Following a series of TikTok videos, and a YouTube compilation, this post explores some aspects of the Topple the Racists campaign taking an archaeologist’s perspective.
I’m not as quick off the mark as some academics in discussing the fate of public monuments in the aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Yet, given my Archaeodeath blog is about the archaeology and heritage of death and memory, it is appropriate and necessary that I tackle aspects of this sooner than later.
This comes with context: on this blog I’ve frequently and critically addressed public art, monumentality and statuary, including its colonial dimensions and including war memorials. However, I haven’t before addressed the protests and compaigns to either remove or recontextualise monuments connected to ‘Fallism’: the specific campaign to remove statues and other monuments to colonial and imperial individuals born from the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign.
Some background: in terms of the British landscape, our city- and townscapes, as well as the countryside, are inextricably linked to the slave trade, colonialism and imperialism more broadly. Building on long-standing local and regional as well as national objections and conversations, in the last month protestors, the public and academics alike have renewed and expanded the campaigns to remove or recontextualise commemorative monuments to 16th- to early 20th-century explorers, merchants, aristocrats, politicians and military figures who were actively involved in, and directly beneficiaries of, slaving and colonialism. This is an extension of campaigns and direct action in relation to the removal of Confederate statues and monuments in the US which have intensified and extended in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. The protests against police brutality and institutional and structural racism have targeted public places, but also monuments and statuary.
Hence, when the ‘Fallism’ movement affected the UK on 7 June 2020, it ‘kicked off’ with the protests in Bristol and London in particular, with protestors pulling down, rolling and dumping the bronze statue of 17th-/early 18th-century ‘philanthropist and slaver’ Edward Colston, erected in 1895, into the harbour.
Soon after, the statue of Robert Milligan was removed from outside Museum of London Docklands by the Canal and River Trust. Note: this was done, not be protestors, but safely by a charitable body.
The long campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford has finally born fruit, to the apparently frustration of the British prime minister Boris Johnson.
Over recent weeks, various statues, public buildings, businesses (pubs in particular) and street-names have been among a growing number of foci where calls have been made to removing/renaming to take place to recognise past and present injustices and discrimination.
Representations of slaves have also been a focus, long without interpretation, they have languished awkwardly in public places (see here for example at NT Dunham Massey). There is no single move to remove all monuments, and the list of ‘targets’ is eclectic in terms of subject, form and both past historical significance and contemporary connotations (from ‘famous Britons’ to relatively unknown individuals). The Topple the Racists is a crowd-sourced map showing monuments that are considered by some no longer appropriate, with those already moved/removed higlighted too.
Immediately, the reaction from a few was delight or relief that finally long-problematic public monuments are being critically scrutinised when there has long been staunch resistance to their removal or recontextualisation. This is certainly the case for Colston’s statue, which has long been regarded by many Black Bristolians as a public insult.
Yet from many there was a sense of concern. Some are probably worried to see another attack on the ‘establishment’, on ‘authority’, on ‘Britain’, on ‘whites’. Yet many could simply be concerned to see the wholesale, swift, and ‘violent’ removal of monuments, some seemingly without critical attention or democratic process. In this context, while not targeting living subjects, the ‘toppling’ of memorials and statues is widely regarded as an ‘attack’ on people in the context of regime change. Colston has been a particular flashpoint of opinions regarding the act of removing the statue and whether those involved should be arrested and prosecuted. Indeed, the nature of the treatment of Colston was intended to be disconcerting and emotive. The protestors treated a statue as a human body. This was key to the visual and emotive power of the act: hauling down with ropes, putting a knee to its throat (mimicking the horrid killing of Floyd in Minneapolis), dumping it into the bay in a fasion akin to the treatment of slaves’ bodies. Colston’s statue was and is Colston, and the very power of statuary, even if raised two centuries after his lifetime, is that they arrest time and resurrect the idealised corporeality of the dead person. The very fact that Professor Dan Hicks and so many others have talked of ‘Colston’ (like Rhodes) as having to ‘fall’ is telling: the words conflate statue with reputation and the man.
