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The only certainty in the life of a statue is that one day it will fall. That process has accelerated recently, as the re-energising of the Black Lives Matter movement has carried in its wake a fresh wave of incidents where statues have been damaged, displaced or demolished to highlight their namesakes’ complicity in the slave trade.

The toppled dead men — and they’re always men — have included Confederate generals in the US and the merchant Edward Colston in the UK. President Trump has accused protestors of a ‘merciless campaign to wipe out our history’, although it’s difficult to see how mercy — or cruelty — could be afforded to a piece of bronze, marble or cast zinc.

In Australia, calls have been made to reassess the legacies of statued luminaries such as James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie, James Stirling and Thomas Mitchell in the light of their impacts on Indigenous civilisation. The base of a statue of Cook was graffitied in Hyde Park, Sydney, and a figure of Stirling was sprayed with red paint in the centre of Perth.

Even the State Library of NSW has been drawn into the curiously imagined ‘statue wars’. In March 1996 a bronze of explorer Matthew Flinders’ cat Trim was placed on a window ledge within pet-appropriate proximity of Flinders’ statue outside the Mitchell Library.

Trim’s image was fashioned by the late Kiama artist John Cornwell — whose website offered similarly ‘masterly renditions’ of ‘your own loved companion’ — and was erected by public subscription of Trim’s ‘admirers’ in the North Shore Historical Society.

The journalist and author Paul Daley has suggested that Flinders’ Indigenous aide Bungaree may have played a more pivotal role in the mapping of Australia than his cat. But there are no statues of Bungaree and more public sculptures in Australia of animals than Indigenous people (or, for that matter, women).

Many library visitors are enchanted by the statue of Trim but, rationally speaking (God forbid), it’s quite a strange idea to build a historical memorial to a cat, since cats have no more independent historical agency than statues. Whatever Trim’s achievements may have been, he certainly had no intention of circumnavigating Australia and no consciousness of having done so. That said, Flinders was tremendously fond of Trim and composed tributes to the animal in poetry and prose. This surely says more about Flinders than his cat, so perhaps the memorialisation of Trim does help us reach a more rounded understanding of the man. In any case, nobody is asking for Trim to be removed from his perch — only for Bungaree to join him.

But probably not on a window ledge.

Illustration by Matthew P Burgess

Illustration by Matthew P Burgess

In 2017, during the last wave of statue amputations in the US, the ABC’s Indigenous Affairs editor Stan Grant was metaphorically spittle flecked by faux furious talkback types when he said the huge nineteenth-century bronze of Captain Cook should remain in Hyde Park.

Grant had prefaced his judgement with the recognition that there were ‘Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed’. His argument was that Cook could not be said to have ‘discovered’ Australia since Indigenous people already knew it was there.

Grant was branded a ‘statue hater’ by newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt, who later told CNN that Cook had ‘discovered something unknown to the wider world, which in turn had not been discovered by Aborigines’. Within the logic of statue politics, the ‘wider world’ might be felt to include Trim the cat.

Grant suggested altering the plaques on statues to include a critical Indigenous perspective. Most ‘statue haters’ have offered similar suggestions, while commentators including Warren Mundine and Geoffrey Blainey have supported the idea — a la Daley — that there should be more statues of Indigenous people.

But, even if these statues were raised, they would not last for all time. There’s a good chance that Bungaree would eventually be denounced as a collaborator and toppled from his not-yet-existing perch.

Because that’s what happens to statues.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he discovered the Israelites had made a graven image of a golden calf. Moses — a statue hater in the most literal sense — burned the calf, crushed it into powder and, according to Exodus 32:20, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. From what I remember of the Old Testament, statues of Baal tend to fare badly too. And in Numbers 33:52, G-d, the most vehement statue hater of them all, commands Moses to drive the Canaanites out of Israel, and destroy ‘all their engraved stones’ and ‘all their molded images’.

In ancient Rome, there was reputedly one statue for every two people. The huge majority are lost. Most of those that survive have cultic origins and, like similar statues throughout the Mediterranean, they were often defaced by Christians, who chiselled crosses into the statues’ foreheads. Early Christians, too, were ‘statue haters’. Theirs was a religion of the word.

The history of Christianity is enlivened with waves of statue smashing. The iconoclasm of the Reformation was expressed in statue-smashing riots across sixteenth-century Europe, and Edward Colston’s own Anglican faith was established among the statue wreckage and looting wrought during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. There is nothing novel about more recent events, although the subjects of the fallen statues have been elevated men rather than false gods.

Sculptures are not history in themselves, they are artefacts possessed of their own histories. The Black Lives Matter protestors were denounced for breaking history, whereas in fact they were making history.

 

Of all the statue displacements of 2020, the one that attracted the most attention in Australia was the downfall of the effigy of Colston in the English city of Bristol. I have a small personal connection with Bristol. After I migrated from England to Australia in 1989, my whole family moved to the city — perhaps in an attempt to shake me off. I quickly tracked them down, however, and I’ve since spent several months in the city. I must have walked past the statue of Colston many times, but I never noticed it and, even if I had, I wouldn’t have known whom it was supposed to represent.

Bristol has a large Afro-Caribbean population and a widespread understanding of itself as a city built on slavery and sugar. The high-born Tory MP Colston was once lauded as a philanthropist for giving part of his fortune to build Anglican almshouses, schools and hospitals. Colston has been more lately derided because the source of much of his money was the Atlantic slave trade.

