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Statues: A Lesson On History Not The Past

1,300 Words


There are many who assume that History is the same as the Past. It is an honest mistake, after all History is certainly about the Past. But History is primarily our memory of the Past. While all peoples, events and happenings are noted by the Past, History, like all who reminisce, likes to play favourites. Not only is His memory not always consistent and coherent, but He has a tendency to pick and choose between what He does remember. Ultimately, He only mentions you if He thinks you’re relevant to what He wants to say and feel (and yes, History has for the most part been a He). Thus, it should come as no surprise that the recently revived debate on statues has very little to do with the Past but everything to do with History. After all, statues too play favourites and lock memories of the Past in the Present

As such, you can certainly see the point made by the anti-statue movements of today. I was studying at Oxford when Rhodes Must Fall began and swept the city. Though much about the debate was controversial, intransigent and the fascination of endless newspaper columns, what was never in doubt was that Sir Cecil Rhodes was a deplorable man who nonetheless adorned the façade of Oriel College. How could such a thing be? Well, the people he was deplorable to were thousands of miles away but the people he threw money at were much nearer and much more privileged. So he got a statue – History would remember his generosity and benefaction; his villainy and savagery would be kept in the Past.

Step in the Present.

Rhodes Must Fall has never been about rewriting the Past, merely remembering it differently. Likewise the numerous Confederate statues and flags being taken down across the USA currently will not change anything about the Civil War and slavery of the Past, but their removal will send a message to the Present – those who are racist will no longer be favourites. And so yesterday it was announced that Rhodes is indeed coming down. In terms of what this will do to combat racist attitudes in the UK, USA and elsewhere, I imagine it will do very little. If anything, it will probably strengthen the sense of victimisation and unfairness felt by the ‘anti-political correctness’ mob much like the statue’s presence strengthened the sense of victimisation and unfairness of the 'progressive lobby'. But in terms of what it will do to boost the morale of this 'progressive lobby' in the UK…this could be their Bastille moment.

Because they serve as the people’s memory, History and statues have never been apolitical. Memory always serves a function – to find something that was lost, to remind you of an important lesson, to rekindle an old friendship, to stir up ill-feeling towards an old enemy. Conservatives glorify the past because if the past is so glorious, why do we need to change? Just so Progressives wish ever to demonise the past as nothing shouts change more than the need for repentance. To change the people’s memory is to change the people’s politics, and THIS is why Rhodes Must Fall – indeed, why all progressive social justice movements – cause controversy. Changing how we remember the Past does nothing to change the Past but everything to change the Present.

So how should we remember?

Many who know me well will know how much I love history. Those who know me well will also know that when debates on history arise, I am often the first to throw a spanner in the works. Whatever historical tale you wish to tell – whether one of glory or tragedy – I will always seek to find the exception to your story. More than one person has said to me how they find this ‘Devil’s Advocating’ a tiresome exercise, one designed merely to annoy and show off the breadth of my historical knowledge. Perhaps there is some truth in that. Yet, I know that deep down it is because after spending a lifetime poring over history books, the main thing I have learned from the Past is neither bitterness nor conceit but empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, to recognise that were you to look at life from another’s perspective, you might find yourself more like them than you care to think. Distance makes it easier both to despise and to idolise, and it is not without wisdom the old anonymous proverb says, “my enemy is the person whose story I have not heard.” When I read about slavery, why should I assume I would have been Abraham Lincoln rather than Jefferson Davis? Why do I assume I would be Olaudah Equiano rather than Jacobus Capitein?[1] Our lives are lived as social creatures, and we are easily swayed by the opinions of those around us. If History teaches us anything, it is that that could have been us. That is not an excuse for the villainies of history, and, if anything, it should serve as a wake-up call to our own moral integrity. For instance, if I give generously to charity but give no thought to where I invest my capital beyond where it will make a good turnover, am I very different to Edward Colston whose statue was so recently thrown in a river? Empathy does not mean I should leave the world as it is, but it also means we should not be so quick to judge our fellow humanity. Perhaps the Apostle Paul was onto something when he said: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[2] Or to put it another way in a paraphrase of Dostoevsky: people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.[3] And we could have been those people.

My way of telling history is as disingenuous about the Past as any other because the Past is no more always grey than it is always black and white. But History was never about the Past, and by emphasising the Past’s greyness, perhaps my History might encourage a little more empathy and a little less Conservative dismissiveness and Progressive anger. In a world where our politics is more polarised than it has been in at least my living memory, I don’t consider that a bad thing.

So to bring it back to statues. As a young boy, I remember reading avidly about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and like any horror movie, the worse it got the more I read. But one day, I read a story of hope for a change: I read about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Slave Revolt. I read in awe as this former slave navigated the complicated political and military waters of the Revolt, eventually winning freedom for the slaves (while simultaneously fighting off the French, Spanish and British) and attempting to build a society where all three ‘colours’ – Blacks, Mulattos and Whites – could live together. Toussaint was not a saint, and there is much about his life that is problematic. But if we are to have statues, then I’d like to see more of people like him.


[1] Abraham Lincoln was the American and Union President who won the Civil War and emancipated all slaves in America.

Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy in the Civil War and fought to maintain slavery.

Olaudah Equiano was an 18th century African man and former slave who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He’s considered one of the most significant people in the British abolition movement.

Jacobus Capitein was an 18th century African man and former slave. He was one of the first Africans to attend a European university and is remembered for writing a thesis in defence of slavery.

[2] Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV)

[3] The actual quote is: “It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you (Dostoyevsky, Pevear and Volokhonsky, 1995)

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