2007 - 2020

Cultural Landscape and Power

The dispute over a statue of General Lee in Charlottesville, and the questioning of confederate monuments across the South has sparked a debate about representation, symbolism and history that has now spread across the Atlantic. Today we’re starting a series about re-imagining our cultural landscape in light of the debate about Edward Colston’s statue and similar symbols in towns and cities across Scotland. It will run over the next two weeks. We are wanting to talk about what practical changes can and should be made, but also how changing these symbols needs to be linked to deeper tangible change.

The #BlackLivesMatter – #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd – #endthehate movement has morphed and bloomed, at once charged and radicalised by images of police brutality and simultaneously undermined by narcissism and performative liberalism. But if some of it feels like being trapped in the clicktivism of social media, the direct action in Bristol has breathed new energy into a social movement forcing a reflection on our the cultural landscape, the collective character of our cultural, and political elements. It feels like an urgent, long overdue re-assessment of racism in our society, our colonial past and what figures in history we choose to honour.

In Scotland this is a complex set of questions. As a country that has a history of empire, colonialism and slavery, it’s also a country that experienced cultural colonialism and exploitation. If Scotland has to face up to its past, its cities littered with praise in stone to men who profited from slavery – monuments to monumental violence and murder – it also has to face up to the fact that the reality of class and power (then and now) meant that the profits from that exploitation would not be evenly distributed. But that can be a cop out too. If you work in a Ratheon factory you are making a living from the arms trade. You might not be making a fortune, but that’s the basis of your income. The same is true historically from those working in Empire, in tobacco and in colonial office.

None of this is new, it just has a new charged energy and momentum. Rapid victories have been seen already and pressure grows to change Scotland’s cultural landscape. One petition (which we fully support) argues “to remove the statue of Henry Dundas, the First Viscount Melville, from St Andrew’s square and leave the empty column with a plaque that can educate people on his, and Edinburgh’s involvement in the slave trade. We should also rename Dundas Street, Melville Street, and Melville Crescent. These streets should be named after Joseph Knight, a Scottish-Jamaican slave who won a court case and then an appeal in 1778 to free himself, by proving that slavery didn’t exist in Scots Law.”

Sign it here.

One of the great myths that has been wonderfully smashed and thrown in the river is the idea that removing statues “erases history”.

Of course as David Olusoga historian and presenter of the documentary, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners has pointed out the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history, it is history.

Olusoga is not alone in noticing the historic poetry of the moment:

“Edward Colston, the man in question, was a board member and ultimately the deputy governor of the Royal African Company. In those roles he helped to oversee the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans. Of them, it is believed, around 19,000 died in the stagnant bellies of the company’s slave ships during the infamous Middle Passage from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the new world. The bodies of the dead were cast into the water where they were devoured by the sharks that, over the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, learned to seek out slave ships and follow the bloody paths of slave routes across the ocean. This is the man who, for 125 years, has been honoured by Bristol. Put literally on a pedestal in the very heart of the city. But tonight Edward Colston sleeps with the fishes.”

Even if Britain didn’t already have a terrible track record of erasing its own history, the Colston direct action has done more to bring history – and Britain’s dark secret history – to life than anything in our lifetimes.

The idea that public statues are politically neutral, or somehow resonate educational truth is a myth based on unthinking inertia. They are clearly statements about who and what we honour and value as a society. The decision to erect (or maintain) them is an exercise of power over the public realm and public space.

The argument against taking public action often complain of an urge to ‘re-write history’ as if the status quo is a given, a natural order, a state of being that has occurred in a social vacuum. But this inherited unquestioned history has been written to render women invisible. History has been written to celebrate slavery and slavemasters and profiteers. History has been written to venerate the military, the aristocracy and feudal lordship.

Why should this history be sacrosanct against any other? Why should a history that has been paid for and commissioned by an elite be witnessed in perpetuity? It’s a form of acquiescence to stare bleakly at a historical record that’s being imposed from the past.

As the historian Robert Saunders:

“To remove a statue is not to “erase history”. On the contrary, statues themselves can be acts of historical erasure. The Colston Statue, for example, did not mention his role in the slave trade. It constructed a history from which slavery was written out and cast it in bronze.”

If we are now mapping symbols of racism – we are surely also decolonising cities and public space.

