Michael Wood: “These ‘history wars’ over statues are really about something bigger: about different views of the past, and who controls it”

As a statue of prominent slave trader Edward Colston is toppled by protesters in Bristol, UK, we revisit a 2017 column by historian Michael Wood in which he explores the shifting meanings of statues…

Michael Wood explores the shifting meaning of statues in society. (Illustration by Femke de Jong for BBC History Magazine)

I’ve become very conscious of statues recently. They are everywhere, once you look. The Victorians were especially keen on erecting memorials to any old general who had bloodied the natives in Sudan or the Punjab. We walk past them without a second glance. But now they provoke questions. Who was this person? What did they do to deserve a statue? When was it put up, and by whom?

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In Gloucester they’re planning a new statue. Next year is the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, the daughter of Alfred the Great, who ruled Mercia for 25 years, the last eight as sole ruler. There have been discussions about how she might be represented: a deeply religious woman, a patron of learning – but also someone who restored Roman cities, founded new towns, built fortresses, and even led armies into battle against the Danes. Whatever is decided, no doubt she deserves it.

Statues became big news this summer [in 2017] when a young woman in Charlottesville, Virginia was killed during a protest against a group containing white supremacists and KKK members, who were themselves demonstrating about the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. Recently, more than 30 US cities have removed monuments to the Confederacy, which fought the Civil War to defend slavery. But, surprisingly, many of these were put up in the 20th century, during the period when some southern states were resisting the civil rights movement. Baltimore, where four statues have been removed, was not even part of the Confederacy.

Here in the UK, the age of imperialism has left us too with many statues that are now problematical. In Bristol, there’s the statue of Edward Colston (1636–1721), who is also commemorated in the names of the city’s streets and buildings. Colston founded schools and charities, but he made his money from slavery, and his statue has become a focus for angry protests. The charity that runs Colston Hall, Bristol’s big concert venue, announced this year that they would drop his name when it reopens in 2020.

There is continued debate over the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist, at Oriel College, Oxford. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
There is continued debate over the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist, at Oriel College, Oxford. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Then there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford, a protest against the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes conquered what is now Zimbabwe, and was responsible for thousands of African deaths and brutal land expropriation. Last year in this magazine I argued for keeping the statue, with a plaque explaining Rhodes’s career, and with the additions of new statues of King Lobengula of the Ndebele and Nehanda, heroine of the resistance against Rhodes. Since then, Oriel decided the statue should remain, after “overwhelming support” in its consultations. But events in the US have changed my mind. The issue is that the statue is in a public place, looking out over the High Street at what at the moment is the world’s leading university. Better then to move it inside? But still explain.

Statues, then, can be filled with meaning, and then emptied of it, by time and by shifting contexts

These ‘history wars’ over statues are really about something bigger: about different views of the past, and who controls it. In my home town of Manchester, the huge statue of Victoria in Piccadilly no longer carries any numinous ideological residue, but the recent bronze of Alan Turing in Sackville Park is now charged with emotional and cultural significance.

Statues, then, can be filled with meaning, and then emptied of it, by time and by shifting contexts. Some are far enough away to sit easily with us: Alfred in Winchester, Boudica on the Embankment. In that memory garden of national myth, Parliament Square, we’ve got the Victorian statue of the ghastly Richard the Lionheart, and Cromwell, whose atrocities in Ireland are forgotten on the mainland. But what about other histories? A statue of suffragette Millicent Fawcett is planned. But how about the 17th-century radicals Gerrard Winstanley, John Lilburne and Kathleen Chidley, arm in arm marching into our future? Or Mary Wollstonecraft? And what about Olaudah Equiano, that eloquent fighter against slavery?

And as for Æthelflæd in Gloucester? Well, I imagine her on a horse – she was surely a horsewoman all her life – eyes on the Danelaw horizon, a crucial figure in our story, in both war and peace: a woman in a world still full of male statues.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series and his books include The Story of England (Viking, 2010)

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This article was first published in the November 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine