If you’ve been on any form of social media in the last twenty-four hours, you have probably encountered images of the statue of Edward Colston being torn down and thrown into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors. The statue, first erected in 1895, has been the centre of massive debate in Bristol for many years. Petitions and protests surrounding its removal have been unsuccessful, so it is not in the least bit surprising to me that it should have been targeted over the weekend. Attempts to mitigate anger over the statue by the Bristol Council resulted in the decision to add a second plaque to the base, which was to clarify Colston’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. Even this garnered controversy, as the council and residents debated the words to be inscribed. What strikes me particularly about the text of the proposed plaque is the inclusion of 19,000 Africans who died whilst being transported across the ocean. Common practice in the slave trade was to dump not only the dead, but also the ill, overboard and later claim for those lost on insurance. As abhorant as it sounds, insurance payouts were more profitable than the sale of weak or infirm human beings. With that in mind, dumping the statue of Colston in the harbour seems a most fitting place for him.
I will leave aside the debate about public disorder and whether or not removing the statue in the way it has been done is legal or right. What I am more interested in is the ongoing debate about the removal of statues and how this constitutes an erasure of history. It doesn’t.
The Ancient Romans, of course, removed and defaced statues. Known to historians as the practice of damnatio memoriae (which I have written about previously), this was something typically used by emperors in order to disassociate themselves from previous regimes that were deemed bad. But those were not the only instances, and it was also used to deface statues and tombstones of cheating husbands and wives, former friends who committed an act of betrayal, and others. But, these acts of erasure were not meant to obliterate the memory of the person (even if it did successfully eliminate their likeness). Statue heads re-carved are disproportinate to the body, lines of text in lapidary inscriptions are crossed out, and coins have faces rubbed out. In other words, the act of removing the name or image is not meant to make one forget they existed, but rather to remind viewers that the person no longer deserves to be remembered. It is a deliberate attempt not to forget the memory of the person, but to alter it: to render that memory negatively.
After all, we know who Geta was. We know what Caligula looked like despite the fact that the majority of statue heads we have of him were found at the bottom of the Tiber River (a fact that makes the treatment of Coulston’s statue quite apt). In the instances of defacement of inscriptions (whether for members of the imperial family or common Romans), names have been reconstructed. This illustrates that if forgetting was truly intended, the Romans were massively unsuccessful.
Now, when there have been an increasing number of voices calling for the removal of statues and place names of those who instigated and perpetuated the practice of enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic, I think the lesson of the Romans is an important one. This is not an attempt to erase history. But rather, rightfully, there is an attempt to dishonour those who stand for oppression and bigotry, racism and profiteering off the backs of other human beings. We don’t want to erase these people, but to remember that they deserve to be forgotten.
Edited to add: Since writing this yesterday I have discovered more about the history of the statue of Edward Colston. Like many of the monuments to soldiers and leaders of the Confederacy venerated in the U.S., Colston’s life and legacy were largely created at a much later date. Whilst I cannot ascribe the same motive of advancing white supremecy tied to the late nineteenth / early twentieth century construction of Confederate monuments, this does serve as yet another example of current attempts to preserve a believed history, that for all intents and purposes, is a false narrative.