As Richard Scriven writes of this process in Ireland:

“The Irish history of monument building and destruction is primarily shaped by our relationship with Britain. From the eighteenth century statues to British figures were erected across Ireland as signifiers of British rule, a means of engraving it in the landscape. These included Willam III on College Green in 1701 (removed in 1929), William II in the Boyne Valley in 1736 (destroyed 1922), and the Duke of Cumberland pillar, Birr in 1747 (statue removed in 1915). However, in the late nineteenth century an increasingly dominant Irish nationalist movement began to put up its own statues. One of the most prominent was the 1882 Daniel O’Connell monument (on the then Sackville Street, renamed O’Connell Street post-independence) which asserted the position of this Irish Catholic political in the heart of the city. Many monuments to British figures were destroyed or removed as they were seen as symbols of oppression. The blowing up of Nelson’s pillar, on O’Connell Street, in 1966 is the most acute example of the re-writing of the landscape. A century earlier, in 1862, a statue of George II on the Grand Parade, Cork, was tumbled into the river, and later replaced by the Nationalist Monument. Also, a statue of Queen Victoria outside Leinster House was official moved in 1948, and since 1986 has stood in Sydney.”

Scriven explains that the removal of these monuments was not to erase history, but instead a statement that these symbols had come to represent ideas which no longer deserved prominence.

What we are witnessing is not just an uprising in America against systemic discrimination and state violence but a re-examination of history and a re-making of urban space. We must follow that lead and examine our own past in order to create a better future. Again we are asking ourselves: what kind of country do you want to live in?

We’ve commissioned a series on Cultural Landscape and Power, but if you want to contribute get in touch. Priority will be given to people of colour and ethnic minority groups.

 

Comments (36)

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  1. No.1 says:

    … and Ignorance. Rewriting history is an attempt wipe the slate clean and thereby ignore history, not to understand it or learn from it. No figure in history, except perhaps Jesus Christ, is perfect. Renaming streets is something that tin-pot dictators do. Virtually every ‘civilisation’ has had ‘colonies’ and went in for slavery, eg the Greeks and Romans and indeed the Africans too; it was they & the Arabs who sold their brothers into slavery. Why is no-one pointing out that it was Britain that abolished slavery.

    1. Did you read the article ‘No.1’?

  2. Martin says:

    Personally, I have no truck with these statues of slavers being removed. It’s a disgrace they are there in any case.

    However, I don’t think protesters and mobs should be the ones doing it for the simple reason, that if one group decides to destroy something because it is wrong in their eyes and offends them and their sensibilities , then it must come to pass that an opposing group can also do the same. Those on the right may decide that’s it’s now fair game to tear down statues of Engels or Marx. And then the tit for tat just continues.

    The appropriate way is discussion and debate and then decision and maybe people get educated along the way

    1. In Bristol “discussion and debate and then decision” got people nowhere for years. Do you think that discussion and debate happens in a vacuum of power?

      1. Jo says:

        Mike

        You really need to step back instead of having a go like this. We either get to debate here or we don’t.

        Martin makes a valid point when he says,

        “…..that if one group decides to destroy something because it is wrong in their eyes and offends them and their sensibilities , then it must come to pass that an opposing group can also do the same.”

        Indeed, it’s more than valid.

        There are different views about what’s going on and how to take the debate forward.

        Personally, I didn’t much like the footage from Bristol or seeing the “beating” the statue got, once toppled, or watching it being bound and dragged to the water. It actually made me feel physically sick. It brought back awful scenes from a movie I saw many years ago where an angry mob did the same to a black man before throwing him in a river to drown.

        What will be done to the next statue some mob topples? Will they hang it from a tree?

        We need to be careful here. Very careful. Demos can be powerful. Mobs are another thing altogether.

      2. Martin says:

        Do you think its right to take justice into your own hands, thus allowing people on the opposing side to do the same? Now would have been a great time to discuss the crimes of slavery up front when people are paying close attention imo. Take people with you for lasting change.

  3. Jim Ferguson says:

    I would suggest the “Fountain of Empire” outside Glasgow’s People’s Palace is in dire need of proper labelling, if not placing in Pollok Park beside Burrell’s collection. It is topped with Queen Vic and has 3D illustrations of how Britain taught the rest about civilisation. I was passing it the other day and a young couple remarked one to the other, “What do you think that’s for?” … “Oh look, it’s for the Commonwealth,” came the reply. And they seemed rather satisfied. Well my dears, it’s not for the Commonwealth: it’s for the British Bloody Empire. The fact it is sited outside The People’s Palace is almost as insensitive as the object itself: which is the largest of its kind (a terracotta fountain) in the world according to it’s next to useless signage.

