The current debate about removing statues - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
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The current debate about removing statues and renaming streets

In the last couple of days, a host of statues and memorials have come under attack. They include statues of Victoria, Rhodes and Gladstone. I consider the attempts to remove such statues as an attempt to erase from history those elements which we find unpalatable, and to try and impose contemporary morality on past events and people which absolutely inappropriate. Statues are part of our historic streetscape and reflect the develoment of our villages and towns and the people who lived there.

Those who advocate the removal of memorials often have little background in understanding history and have latched on to a snippet of information about someone, usually to do with slavery. What they fail to understasnd is that people are complex characters and have nuanced characters. Take Gladstone who has become a target for criticism on the basis of his father receiving money from that paid out as compensation after the abolition of slavery. Gladsone started life as a Tory opposing he reforms of the 1830s including the abolition of slavery and the Factory Acts but he went on to become the personificationof liberalism in Victorian society. He opposed imperialism and the annexations of Disraeli, thought politics should be based on morality and not materialism, and supported Home Rule for Ireland and independence for Italy. He lost support as the jingoists of the late c19th turned against him.

Here in Brighton & Hove,  the Leader of the Council wants to investigate all memorials and statues in the city to ensure that they fit in with what she deems contemporary values. I have written the following letter to her and to my local MP, Caroline Lucas. If you are concerned about what is happening in your locality I urge you to write to the relevant authorities.
William Gladstone, whose statues have come under attack
Dear Councillor
I have been a resident of Brighton & Hove since 1973, living in North Laine for the past 33 years during which time I was Chair of the North Laine Community Association. Since retirement from teaching history to 11-18 year olds in 2008 I have spent a lot of my time writing articles and giving talks on the subject of the British Empire in order to raise people’s understanding of the impact the Empire had on the world in which we live.  I have attached two of my essays from my website, one on the importance of studying history and the second on the removal of the statue of Rhodes on Oriel College.

For too long we have found the British Empire unpalatable and the tendency has been not to discuss it as it offends our sensibilities. The media confine their coverage to discussing statues and street names, and how evil the Empire was. There is little meaningful debate on the very real questions that ought to be asked and taught.
Yet again we are discussing statues and colonialism as if it only concerned a few Victorians, and yet again the level of debate is derisory. People calling for the fall of a statue and everyone else falling over each other to be on the bandwagon without any proper discussion of the issues.
I am totally against  the removal of statues of people like Gladstone and Cecil Rhodes, and the renaming of streets for the following reasons.
1.       Most statues from the c18th and c19th are no longer there to glorify the subject. In many cases people know little about them. Such statues are part of our historical cityscape and give us important clues to our past. They should be reminders of the past and a focal point for discussion of the past and not be taken down and cast into the dustbin of history never to be discussed again. We do not get to choose what is part of history yet in taking down a statue we are doing just that. We are all a product of the past, and we cannot fully understand ourselves if we have not fully understood where we have come from and our history. We cannot pretend certain events did not happen.

2.       We need to encourage the teaching and learning of the British Empire, warts and all,  given its huge impact on the world in which we live. Taking down statues and renaming streets is a way of closing down discussion and learning, rather than asking important questions. History is about providing answers to important questions. We need to understand our past and yes that means understanding colonialism (and neo-colonialism).

3.       If you took down every statue depicting someone who is now deemed to be an imperialist, racist, sexist or homophobic we would have very few left. People in the past had different values and attitudes to those we have today. Certainly, the Victorians mostly supported the British Empire which they saw as a good thing not just for Britain for the colonies as well. We may disagree but it is what they believed. We need to investigate why they thought this and how did people like Rhodes came to think  and act in the way he did.

4.       To my mind few things are more profoundly pointless than applying contemporary morality to historical events, especially as anything from history is almost certainly racist, sexist and homophobic. The moral certainly that the Victorians had and the protesters in Bristol and Oxford claim to have will only lead to an end to free debate.

5.       I am not sure what our values are. Consumerism? Obsession with self-image? A free market which allows zero hours contracts and a disjointed approach to social care? Whatever our values are they are in a constant  state of flux. If we are to have only memorials that reflect current values then we will be changing street names and memorials every decade or so.

6.       I have been disappointed at the level  of understanding of the British Empire by the media and those who appear on it - no more so that when I heard a prominent national politician on Question Time claim that the camps in South Africa in 1900-1902 were there for the benefit of the Boer people (28,000 died). No-one contradicted him and the audience was left thinking  that he was telling the truth. I cannot remember the last time we had a historian on Question Time. It seems we prefer the input of comedians. The quality of debate and the depth of understanding on topics like that of removing statues is quite poor and I hope that Brighton & Hove Council will take time to consider the issues properly and not be rushed into a hasty decision to make a political point.

If you were to take down statues, what criteria would you  choose? Everything associated with imperialism? Empires were the norm for centuries. Are you going to take down everything from the past 400 years and take down the statue of every monarch who presided over the British Empire? Are you going to take down every monument and memorial  associated with imperialism including all the war memorials, including those from WW1 and WW2 which according to many historians were fought to defend the empire? People’s lives were complex. Gladstone was an anti-imperialist and opposed Disraeli’s annexations although he was persuaded to launch the expedition to rescue Gordon. Gladstone also supported Home Rule for Ireland and his party split as a result. Do those who are condemning Gladstone have a full understanding of the nuances of his life? Churchill has been considered a racist who opposed independence for India. Will we be considering removal of his Blue Plaque? Before we rush to appear to be doing the right thing, do we have a full enough understanding of the nature of empire and slavery, and the context in which they existed? I don’t think we do.

Are we prepared to take down statues of Victoria, Ruskin, Disraeli, Churchill and countless others who supported imperialism? In Brighton we have Bishop Hannington Church. Hannington, who was killed in east Africa, believed in the ‘Mission to Civilise’. Should we rename the church? And what about our very own Queen who paid homage to Rhodes in what was described as a pilgrimage in 1947? See the clip on U tube

Are you aware that much of the money used to pay for the building of the London - Brighton railway came from the compensation paid out to slave plantation owners? Some of Brighton’s most important families invested in the slave plantations (there were 28 households that were beneficiaries from the compensation pay-out in the 1830s). I say this because there was hardly an area of Britain that did not benefit from the pay-out of compensation in the 1830s. Are we also aware of the efforts Britain went to after 1807 to eradicate slavery around the world?

Let us instead of renaming streets and knocking down statues focus on what we can do to improve our understanding of empires and slavery, and work to improve social justice and the promotion of equal opportunities in our society. That means learning about the British Empire and other empires -including the Roman Empire and African empires- and the role of slavery in societies past and present, including Indian  indentured labour and what the British did to eradicate slavery throughout the world after 1807. We live in a country in which gaps between rich and poor are far too big, where zero hours contracts keep people in poverty, and where class and privilege are still far too important. Improving our understanding of the past and bringing about a more equal society is the issue not renaming streets.
In my letters to Councillors and the local MP I have urged them to read my essay on this website about the Rhodes statue and my essay on why it is important to study history.

If you have any thoughts on this issue I will be pleased to hear from you, using the contact form below.

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