There has recently been a surge of passion around a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford University and another in Capetown depicting him with his hand raised above his head as if hailing something in the distance. Rhodes was the British Empire builder who nursed a dream of painting large swathes of the African continent imperial red and constructing a railway ‘from Cape to Cairo’ to serve as an economic and military marker for that purpose. He is reviled by many who see him as the representative of a power inimical to the aspirations of the African people and designed to hold them in perpetual subjugation, and the question has arisen as to whether it is right to memorialise him as a noble figure.
As a white South African child I learnt about Rhodes as the arch-enemy of the Boers, whose struggle to free themselves from British rule drove them northwards from the Cape Colony over rugged and hostile terrain to set up their own independent state. The unearthing of vast mineral wealth within the territories gained by the Boers spurred the British on in their efforts to colonise deeper into South Africa and ultimately led to the Anglo-Boer War. The other side of the conflict is represented by a statue of Paul Kruger in Pretoria, which I remember as having been splashed with paint, to the horror of Afrikaner nationalists and cries of vandalism.
However, this blog is not about any particular segment of history but about how to deal with the statues of those who, like Rhodes, were once deemed heroes and who, with the passage of time and the changing political landscape, have come to be seen as villains. What is to be done with these monuments? Should they be quietly removed from the public eye and be placed in a less prominent location, relegated, perhaps to the status of museum pieces? Or should they be toppled, smashed and carted away as rubble? Such was the fate of a gigantic statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, not long after the man himself was toppled in 2003.
The non-violent solution is for the statue to stay where it was originally meant to stand, adorned by a plaque which would record odious deeds as well as virtues. At first glance this seems a sensible way forward, but we are then faced with the contradiction between spectacle (impressive and flattering) and narrative (balanced but less eye-catching, which might be construed as a feeble apology for displaying the statue in the first place. This has been the fate of the Scottish statesman Henry Dundas, whose statue looks out over Edinburgh from the top of a tall column. Those who come close enough can now read the fairly lengthy legend mentioning that “…he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade”, ending with the statement that “in 2020 this was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequences of Henry Dundas’s actions.” I would think that this was a mixed message, to say the least.
The statue of another British anti-abolitionist, the seventeenth century slave-trader Edward Colson, which was was originally erected in Bristol to remind people of his generous bequests to charity, has suffered a more ignominious fate. In 2020 it was toppled by protesters, daubed with graffiti and dumped in a nearby river, from where it was retrieved to be displayed pro tem as a museum exhibit along with the placards which demanded its removal.
The list of controversial statues worldwide goes on interminably. Tyrants who were once worshipped like gods (and indeed who once worshipped themselves like gods) have spawned a vast number of replicas. I looked at the outcome for just one such figure, Josef Stalin, and was heartened to read that there has been a steady retreat of his statues over the years from his former domains. Some have disappeared completely while others have found a secluded resting place in a garden somewhere or at a site referred to as a museum of the Soviet era. In Stalin’s birthplace, Gori in Georgia, there is a large museum-cum-shrine containing, among other relics, an imposing statue of Stalin, which attracts a constant stream of pilgrims.
Israel has arrived at a unique and contrary approach towards the statuary of prominent figures. There is a national aversion to the hero-worshipping of individuals, in part because of the biblical injunction against idolatry but partly also because the early Zionists fostered the idea of a heroic nation based on socialist principles which decentralise the individual and elevate the community. Consequently, there are few statues of famous Israelis in existence. However, an interesting phenomenon appeared not long ago – the sculpting of controversial figures in mockery. So, in 2016, a gilded statue of Benjamin Netanyahu was hoisted overnight in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. The statue was actually a passable likeness, but the colouring and the context were unmistakably derisive. It was removed shortly afterwards but the sculptor, Itai Zalait, was satisfied that it had served its purpose, namely to get people talking, or, as he put it, “to test the boundaries of free speech in Israel”.
In similar vein, a statue of Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, sprang up outside the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem in 2017, put there by right-wing activists protesting against the Supreme Court’s ruling that the government could not indefinitely detain thousands of North African immigrants who had entered the country illegally. This statue, too, had a short lifespan, but its high visibility heated up the debate over ‘Jewish Law’ versus ‘Democratic Law’.
Statues, like the figures they depict, come and go. In his poem ‘Ozymandias’, Shelley provides us with a salutary reminder of the transience of all things, including statues. The poem tells of a traveller in the desert who comes across “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” alongside “a shattered visage” sunken in the sand:
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
But let the voice of childhood have the last word. A British diplomat stationed in Sudan was deeply impressed by his little boy’s patriotic admiration for a statue of General Gordon, mounted on a camel. The boy frequently visited the statue to gaze in awe at it. The plaque simply read, ‘Gordon of Khartoum’. The time came for the diplomat to move on. He took his little boy for a last visit to the statue and was touched by the child’s sorrowful farewell. “Goodbye, Gordon”, said the little boy through his tears. Then, as they were walking away, he turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, who was that man riding on Gordon?”.