  4. Dougie Harrison says:

    Thank you Mike; prescient and timely. I’ve signed the petition. It’s almost always the ruling class which writes the primary history, and erects the statues to ‘commemorate’ what is often evil.

    Which is why, no doubt, in my long-adopted city of Glasgow, I have so far only been able to discover three statues of women, other than Victoria. One celebrates the life of the widow of a shipbuilder, who at least had the grace to give the city the park (Elder Park in Govan) named after her husband, so that the shipbuilders who created his profits for him had a bit of greenery in which to take some of their few moments of leisure.

    The most recent, also in Govan, right outside the subway station, celebrates the achievements of Mary Barbour, who in leading the rent strikes in Govan during WW1 precipitated a change in wartime Government policy – no mean feat in the male world of the time. It was unveiled on International Women’s Day 2018.

    The third is of ‘La Passionara’, Dolores Ibarruri, a leader of the republican side during the Spanish Civil War against the fascist Franco and his forces. It was erected in the late seventies or early eighties to commemorate the Scots who died in Spain, volunteers in the fight against fascism in the International Brigade whilst the UK Government gave Franco its tacit support. I by was honoured to be invited to its unveiling by two old friends who had survived their years in the International Brigade in Spain.

    Statues do indeed matter. It is fitting that Colston’s was thrown into the harbour from which many British slave-ships sailed.

  5. w.b. robertson says:

    Not against getting rid of some of the statues that clutter up public places. Such a review is long overdue. However I now note that the famous film “Gone with the Wind” is being given the red card. I suppose then that it should follow that Margaret Mitchell`s novel which led to the movie should be burned or at least removed from public libraries. Just like what happened in Germany in the 30s under the Nazis. Perhaps the protesters should be careful what they wish for.

    1. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:

      I think in his well argued piece, that Mr Small is saying that we need an informed discourse about this matter.

      You were very quick to bring in the parallel with Nazism, which usually flags up that you do not have much of an argument.

      1. Jo says:

        Alasdair

        I’m going to disagree that the piece is well-argued. As I stated myself earlier, there are different views in this debate and we must make room for all. It’s very important to do so.

        Another poster has raised the issue of “Gone With The Wind” now being declared “bad”. As it happens I saw an interview on BBC News 24 today about that very subject. The black gentleman being interviewed was asked what the basis of this assessment was. He said it was felt that the black characters in it, though not slaves, were all in positions of service and seemingly content and that this wasn’t right.

        I confess, I was taken aback by the reasoning.

        I wonder if the ten (?) Oscars will need to be returned. But it got me thinking….how many movies are there based on various wars, atrocities and truly bad, evil people and times and events? Yet GWTW suffers this? I think it’s bizarre.

        1. James Mills says:

          Will ”The Dambusters ” movie be banned as per GWTW , as Guy Gibson’s black dog is several times called by its name , ”N*gger ” ! Or will that be simply dubbed out ? It does not, however , erase the mindset of the characters who thought this acceptable . And should we be concerned at this remove from the Time ?

          But where do we draw the line when we look back at different eras with different attitudes to those of today and find certain attitudes unacceptable ?
          Can we even agree on what , in the past , was acceptable or unacceptable ? Depending on one’s upbringing , education , political persuasion , prejudices etc… we can all list people /events that WE condemn but others might not .
          Who is the final arbiter ? He/She with the loudest voice , the most power and influence , the largest circulation newspaper , the most read blog …

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @James Mills, UK television channel Talking Pictures TV was reprimanded by Ofcom and now seems to put warnings before movies and blanks the sound of a set of offensive terms:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talking_Pictures_TV#Controversy
            so you briefly see the actor’s lips moving then the voice continues. None of the examples I saw, which were typically casual conversation (perhaps worse for that), impaired the movie by a moment’s silence. Perhaps a moment’s silence is appropriate to ponder what was considered acceptable by movie producers and regulators.

