Queen Victoria being removed from the front of the Dail
Fergus on Monday nailed it. In the current atmosphere the statue of Oliver Cromwell speaks for itself. Perched in front of Westminster Hall the Victorians who erected it were celebrating the victory of Parliament over the royal tyrant Charles 1. But even leaving aside the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford, this distorts Cromwell’s record. He sent the troops in to expel Parliament not once but twice and instead ruled by decree as Lord Protector. By God’s Will, naturally. Yet part of his legacy is rightly commemorated. 30 years after Cromwell’s death, it was Parliament that offered King Billy the throne. Parliament held the whip hand from then on. Real history is a lot more precise than statues. Legacy is something else entirely; how we imagine history to suit our vision of the present.
Demands have been revived to topple the tiny statue of benefactor arch imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College Oxford. The 2016 campaign was inevitably led by a Rhodes scholar.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has rushed to set up a commission to review the city’s official statuary. The targets stretch beyond slavery to racism, the generic term that damns in a word the entire history of the British Empire.
The mayor admitted this could include the names of “certain institutions”, but added that the review would also consider whether that amounted to “cleansing the reputation” of bodies such as the Tate galleries and Guy’s Hospital, whose founders profited from slave labour.
Good luck with that. Trafalgar Square stripped bare of its Indian Mutiny generals, even Nelson toppled from his perch as a slave owner. Moving on, Clive of India removed from the top of Clive Steps in Charles 11 Street.
Then round to Parliament Square.
Yep, Churchill was racist. In this company only Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela are safe. But as Prof Richard Toye of Exeter University writes:
Churchill was a white supremacist but he did not believe that the interests of people of colour were of no account at all even if, for example, he regarded the Kikuyu people in Kenya as childlike and requiring instruction. Indeed, early in his lengthy Liberal phase some of his critics regarded him as too much of a Radical (in the left-wing sense) and even as a danger to the Empire.
And Churchill’s racial views, however abhorrent, deserve to be distinguished clearly from those of the Nazis. He made some appalling comments about Indians at the time of the Bengal famine and could have acted quicker to save lives, but it is not true that he deliberately engineered starvation as an act of genocide. His leadership against the Hitler regime should not lead us to ignore any aspect of his opinions, but if his war leadership was not perfect it is hard to think of anyone else available who could have done the job better.
This is the sight of a statue being reinstalled not removed – John Lawrence Viceroy of India being transferred from the old school buildings on the west bank to its new site in the Waterside in Derry. He and his brother were pupils at the original school on Lawrence Hill. Both suppressed the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Henry dying in the siege Lucknow. John recaptured Dehli the seat of the uprising. He is credited with trying to moderate the fierce reprisals that followed. However keen Derry folk always are to commemorate their own, are the Lawrences best left forgotten?
What about the most prominent journalistic apologist for the Confederacy during the US Civil War, our very own John Mitchel—firmly ensconced in the Deep South after his Young Ireland escapades, his transportation to Australia, and his daring escape. Mitchel, subject of much hagiographical coverage—some of it auto-hagiographical—once claimed that the Irish peasantry were worse off than black slaves in the southern states. While mid-19th century Irish tenant farmers, cottiers and farm labourers were hardly comfortable (a million of them died of starvation and disease between 1845-50 and another million were forced to emigrate) at least their landlords couldn’t whip them and sell their children down the river. Despite his steadfast defence of the institution of slavery—which helped earn him a sojourn in a post-war Union jail (he opted not to describe the experience in Jail Journal II) there’s a fine statue of Mitchel in his native Newry in County Down.
Should Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin although retired, change his name?
In Edinburgh, campaigners have for some time focused on the column and statue in St Andrew Square memorialising Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville and the most significant figure in Scottish public life in the late 18th century. The greatest charge against Dundas is that he single-handedly delayed the abolition of the slave trade by 15 years. .. Rather than forget the past, it might be more profitable to remember it. A Museum of Empire is long overdue. Glasgow, the city that for so long revelled in being the empire’s second city, seems a fitting base.
Nigel Biggar Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology, University of Oxford has form as a critic of platforming. Undaunted he enters the lists .
Most of us are a moral mixture of good and bad. Which aspect other people focus on is a matter of choice. Christopher Codrington was also a slave-owner, who founded a theological college in Barbados. Yet contemporary Barbadians working and studying at Codrington College, many of them direct descendants of slaves, apparently feel no need to expunge his name. Why, then, did Sunday’s anti-racist protesters, most of them with far weaker ties to historic slavery, choose to topple Colston . Among the reasons surely lies the political power of adopted victimhood.
Charles Grant the EU analyst talks a lot of sense on this subject too
It is silly to judge people of past centuries by contemporary standards. Virtually no pre-19th century leader in any country had the ‘correct’ views on race, class, gender, democracy. Let us study the past to understand why people thought what they did.
Last word from south of the border, from DCU academic Eoin O’ Malley
De Valera, who has a reasonable claim to be a leading anti-colonialist opposed the removal of imperial statues on the grounds that they had historical interest. He was under pressure from his party to remove this one from Leinster House. It was a Fine Gael Taoiseach who did.
John Costello the taoiseach who declared the Republic.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London