Statues, past and present

Statues, past and present

Disputes, some heated, continue regarding how best to respond to the presence in UK city spaces and places of statues which commemorate people from the past, but who are now seen as suspect in political and/or ethical terms. In particular debates are occurring with regard to matters of race and racism, but also about other historical injustices too. Given the role that #RhodesMustFall activities worldwide have played in such things, the debates are clearly of interest and importance for WWW.research as well as more generally. Some reflections are as follows.


Firstly, the statues in question are (mostly? all?) of men. I have not come across any concerning statues of women. The absence of women, however, is something that commentators and protagonists on both sides seem unable to ‘see’ and it hasn’t been a topic for mention let alone debate. Is the explanation that no women were involved in such past happenings? Probably not. A good example is that a statue commemorating the Duke of Sutherland in the north of Scotland has been subject to much controversy and an alternative account provided, in which Sutherland is seen as responsible for the Highland clearances. As a result, demands have been made that a statement about this should appear at the commemorative site, or that the statue should be brought down. However, the title was actually that of his wife, Elizabeth, she was actually the owner of the land concerned, and evidence suggests that she was a hands-on administrator of it. But she doesn’t figure. And this is because nearly all public commemoration is of men, and she was – and is – transformed into a cipher in the commemorative process.

A key factor here is that the debates are not actually about the historical past. They are about public space, who gets to control it, how it should be shaped, and who gets to speak about such things. Concern with what happened in the past would take the debaters back to the sources to investigate what the remaining evidence actually contains concerning who did what and when and with what effects. And, lo and behold, some women would come into sight. However, here we are in 2022 and still having to say, wake up, women existed in the past and do in the present, but not in commemorative space either back then or here now.

Secondly, the debates around statues and other commemorative forms are about the present in a particular way. The dynamics involved suggest a concern with who has epistemic privilege. That is, they concern ‘who knows the true facts’ about what a statue really means and has the right to say what this is and have it accepted in a public forum. Another Scottish example enables some issues here to be considered. It is the Edinburgh statue of the man who became Lord Melville, a late 18th / early 19th century lawyer and politician who for most of his life was known as Henry Dundas.

The claim has been made that, because Dundas promoted a gradualist approach, he held up the abolition of slavery in Britain for some decades. And because of this, the argument goes, the statue should be re-configured accordingly by counter-commemoration, which is in fact what Edinburgh Council is doing. But there is another aspect to this, which concerns what actually happened in the past and whether this is or isn’t a prime concern in the debates occurring.

‘The facts’ have been interpreted to mean that Dundas held up abolition for racist reasons and effects. A contrary viewpoint has suggested that the evidence indicates his gradualism was perhaps a political strategy to prevent abolition being ruled out entirely. The first approach takes the bare facts, that abolition was in the air, that in the British parliament the politically powerful Dundas promoted gradualism, that abolition was delayed, that Dundas’s actions caused this. Not a very convincing argument, for it rests on a simplified version of historical causality (X followed B, therefore B caused X), although one passionately held. Also, the gradualism may not have existed. The second approach rests on the complexities of the past and the difficulties in interpreting what actually happened, let alone discerning what it meant at the time. But there is little sign of a return to the archives on the part of either set of protagonists.

There is a further factor involved, that proponents of the first position seem to treat the second position as suspect, as demonstrating the racism of its proponents. Again, this suggests that the debate is about the present and who gets to specify the terms of engagement, in a context in which alternative views are characterised as the polar opposite of those held by the valorised proponents. What appears to be happening is less debate and more an insistence on entrenched positions. ‘We are right’. ‘Well, you may not be’. ‘Your ethics and politics are suspect.’ And there is little sign of anyone trying to establish what actually happened in the past that is being debated and claimed.

And thirdly, while there is the construction of sides, of positions in binary opposition, there is another approach to adopt. As one of the probably fairly few people who has done research that involves Henry Dundas (specifically in relation to Anne Barnard in the Cape Colony in the late 18th century), I don’t want to take up one of these positions. I’m more concerned with how to make sense of what is revealed by Anne Barnard’s many letters from Cape Town and environs to Dundas, in which she expresses horror about slavery and indicates a very different approach in opposition to the local ‘Dutch‘ population she met. When working on her letters, I was endeavouring both to focus on their content, and also to figure out what Dundas’s response to this might have been from her small mentions of things he had written in his letters. It was complex, and what came across was that these people had complicated ideas and wrote quite nuanced things about them. Putting Barnard and Dundas in one box or another, as either racist or anti-racist, was not something that the letters in question supported.

However, regarding this particular example, the Melville archive is large, and hopefully many research projects are presently being initiated. And similarly so with other statues and commemorative forms being debated elsewhere. While the political debates are sure to rumble on, as they are indeed about the political present, the route out is to explore our understandings of the past in question by actually investigating it, rather than making gestural claims about it.

This response is that of an archive nerd; and while on one level a recourse to the archival evidence might solve some factual issues, it would leave untouched the political positioning referred to. Such is the urgency with which the present-day political issues at the heart of the debates are experienced, it is not possible to ignore them, indeed more strongly to want to respond positively to them. But at the same time, it is not on to accept large truth-claims about the past without investigating them, and also scrutinising all claims to epistemic privilege, both those of political activists, and those of academia too.

Last updated:  31 March 2022


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