            What I find notable about many of these older British movies is how critical they are, in some cases how sharp their satire is, compared to many movies nowadays, particularly war genres. Maybe post-WW2 there was less public toleration for the kind of corruption and incompetence we see in the British establishment today. There was a movie recently shown whose plot revolved around the use of biological weapons, which the USA may have been using against Korean populations at the time. And some of those nuclear near-misses featured seem to have been based on (classified) fact. If only youngsters would watch black and white (I suppose AI digital recolourization cannot be too far off). What was censored at the time? Will we be told one day?

  6. Alex Mitchell says:

    The arrogance of entitlement has justified the invasion of many countries and the treatment of “natives” as expendable. Slavery is inexcusable, but is that worse than the indiscriminate bombing on civilians in Iraq and Libya? Racial prejudice is not restricted to “Blacks”, consider the massacres in Yemen. Would these be acceptable if the population were “pure” white?

  7. Daniel Raphael says:

    Speaking from the States–where we know something about slavery–I will say quite plainly that no one should shed a single tear over the removal of any statue of a Klansman, slave owner, slave trader, slave runner, or known fan of lynching. You may construct all the logical equivalencies or “on-the-other-hands” you like, but in real life–where slavery existed and, too often, still exists–the hands that matter are quite palpable and were (are) covered in not-at-all-metaphorical blood. Those who can’t quite bear to part from the tokens of this ultimate depravity should be concerned…for, as Nietzsche said, when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

    1. Jo says:

      Daniel

      Please be very careful about making judgements of others.

      I despise racism. I despise racists. I’m clear about that and reached that conclusion at a very young age without the assistance of Nietzsche.

      No one here is weeping for a statue but I am deeply uncomfortable about the scenes I witnessed at the weekend because, no matter what the cause is, I do not like ugly mobs that are out of control.

    2. Jo says:

      Oh, and Daniel, “we” over here know something about slavery too. The British Empire built on it.

      1. Alistair Taylor says:

        Jo,
        “ugly mobs that are out of control”.
        Is that a judgemental statement?
        A

        1. Jo says:

          Alistair

          I don’t believe it is, no. I think it’s an accurate description of what happened in Bristol at the weekend. It’s certainly what I saw in the footage.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    Public statuary is similar to the honours system and awards industry, whitewashing and manufactured respectability while suppressing unfavourable aspects of life history. Certainly in both cases the general effect is to silence criticism and rounded critique. What are people generally told about sticking their head above (on) a parapet? I would prefer not to celebrate individuals in this way. The human form can represent ideas (justice, liberty, independence), or fictional characters, without representing individual (once-living) humans. Some people must think there are not enough statues of racist slavers in their towns, so I would be curious as to who makes it in the national top-ten of underpromoted overprivileged white supremacists. Also, not enough statues of dogs, or to be more inclusive, of other species.

  9. Craig P says:

    In Iceland, Gullfoss was scheduled to be dammed for hydro. Sigríður Tómasdóttir successfully campaigned to prevent that. So now there is a bust of her near the falls.

    That’s the kind of statuary we ne6ed.

  10. Juteman says:

    I commented on Peter Bells blog that I had always thought that the infamous statue of the Duke of Sutherland should be blown up.
    Recent events caused me to have a rethink. As he cleared all the people off his land to make way for sheep, why not add a sheep to the statue? A dazzling white concrete sheep positioned at his groin as if he was shagging it. Maybe reposition his hands so they are holding its arse. Maybe add a loudspeaker that BAAAAA,s on the hour?

    1. Josef Ó Luain says:

      Indeed, why that abomination is still intact remains a mystery to me. “Only in Scotland”, I’ve long-since been forced to conclude.

  11. Morag Williams says:

    Some attention to acronyms is overdue, particularly BAME & SAGE.

    BAME is very close to BLAME . . . why not talk about people being from Culturally And Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds as is the case in Australia. I do appreciate that it probably doesn’t make a material difference (we have black deaths in custody and protests . . . ) However, I still think CALD is a more appropriate acronym than BAME.

    SAGE would suggest wisdom and to say the least, that seems to be sorely lacking at Westminster. In Australia, we have the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). I grant that there have been some spectacular fails with respect to the handling of Covid-19 in Australia, but AHPPC is at least a better acronym than SAGE.

    1. Jo says:

      Sorry, Morag, I mean no offence but Australia is the very last country whose example I’d want anyone to follow.

      Perhaps it just doesn’t care to be specific when it comes to racism and prefers the watered down title it’s gone with, instead.

