By Leah Conway
History is littered with the image of toppling statues being pulled down by crowds of people.
King George III’s statue was pulled down following the creation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Hungarian revolutionaries toppled Joseph Stalin’s monument in 1956, and in 2003 we saw the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. These are but a handful of the examples we can see throughout history.
When we look through history, we look at these acts as symbolic of revolutions, liberation, change, and simply as history.
It has become clear since the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue, that many do not apply the same attitude to the present.
So why is it a problem now?
When protestors pushed Edward Colton’s statue into the Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest, the harbours in which men like him stole so many lives, I could not help but see the poetic justice of it all.
Many people, in previous years, had attempted to negotiate the removal of the statue democratically but nothing worked. It took people taking it into their own hands for this change to happen and it has since sparked much debate.
Not everyone, however, has had the same take on the divisive act of tearing down Colston’s statue.
People have exclaimed that the toppling of Colston’s statue is ‘destroying’ history but have not stopped to think that we are witnessing the creation of history; this is living history.
People are arguing that removing public statues is erasing history, but if your concept of history hangs solely on statues with oppressive and imperialist values, then it is a fragile concept of history.
How many of us have actually stopped, observed and learned from the statues that are in our public spaces?
It simply is not the way we learn history; the fact that so many are only just discovering and paying attention to the statues in their cities is proof of this.
As said by Historian, David Olusoga in a BBC interview, “Statues aren’t the mechanism by which we understand history.
“Statues are about adoration; they are about saying this man was a great man and he did great things. That is not true; he was a slave trader and a murderer.”
So, what does the removal of Colston’s statue mean for history?
The statue’s removal has forced the country to confront the historical legacy that prevails in our public spaces.
Colston’s statue has since been retrieved and will be placed into a museum exhibit. The statue will be preserved with the rope and graffiti used on the day of his fall.
Ray Barnett, head of collections and archives at Bristol City Council, said, “We preserve him as he was tipped into the dock.”
‘Topple the Racists’ is a website which pledges their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the people who toppled Edward Colston’s statue.
It is a ‘crowdsources map of the UK statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism.’
It calls for direct action to confront the truth about Britain’s past and wants Britain to acknowledge how many of us walk through everyday life under the shadows of men who traded in human lives and yet are placed on a pedestal above us.
Since then, a monument of Robert Milligan, who had connections with the slave trade, has been legally removed. It is hoped that this will open up discussions of the future of these domineering totems of the British slave trade.
The weight people have been putting on the importance of statues like Colston’s and Milligan’s to somehow preserve and teach history is misplaced.
There is a fear that their removal would mean erasing the country’s history. Yet, our history does not hang on a few monuments of slave traders, just as Hungary and Iraq’s history does not hang on the statues of their past dictators.
History will remain and will be created when these statues are relocated. It is a step towards Britain confronting its history and heritage rather than brushing it away.
As said by Nick Brodie, “History outlives its own relics.”
Change is not erasing our past, only creating a step forward into a different future.