how we wish to be viewed as a modern nation and how our future values might be shaped. As such, just as statues being built today are inaugurated to celebrate and glorify the character depicted, those that continue to stand as testament to another time also shed light on modern values and (with no presence of contextualisation) even suggest some form of continued endorsement.
The discussions surrounding Rhodes seem to forget that controversy around certain monuments – often in terms of aesthetics, but also because of perceived problems in message and representation – is nothing new. Statues often act as rallying points for protestors to express their dissent over certain political stances. Monuments, moreover, are not permanent – no matter what the material solidity of stone or bronze might suggest. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 saw the toppling of vast Lenin and Stalin statues in revolutions all over the Eastern Bloc. In 2003, crowds and US soldiers in Baghdad famously brought down a thirty-nine-foot stone figure of Saddam Hussein. I do not condone violent iconoclasm or brush aside the destruction of cultural heritage in times of political uprising. But I am drawing attention to the possibility that the symbolism of removing statues associated with (often traumatic) pasts can be more a reflection on present day beliefs and hopes for change, than a want to purge memory of their existence. Likewise, as physical representations of memory (rather than history) – which is constantly evolving in relation to its contemporary context – it would make sense that monuments themselves retain some degree of transience.
It is tempting to interpret the removal of statues as an attempt to forget a certain past and restructure public space to accommodate a modern agenda. Certainly, this is sometimes the case: the removal of historical artefacts by ruling bodies (as is increasingly the case in the Middle East) in order to legitimise a certain ideology has often been a key feature of turbulent regime change. This clearly is not what is happening in Oxford, and any characterising it is as such overlooks the real issues being vocalised here. People seem to be clinging to physical monuments as the only vestiges of the past, but I don’t think we’re at any imminent risk of destroying the legacy of colonialism. Unfortunately, it’s all around us. The real concern here is a reluctance to incorporate our past into public and political discourse despite an abundance of physical evidence. The debate surrounding Cecil Rhodes is hopefully a step in the right direction.
Lizzy Galliver is an undergraduate in her final year of studying History at Durham University: her dissertation focuses on the memorialisation of communism in Eastern Europe.