IN 1895 THE burghers of Bristol in south-west England, swept up by the Victorian fervour for celebrating city fathers, were casting about for a big historical cheese of their own. They settled on Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant who had endowed charities that have lifted innumerable indigent Bristolians out of poverty and educated hordes of its young citizens over the centuries. But, by modern standards, they picked the wrong guy: Colston made his money largely through the Royal African Company, which shipped slaves from Africa to the West Indies. On June 7th protesters chucked his statue into the city’s harbour.
Statues become flashpoints at times of social change because they honour the values, and reflect the hierarchies, of the times in which they were erected. What some in one era celebrate, others then and later often reject—hence the battles over statues of Confederate heroes in the southern United States, many of which were put up long after the civil war to defend white supremacy. Yet statues also provide a record of a country’s past, and the desire to respect and understand that history of commemoration argues against dismantling them. It is these conflicting urges that make this area so tricky.
It would be foolish to throw overboard all those figures who have in any way offended modern morality, just as it would be to preserve every bronze villain just because he’s ancient. Great figures should have a place in public spaces, even when their record is tarnished. As a rule, someone whose failings were subordinate to their claim to greatness should stay, whereas someone whose main contribution to history was baleful should go.
These guidelines would allow most of those about whom Britain is now arguing to cling to their plinths. Colston has no claim to remain. Oliver Cromwell, by contrast, caused terrible suffering in Ireland, but his role in democracy’s development justifies his presence in Parliament Square. Cecil Rhodes is a harder case. He was not the worst imperialist, but he drove many black people off their land. He left a huge, grubby fortune to charity. His statue is on private property, so the choice rests with Oriel College, Oxford. It ought to put him in a museum.
America honours many people who happened to be slave owners—and so it should, in the case of such as Washington and Jefferson, known chiefly for their contribution to their country. But the pressure for change is forcing America to reassess its statuary. Many Confederate leaders have been removed in the past few years, and more should go, including Ben Tillman, a white supremacist still honoured outside South Carolina’s state house; and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and Klansman whose bust is in the state capital in Tennessee.
In the Netherlands Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who massacred thousands of Indonesians, does not deserve his plinth, any more than Stepan Bandera, murderer of many Jews, should be honoured in Lviv and other Ukrainian cities.
Yet it matters not just that the undeserving are taken off their pedestals, but also how they go. The indignation of those who brought down Colston may have been righteous, but they were wrong to topple him themselves. Statues should be taken down, just as they ought to be put up, by social consensus; and even if the authorities dither for years—as Bristol’s council has done over the erection of a plaque explaining Colston’s sins—that is no excuse for the mob to take charge.
Prosecuting the topplers would not, however, be a good use of the state’s resources; nor should Colston be reinstated. He has now been dredged out of the river, and the council is planning to put him in a museum. Other countries with difficult histories have found more imaginative solutions. Hungary put its collection of communist-era statues in the rather weird Memento Park, for day-trippers to wonder at. Paraguay crushed Alfredo Stroessner with a vast block of concrete. And Mumbai, with a pleasing touch, consigned Edward VII to the zoo. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Marble monsters”