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Remembering History, Changing the Present

A statue or plaque commemorates and honours a person's work, and the ideals that the person represents. Of course, no person is perfect and the ideals and the reason for the statue have to be put into a continuum and the reason for the installation. It is certainly part of history, but it is designed to promote and advocate the ideals that they the statue or plaque was installed for. It is the first part of this sense that some critics of the recent removal of of such honourifics claim to object to. The reality is that every society add and removes people from their honour roll, and often this involves a recollection of their history, rather than erasing it. As the American History Association (AHA) has stated to remove a monument "is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history." As long as the are recalled, of course. Shelley reminds us that monuments to the most powerful of humans will eventually be just a "colossal Wreck" surrounded by desert sand.

When an honourific monument is removed what is being erased is that public dedication to what they represented. At the birth of the American Revolution, patriots tore down the statue of George III in New York, whilst a militia group "The Sons of Freedom" in Worcester, Massachusetts, removed the king’s coat of arms from the courthouse and burned it in the street, along with numerous other examples. But nobody seriously argues that King George III has been erased from history; but he had fallen out of favour with the people of the United States. Nor has anyone argued that Joseph Stalin has been removed from history, as his statues toppled throughout the Eastern bloc. Sometimes, circumstances are such that people come back into favour, at least to a degree. Incredible as it may seem to some, a key individual in the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein Baghdad argued some thirteen years later has described the situation as much worse and that they would prefer the statue back:

Saddam has gone, but now in his place, we have 1,000 Saddams. I feel like Iraq has been stolen from us. Bush and Blair are definitely liars. They destroyed Iraq and took us back to zero and took us back to the Middle Ages or earlier. If I was a criminal I would kill them with my bare hands.

A particularly celebrated case in a U.S. context was the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument in Charlottesville, Virginia which various neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis tried to defend (along with the first-degree murder of Heather Heyer). From their perspective, of course the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, and the renaming of Lee Park represents removal of their public recognition, and that's rather the point. The statue wasn't erected as some monument to Lee's skill as a general, but rather because it represented the historic attempted break from the union and the advocacy of slavery. Ironically, Lee himself opposed the construction of public memorials to the Confederate rebellion.

In Australia there is also more than a fair share of public monuments dedicated to people who had an active role in the attempted genocide of indigenous people. A particularly egregious example is the numerous monuments throughout the Gippsland region dedicated to Angus McMillan. McMillan was an explorer and pastoralist through the Gippsland region, but also in the process raised and engaged in multiple massacres of the indigenous Gunai-Kurnai people (See: Gardner, P.D.. (2001) , Gippsland massacres: the destruction of the Kurnai tribes, 1800-1860, Ngarak Press). After the massacre of between 60 and 150 aboriginal people at Warrigal Creek, McMillan kept a hessian bag of human skulls for some time after the event. Incredibly, some local councils still are refusing to remove honourifics. Let there be no doubt; McMillan's monuments exist because, and only because, he "cleared the land" of indigenous inhabitants through rape and murder. To keep monuments of this man, to honour his work, is a crass insult to his victims and ancestors and to us, saying that we do not want to overcome the murderous racism of the past, but rather, we honour it.

There are, of course, many and varied ways of addressing the problem of past honourifics that our recollection finds wrong. When protesters rightly turfed the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol harbour (his philanthropy was funded by the transport of some 84,000 slaves from West Africa to the Americas during his tenure in the Royal African Company), the statue was recovered with plans to place it in a museum. Others have advocated replacing the monuments, or adding to them, whether by formal or artistic means. In any case, what is clear is that such public monuments need to be placed in the context of modern sensibilities. But what a public statue of Aristotle? Didn't he have slaves? Or Thomas Jefferson for that matter? Yes, in both cases. But, to the best of our knowledge, there are not monuments to Aristotle or Jefferson in virtue of their slavery. Monuments to Aristotle are due to his contributions to deductive logic; monuments to Jefferson are due to his advocacy of a liberal republic - and he tried to include an anti-slavery passage.

Then there is the issue of independent institutions; recently there has been debate over Edinburgh University renaming David Hume Tower. Hume's writings, in Of National Characters make claims of the natural superiority of those of the white complexion, claiming that none other have generated civilisation, arts, or sciences, stating that the Negro that shows learning is to be admired "like a parrot". It is perhaps unsurprising that Hume also helped investments in slave plantations, given how his views contributed to "racial slavery". It is one thing to acknowledge that Hume provided a significant philosophical contribution to naturalism and empiricism. But the institution itself has reviewed the naming of University's tallest building as has considered that it is not appropriate to give Hume that honourific.

To reiterate, all public monuments to individuals are erected in a time, context, and often with little say by the community at the time. As communities gain a voice they might have a very different view of monuments to those who oppressed them, and that will certainly include their removal. It was with notable insight that the UK band, "The Redskins" could tell as in 1985 of how history would unfold and will continue to do so;

At the end of an era The First thing to go
Are the heads of our leaders Kicked down in the road...
On the day of reckoning When we've struck & won
Watch close as their heroes Go crashing down on the pavement...
-- Kick over the statues, The Redskins

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