So here’s the quandry for heritage professionals and academics. To care about the historic environment is something archaeologists have long fostered, so it seemed incongruous to many to see many academics as supportive and complicit in this act of ‘destruction’ or ‘vandalism’ or ‘iconoclasm’. It feeds into a popular anti-intellectual perception of the ‘elite’ as anti-British and unpatriotic, not caring for the environment, wishing to ‘topple’ not only statues but our ‘great British’ institutions. And while tombs and graves haven’t been attacked, statues afford verisimilitude in relation to, and agency for, the long-dead in a fashion that is, in part, funerary. For some, tombs, cenotaphs, statues and monuments are all conflated with each other and afforded a quasi-sacrality. Many have not been oblivious to the irony that archaeologists work hard day in and day out to foster engagement in the historic environment when the groups now outraged that a racist statue is removed rarely show care or show interest in the neglect or active measures obliterating Britain’s prehistoric and historic landscapes. And here’s the issue: people often only care about sites and monuments when it is too late and they are being destroyed, or they are gone.
Given this emotionally and corporally charged subject, the political polemicisation regarding the fate of statues has been appropriated by sections of the media and the public as an organisaed attack on ‘British history’ and, specifically an ‘attack on war memorials’. In the subsequent counter-protests, some far-right groups gathered to ‘defend’ monuments in central London from attack. Small groups of (seemingly exclusively) white men defended public monuments up and down the country, including examples here and here.
The patriotic quasi-sacrality afforded to all memorials and monuments relies on this confusion of typologies that any with a sense of the historic environment would never conflate. Hence, these defences of memorials is in spite of the evidence that war memorials, even those to colonial conflicts, notably the Boer War, have not been the principal focus of Topple the Racists. At the time of my videos (below) I was aware of no specific targetting of war memorials, although there clearly have been a few instances. The main exceptions have been graffiti appended to the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yet, while Churchill had a long military and political career and has unhelpfully taken the limelight in the discussion, his statue is demonstrably not a war memorial. While the Cenotaph is a war memorial, but it must be noted that it has been the focus of successive protests and it has a specific connection to national remembrance and the establishment that render it exceptional. While not condoning criminal damage, only a small section was spray-painted with graffiti and one flag allegedly subject to a failed attempt to set it on fire. On the flipside, I do not claim military and war memorials are above criticism, yet it must be said that memorials to the Fallen are demonstrably not the target of the Topple the Racists movement.
Neither of these monuments are, in any case, on the Topple the Racist website. In central London, it is the statues of Jan Smuts, Robert Clive, Henry Bartle Frere, Captain James Cook, Charles James Napier, and others which are the focus. Others have long been controverisal, including the Strand memorial to Sir Arthur Travers Harris (‘Bomber Harris’). Elsewhere, the Baden-Powell’s statue in Poole, Dorset has been listed for removal and temporarily taken down to avoid potential vandalism, but his is not a war memorials. Most other claims that statues will be removed have been patently false scare-mongering, including claims that the statue of the Emperor Constantine outside York Minster might be removed.
It is in this context that I’ve addressed ‘Topple the Racists’ via a series of TikTok videos, subsequently edited into a YouTube compilation. I attempted to speak about this by firstly introducing the complex issues surrounding what we value and wish to retain in our historic environment. Counter to what some have claimed, statues and monuments are a part of our ‘history’ and removing them is an act of ‘erasure’, but not in the way that some are claiming. Instead, rather than omitting their subjects from the historical record, recontextualising and removing statues is part of a material dialogue with dark and difficult social memories of the colonial and imperial past. Removing or recontextualising statues aims to challenge and alter the public honouring as publicly sanctioned role models and ‘worthies’ and a celebration of their subjects. Things get far more sensitive when tombs and consecrated ground come into the discussion, as opposed to market squares and public parks. Yet, I use the example from my local town of Wrexham, to consider how this is playing out where a tomb and buildings commemorating Elihu Yale have been a focus of attention. Unsurprisingly, no one is wishing to destroy or move Yale’s tomb: instead all they want to do is remove his name from a pub opened in 1998! In other words, once the scaremongering headlines and rhetoric is stripped, in this instance at least the campaign is reasoned, measured and targeted.
