Arguments of Monumental Proportions


Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind

The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.

With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.

Fallen Idols

There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousands never made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.

Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him. 

Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels 

As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long running monuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry. 

It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skating  they are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors  – but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.

Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past. 

There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.

Oliver Cromwell, Parliament Square

A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.

The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protests in  2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.  

Cecil Rhodes, Oxford University

Winston Churchill gets a paint-job

I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousands  of locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew – during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin! 

Richard the Lionhearted

Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.

Dark deeds in a sunny land

In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land, William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.

There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines. 

The captain, his chopsticks and his lunch. James Cook, Whitby, Yorks

Lachlan Macquarie, Hyde Park,Sydney

Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and  commentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down. 

But not for long, perhaps.

All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.

For more on our Aussie worthies, see, for example, from The Guardian, on Australia, Statues are not history, and regarding former Soviet monuments, Poles Apart – the bitter conflict over a nation’s history. Below is a review of Alex von Tunzelmann’s recent book Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History

And, in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, and America’s Confederate legacy, Rebel Yell 

Fallen Idols: up they went and down they come

Jim Davidson, Weekend Australian, 17 Sept 2021

A statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, Cape Town, South Africa.

For as long as there have been statues, says Alex von Tunzelmann in this new book, they have been subject to attack. The Egyptian pharaohs regularly disfigured or smashed images of their predecessors. And so, what we have witnessed over the past few years, for all its urgency, in one sense has been a recurrence.

Von Tunzelmann demonstrates this very well by the way she has shaped her new book, Fallen Idols: it may end with the statue of George Washington being pulled down in Portland, Oregon, but its first focus is the statue of George III pulled down by New Yorkers. This occurred immediately after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Attacking statues is as old as the United States itself.

Von Tunzelmann has been fascinated by statues for years. She challenges the notion that statue attacks are aimed at “erasing our past in its entirety” and she is sceptical that a man of his time (for they are nearly always men) can hold, say, racist assumptions, and yet be justified by good works. She says orderly removals are all very well, but the process is protracted and cumbersome: street action is sometimes necessary.

“Statues do not have rights,” she says. “They stand at the pleasure of those who live alongside them.”

The book examines 12 case studies. Each culminates in attack or removal, when statues had functioned as instruments of dominance. The massive Stalin statue that loomed over Budapest – 25 metres high – was partly constructed from melted-down Hungarian ones, and people were enjoined by the Communist Party to go and respectfully converse with it. Friendly little Stalin – and yes, he was in fact quite short, and sensitive about it.

Worse (in some respects) was Rafael Trujillo, who graduated from outright criminality to becoming police chief, supervising an election so that he came to power and stayed there. He employed state terror to rule the Dominican Republic for 31 years, peppering the place with statues and public busts – nearly 2000 of them. Almost certainly a serial rapist, he gloried in what he saw as his virility: a couple of his column-centred monuments were in-your-face phallic. In case people didn’t get the point, at one unveiling his vice-president spoke of Trujillo’s “superior natural gifts”. All these statues came down, with others like them. In India as in Eastern Europe they have been put in special statue parks, where they stand largely neglected. A relatively benign relegation, sometimes leaving behind blank spaces. In one way, the recent attacks are a reversal of the statue-building mania across the Westernised world that accelerated through the 19th century. In 1844, London had 22 statues; by 1910, there were 10 times as many. The attacks are perhaps best seen as part of the reset following through the implications of the collapse of the European colonial empires. Hence the speed with which the Black Lives Matter movement spread: 13 days after George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota, a crowd in Bristol, England pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbour.

The book also gives a highly contextualised account of the “Rhodes must Fall” movement. It is shown how deeply – indeed brutally – racist Cecil Rhodes was; how his belief in the superiority of the British race led him to conclude that it had a right to occupy those lands “at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings”.

So the first statue to go, after it had been smeared in excrement, was that at the University of Cape Town. Oxford, where he gazes down at the High Street from the facade of Oriel College, has proved a tougher nut to crack. The college has prevaricated – people threatened to withdraw bequests if it moved to take Rhodes down – so he is still there. But the agitation has led to some improvement in Oxford practice, including the appointment of the first black head of a college.

Toward the end, Von Tunzelmann retreats a little from a generally abolitionist stance when it comes to statues, admitting that she is quite fond of a few. As are the British public, polls show. Certainly, some statues should be statements of what the people who live around them admire, but some are needed to remind us of who we, as people, were, when they went up. There should always be room for that: in the recent frenzy in America, a statue celebrating an antislavery abolitionist was toppled, as was another celebrating women’s rights. For there is a broader problem: the technological imperative has brought with it a flattened sense of the past.

Jim Davidson’s book, Emperors in Lilliput: Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland, is to be published by Melbourne University Press next year.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline 2021)

One thought on “Arguments of Monumental Proportions

  1. […] The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions. […]

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