Monuments to Greatness, or Reminders of Evil?

Bristol George Floyd protest: Colston statue toppled - BBC News
A statue of slave trader Edward Colston, a slave trader, being torn down during an anti-racism protest in Bristol, U.K.

A university professor of mine once made the point that we must be cautious in judging the past by the moral standards of the present. History is replete with examples of civilisations, cultures, and countries whose greatness was built on the backs of those deemed to be lesser persons… if they were even considered persons at all. Concepts like civil rights, gender and racial equality, and crimes against humanity are recent inventions to atone for these sins. Even then, monuments to men who committed heinous acts during less enlightened times still stand. But how do we reconcile with those historical figures whose achievements are exulted while their misdeeds are conveniently glossed over?

Take Julius Caesar; one Roman historian writing in the 1st century A.D. described his conquest of Gaul (58 – 50 B.C.) as killing one million “barbarians” and enslaving a million more. Caesar even goes on to overthrow the Republic and has himself declared dictator for life. Not to mention he was also a serial philanderer. Yet he is regarded as one of history’s most notable figures.

Julius Caesar | Biography, Conquests, & Facts | Britannica
Julius Caesar, bronze sculpture in Rome.

Granted, Caesar’s bloody exploits happened two thousand years ago; so it’s hard to imagine someone holding a grudge because of what happened to their (very) distant ancestors. But what about injustices that happened two centuries ago, the effects of which still resonate to this day?

The recent discourse on institutional racism in the United States has rekindled the call for the removal of statues and the renaming of landmarks that glorify its antebellum period. A similar call is being made in countries who have either suffered or benefited from colonialism. For historical figures whose likenesses and names have been etched into stone or metal, if they owned slaves, supported slavery, or espoused racist ideologies, they are now in the crosshairs of public outrage. Municipal authorities have been forced to decide on the fate of these monuments… before the mob takes matters into their own hands. Extreme voices want them destroyed. Moderates and academics have suggested that they be placed in museums. And there are those who believe they should remain where they are.

In seeking a resolution it is important to examine the individual who is honoured and why. Go back far enough into someone’s past and you’re bound to find something about them – something they said or did – that is reprehensible. Nobody is perfect, least of all historical figures the likes of Columbus, Churchill, and Gandhi. Now, it’s easy for us to pass judgement on them, especially with our modern sensibilities of right and wrong. But we have to remember that they were a product of their time. To the Eurocentric Columbus, the naked Amerindians appeared as primitive, heathen savages. To the arrogant Churchill, the might of the British Empire was proof of the superiority of the white race. Even Gandhi, who like most Indians living throughout the Empire, once thought disparagingly about Africans. But he outgrew that racism and fought against discrimination in all forms. Does his past diminish his achievement and reputation? I’m willing to bet most people will give him a pass.

Gandhi statue removed from University of Ghana following protests ...
Gandhi memorial in Parliament Square, London

And therein lies the problem. We shouldn’t view these men as being wholly and solely good or bad; that’s an oversimplification that’s not fair to them. Furthermore, in weighing their accomplishments against their misdeeds, we can’t tilt the scales using modern standards – ours is a different time to theirs.

That being said, we must also identify the purpose of the monuments themselves. Remember, this debate is the result of what’s going on in America’s southern states. Confederate statues and memorials serve a dual purpose, both of which are insidious. They promote the “Lost Cause” narrative – romanticising the Civil War as a heroic and righteous stand by the Confederates to protect states’ rights (that right being to own slaves). Also, the majority of these monuments were erected/established during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. This was a way (for the south) to reinforce segregation and white supremacy. That’s integral to the reasoning as to why they should be removed.

On Stone Mountain near Atlanta, G.A., a carving depicts Civil War Confederate figures Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

I wish there was an easy answer here… As a student of history, I can recognise and appreciate both the good and the bad that these monuments embody. Do I think they should be all removed? No. Do I think some of them should be removed? Definitely – YES. I’d like to think that we, whether its the collective denizens of a city, state, or country, are capable of thinking logically, humanely, and respectfully about what each monument represents and decide what to do with them. We shouldn’t get carried away in our attempts to sanitise the past. There’s a difference in honouring and remembering. Some historical figures deserved to be honoured, but all deserved to be remembered – both for the good and for the bad things they did.

In the light of truth, every monument will cast a shadow…

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