Where to next? Moving forward with this discussion, it is important that we don’t evaluate public monuments simply in terms of the deeds and identities of the historical personages they commemorate. We also have to take into account other factors, including long-standing injustices and the glorification of a select few (almost entirely male) elite individuals in our public spaces. Discussions have to consider broader historical contexts in which those individuals operated and lived. Furthermore, monuments’ life-histories and varied, localised and regional significances today must be taken into account, including their landscape contexts in cities, towns, villages and in the broader landscape. I suspect most memorials will remain, and those that ‘go’ – as likely to be adapted or translated rather than removed – will be the choice of local people and should involve a careful balancing of multiple factors and agendas. I doubt, despite the hysteria from some, this will lead to wholesale ‘erasure’ of memorials, and this in itself need not translate to any ‘loss’ of history at all, but to a richer consciousness and engagement with public monuments moving forward.
A word of warning, however. Churchill is (in this context) an irrelevance and a distraction (see also the discussion on Watching Brief). The same applies to Baden-Powell. Notably, I do think that the Boer War (and maybe the far smaller number commemorating the Crimean War too I should say) will transpire as a particular focus of controversy, not only because of the war itself, but because the conflict involved the public subscription of memorials that listed the names of men who served and died, not just generals and commanders. These memorials are the precursors to those raised in their thousands to honour the sacrifices of those who perished in the First World War, and they sometimes share close proximity to them and those to the Second World War dead. As noted above, the desire by the far-right to characterise the Black Lives Movement as vandals wishing to deface war memorials is only sustained by protests and counter-protests at them and by acts of vandalism.
As long as the focus stays clear of 20th-century personalities, Boer and world war memorials, the Topple the Racist initiative is not really posing us with alternatives between iconoclasm and hero-worship, between ‘topple the racists’ and ‘defend the heroes of the common man’. This is because the conversations, debates, and opportunities for education and engagement can actively create new understandings of these monuments, whether they stay in situ, are placed in new outdoor locations, appended, juxtaposed or supplanted by new monuments, or placed in a museum or educational context. This positive and creative dimension is evident in the immediate aftermath of the Colston statues, where a temporary ephemeral BLM memorial was established in its stead.
Public commemoration has always been a process of careful selective ‘editing’. This selective social remembering and forgeting inheres within specific memorials: their texts, form, and location. It also can be discerned in which events and individuals are remembered and which are not. Hence, this is potential moment for healthy public discussion of what monuments are and what they do, not polemic arguments around the reputations of long-dead individuals. The British public are displaying a dismal lack of basic understanding of not only historical events, subjects and processes, but the histories of monuments themselves: why and how they were created, how and why they have remained, and what factors should govern their future.
This is where archaeologists have an important voice, and it shouldn’t be primarily overblown rhetoric for or against the removal of statues, but careful and clear discussions about the past, present and future of our historic environment, including its statues, memorials and tombs.
In conclusion, amidst the emotive powder keg of this topic, I regard Topple the Racists as an opportunity for conversations and revaluations, not a threat to the historic environment. In most instances the debate needn’t be framed as either rabid ideologically driven iconoclasm or revealing the complicit racism of institutions, local people and experts who happen to care for historic monuments, particulary when threatened with damage or removal. The values and care we place in the historic environment, from hillforts to war memorials, is enriched by these discussions and proposed changes, not diminished.
In any case, the real threat to ‘Britain’s history’ is not from campaigns to remove a few statues. Instead, it lies in ignorance of the past in general, and flagrant gaps in public understanding regarding the power and importance of memorials and monuments. It also lies in neglect for our memorial environments. It dwells in the potential wholesale destruction of the historic landscape promised by UK government policies to change planning legislation. The rich and diverse stories of Britain’s past, including its many connections with the entire globe, are threatened with erasure by the sustained reductions in funding to museums and heritage sites. The past is surpressed by anti-intellectualism, fake news, hyperbolic posturing by academics and pundits, and by pseudoarchaeological discourses (including those on slavery). And of particular concern from my perspective, Britain’s past, including its Black history, is diminished by repeated attacks on our higher education system where archaeology, history and heritage are taught and researched, including modules, programmes and projects designed specifically to explore the significance of monuments past, present and future.