They’re taking down the statues (continued)

Back in 2015 I blogged about the taking down of the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside of UCT in Cape Town.

Now again, the question as to what to do about colonial era monuments has raised its head again.

They were, in the main, put up to commemorate things that people at the time thought worthy of commemeration.

Now we, with a different perspective, find them uncomfortable and want them gone, just as these statues of Marx, Engels and Lenin that used to dot the towns of eastern Europe are now mostly gone.

Some of these statues have however had second lives – just as a statue of Queen Victoria was removed from Dublin ended outside of a shopping mall in Sydney, a statue of Engels was moved from the Ukraine to Manchester.

And that is the problem. They symbolise different things to different people.

I once came across an example that encapsulates the problem perfectly.

Five years ago I was in a small village in Slovenia on the anniversary of the end of the second world war. In the town square was a monument to some local boys who had fought for the (Communist) partisans, and had died trying to protect the town from the retreating Germans.

Flowers had been laid, wreaths had been laid, and the communist red star had been freshly painted and put back on the monument.

It seemed fitting. These boys, none of them over twenty, had died trying to defend their town. They had also fought for a cause they thought just.

Putting back the red star acknowledged the role of the communist partisans in the war without endorsing their ideology.

The past is very much our own invention, our own interpretation.

An example from Edinburgh:

To us Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, is one of the bad people of history, and an embodiment of eighteenth century reactionism, who among other thengs, watered down Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade, effectively delaying it some fifteen years.

The middle classes of Edinburgh who, after the battle of Waterloo, subscribed to build the Melville monument in Edinburgh had a different view.

To them, Henry Dundas, who it commemorates, had helped win the war against Napoloeon, and had been instrumental in supressing the Scottish Radicals, and in the expansion of British colonial interests in India and South Africa.

To them, he was a hero of the age, the bringer of prosperity, and someone who helped ensure there was never a guillotine at the end of George Street (and that they had never faced the prospect of a last ride in a tumbril up George Street).

We may have a different view of Dundas, but his monument is now a well known architectural feature of the Unesco listed architectural skyline of the New Town in Edinburgh.

Realistically, it is never going to be taken down because of its architectural significance.

That does not mean of course, we should laud Dundas. We should acknowledge his role in history, and learn from it…

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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