  12. Daniel Raphael says:

    “Don’t judge.” This does not even rise to the level of dilettantism–it is the stuff of the worst of the worst of abstaining from responsibility for one of the greatest human evils. At this time, not only is there judgement, but, thankfully, action to give body and force to the judgements. For the people who have had life crushed out of them, assaulted and brutalized, degraded and forced into lives without hope…oh yes, there are judgements aplenty and actions aborning.

    The Minneapolis Police Department–with which I hope you will make yourselves familiar–is being defunded and in fact dissolved. At least, that is the stated intention at this time of the majority of that city’s elected government. The police spokesperson has called on people to “not compare us to animals.” I agree–for that would be an insult to animals, who deserve far better than the fate typically meted out to them by humans. In all fairness, the Minneapolis Police–their culture, their mentality, their sadism–is by no means the worst. It’s just “protecting and serving” as usual.

    It’s judgement day, with many more days and nights of judgements to come. It is long overdue, centuries overdue. I lived through the time of the Civil Rights Movement, when the nice white Christian people of the South were protesting that their quaint local customs were being inconvenienced by outside agitators, communist elements who stirred up their colored. Judgements. Sometime, do a search on Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman. There have always been judgements, theirs and ours. Standing aside, or attempting to do so, absolves the bystander of nothing. As has been said, passivity and silence is complicity.

    1. Jo says:

      Daniel

      “This does not even rise to the level of dilettantism.”

      That is so insulting.

      “As has been said, passivity and silence is complicity.”

      I’ve been neither yet YOU have judged me because you don’t like what I’ve posted. I’ve voiced a view you don’t care for so, instead, I’m a dilettante! You may see me as some kind of amateur, Daniel, but you’re the one who has let yourself down in your judging exercise.

  13. florian albert says:

    Scotland is in the middle of its worst public health crisis in a century; a crisis in which it is performing badly – in comparison with most European countries.
    It is about to experience its worst economic downturn in 40 years – possibly in 90 years.
    What topic is exercising Bella Caledonia ? Removing statues which have been standing for up to two centuries and renaming roads.
    At the heart of the left in Scotland’s ongoing failure is a detachment from what concerns ordinary people.
    Mike Small asks what sort of country we want to live in ? My answer would be one where political leaders (and commentators) face up to immediate, pressing problems and avoid escaping into political theatre.

    1. Many many topics are exercising Bella Florian. We published tonight on the coming economic crisis.

      We are witnessing an uprising in America due to police brutality and state violence and it is sweeping the world. I’m not surprised you havent noticed or consider it unimportant. The symbols you protect are the symbols that stand for your time and your worldviews. That time is over. That must be harsh for you to witness but its true.

      1. florian albert says:

        I do not ‘protect’ any symbols and nothing I wrote could possibly allow you to reach such a conclusion.
        When the last such economic/social crisis hit Scotland – in the early 1980s – the left had no viable alternative. It allowed itself to get distracted on issues such as declaring nuclear free zones and on campaigning against Murdoch newpapers.
        The left in Scotland has no political party (of any consequence), no leaders and no policies which resonate with the public. Campaigning to rename streets at this time – when GDP has fallen by 20% and a tsunami of unemployment is on its way – is politically unserious.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @florian albert, that is a bit like saying that amid all the rape and slaughter committed by British and French imperial forces, the Chinese media should have shut up about the mere destruction of their imperial summer palace and looting of its sculptures (albeit for very different reasons that current statues are being targeted).
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace
      How many statues did the British Empire take down, anyway, in a way that did (unlike today’s examples) destroy and remove foreign culture and historical artefacts?

  14. Delta says:

    Henry Dundas was also the advocate that argued Joseph Knight’s case in the High Court – isn’t history strange

    1. Kind of strange, kinda not. Lawyers are often from a very elite group of society, then and now.

  15. Richard Easson says:

    The present action of turning on statues and pieces of bronze and marble is purely symbolic and might make some people feel better and salve there feelings of guilt but there are actually living statues of flesh and blood masquerading as Lords and Ladies in WestminsterPalace. The money accrued and proprties and titlse gained via the plantations lives on .I have to be careful what I say in case some feel threatened but is it not the case tthat the proceeds of all these practices did not end with a statue?

      1. Richard Easson says:

        As in turning their ire on (statues)

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