During the 12 years that Colston was an active member of the Royal Africa Company (1680–1692), an estimated 19,000 black people who were trafficked by the company died on slave ships. Their bodies, it seems, were tossed into the ocean. On the chest of each corpse — as on every living slave — was branded the company’s initials, ‘RAC’. From 1689 to 1690 Colston was deputy governor of the RAC. According to the official History of Parliament in the UK, Colston was ‘heavily involved in the slave trade, from which he made the bulk of his fortune’ and by 1682 ‘was using profits from the slave trade for money-lending’.

The original inscription on his statue described him as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of Bristol. Obviously, in the context of contemporary moral standards, that judgement no longer applies. More importantly, there were plenty of people in England in 1895 (when Colston’s statue was erected, more than 170 years after his death) who thought the slave trade immoral and abhorrent — it had been abolished in the British Empire in 1807. But his admirers valued the legacy of his charitable works over the questionable morality of his mercantile activities and were able to raise enough money to commemorate him with a larger-than-life bronze.

The statue had been a source of local controversy, and sporadic defacings, for a couple of decades by 7 June 2020, when protestors lashed it with ropes, dragged it from its pedestal, rolled it down the street and dumped it in Bristol Harbour. The mayor of Bristol described the act as a ‘piece of historical poetry’ — a reference to the ocean burials of the bodies of slaves.

In another incident in Bristol — far less remarked upon in Australia — a bust of the black actor, playwright and boxer Alfred Fagon seems to have been ‘attacked’ with ‘a corrosive substance’, generally identified as bleach, four days after Colston came down. And that’s a piece of historical poetry too — throwing bleach over Bristol’s only statue of a black man. Bleach obliterates blackness. You might not like the poem. You might think it obscene. But you can’t say it doesn’t scan. On 17 June the headstone over the grave of the eighteenth-century slave Scipio Africanus was smashed in a Bristol churchyard. A message chalked nearby read: ‘PUT COLSTONS [sic] STATUE BACK OR THINGS WILL REALLY HEAT UP’.

History makes fools of forecasters, but unless there rises again a society that makes slaves of black people, nobody is ever going to put Colston’s statue back (it’s currently stored in a museum, as is the statue of a protestor that briefly replaced it on its plinth). Yet it would be difficult to sustain a serious argument that Colston has been airbrushed from history. The statue of Edward Colston is now far more famous all around the world than Colston himself ever was. The cultural legacy of a seventeenth-century British merchant has even been debated in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. There is no chance he might be forgotten.

But my work as a historian seems to indicate that what might be forgotten — for better or for worse — are the people who opposed the removal of his statue. I have written a lot about Australia’s Vietnam War and I remain puzzled by the way the pro-conscriptionists — whose values aligned far more closely with the majority of Australians than the celebrated anti-conscriptionists — have simply disappeared from our consciousness.

I suspect future generations may simply not understand why anyone who was not an advocate for slavery would rage against the toppling of a heroic image of a slave trader. The chaotic headline given to Andrew Bolt’s piece in the Daily Telegraph on 11 June 2020 — ‘Woke Taliban are smashing West’s statues’ — will be as incomprehensible in 20 years’ time as it would have been 20 years ago.

Sculptures are not history in themselves, they are artefacts possessed of their own histories. The Black Lives Matter protestors were denounced for breaking history, whereas in fact they were making history. It is their actions — like those of the iconoclasts of the Reformation — that will be studied in history classes of the future. And maybe they will be found wanting.

The man who is probably the most prominent statue smasher of the twenty-first century has publicly disavowed his actions. Kadhim al-Jabbouri, who took his sledgehammer to the plinth of the blandly sinister giant Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003, told the BBC in 2016: ‘Now, when I go past that statue, I feel pain and shame. I ask myself, Why did I topple that statue? … I’d like to put it back up, to rebuild it. But I’m afraid I’ll be killed.’

In the years since the Iraq War, Kadhim had come to believe the US-led invasion was a worse disaster for the nation than even the crimes of Saddam.

A statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square was defaced with the epithet ‘racist’. At times, Churchill undoubtedly harboured racist and anti-Semitic attitudes. In a London newspaper in February 1920, for example, Churchill wrote of ‘the schemes of the International Jews’ and the ‘world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization’. Whether you give that more weight than his subsequent role in the defeat of Hitler depends on whether or not you are a moron.

Colston, on the other hand, might be considered overdue for a reckoning.

Bungaree imagined, illustration by Matthew P Burgess

Bungaree imagined, illustration by Matthew P Burgess

But what does all this mean for the Australian statues of Cook, Mitchell and — importantly, of course — Trim?

Carvings and casts have no inherent meanings, only the significance we bestow upon them, and that in itself changes with the years. I doubt that most of our heroic public sculptures are seen by many white Australians as symbols of white supremacy or celebrations of invasion, oppression and conquest. I’d be surprised if Sydney’s Bridge Street statue of surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell, for example, is even recognised — any more than I recognised Colston in Bristol.

I don’t think the removal of statues is a political priority for many Indigenous people, and even Chris Mitchell of the Australian, a natural political ally of Bolt, accepted that ‘adjusting plaques on statues in Australia may be a reasonable idea’. Activists have used attacks on historic statues to highlight contemporary racism. Their opponents have framed their actions as assaults on history and, mischievously, statuary.But the real debate is not about the past, it’s about what kind of country we want to live in today. Is it a place where we value the achievements of Indigenous people less than, more than, or equal to those of cats?


Dr Mark Dapin is an author and journalist whose history books include The Nashos’ War, Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History and Jewish Anzacs.

This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.