Updated: Nov 4, 2022
I was delighted that the ‘Colston 4’ were acquitted of criminal damage having admitted that they rolled the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol’s Harbour. Justice was done by considering the context of an act not just the act itself.
However, I was not surprised when a number of commentators suggested that this would give free rein to anyone wanting to disfigure or remove the statues of any other historical figure with whom their politics differed. These commentators cited Cromwell and Winston Churchill and questioned whether statues of our national ‘heroes’ would be protected.
The issue raised by these commentators is that we seem to be re-writing history but the real issue is that we seem to have memorialised, literally put people up on a pedestal some whose actions are under any normal moral viewpoint, even a view point held during their lifetime to be less than moral and even morally corrupt.
So, lets establish a test for whether a ‘Hero’ should have their statue removed by asking just 4 questions:
1: Does the Statue memorialise a person whose actions would under current moral norms be seen as criminal?
2: Does the Statue memorialise a person whose actions could under moral norms prevailing in their time be seen as morally corrupt?
3: In carrying out these acts did people die or were people oppressed?
4: Does memorialising this person cause offense to a group or people who were victims of these criminal acts?
In applying this test, Edward Colston would easily satisfy the criteria for removal as would a statue of say Jimmy Saville, whereas one of Margret Thatcher would be debatable and one of Sir Stanley Mathews would not.
Which then leads us to consider Sir Winston Churchill; should we consider his statues?
Applying the tests it’s clear that his statues should be removed. Although his actions were in part the continuation of an Imperialist /colonialist dogma that caused 30 million deaths in India and Bengal* even his actions were at odds with prevailing moral norms and his racist views of Bengalis directly caused the deaths of another 4 million**
There are many real heroes, past and present, people of character and conviction, people that can inspire others, people that held a moral compass and did not profit from the misery of others: These are the people we should celebrate.
Bristol City Council took too long to acknowledge that memorialising Edward Colston was inappropriate and offensive: they should have had the moral certainty that removal of the statue was 20 years overdue but instead chose to be swayed by the background machinations of the merchant venturers. You reap what you sow; Pehaps we should memorialise the Colston 4 and reuse the plinth !
Background and references:
**The Bengali famine.
During the second world war Winston Churchill implemented policies that would cause starvation during a famine in Bengal. While ‘bread rationing’ in Britain was considered politically unacceptable, the British government, proclaiming that the Bengal famine “was conducted for the benefit of the governed”, diverted grain to Greece and Yugoslavia to service the war effort.
Indian grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same level of famine. Australian wheat was directed past India (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, and offers of American and Canadian food aid for India were turned down by the British government.
India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food with
Churchill stating that it was their own fault, for “breeding like rabbits”.
Churchill was alone in his firm opposition to Indian Independence and even his actions were considered by Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy of India, "negligent, hostile and contemptuous." however independence was achieved in 1947 through Clement Atlee after Churchill lost an election in 1945 and India and Bengal could manage their own crop production and distribution.
* British imperialism in India
1. there were 31 serious famines in the 120 years of British rule...in India and Bengal, compared with 17 famines in the 2,000 years before British rule.
Mike Davis; Late Victorian Holocausts,
Up to 35 million died during famines in India while Indian wheat was being exported to England
2. in 1943 nearly four million Bengalis died.
Collectively, these famines amounted to a “British colonial holocaust”.
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin