The killing of George Floyd this May led to a global outpouring of grief and rage. Protests erupted across the world, social media feeds flooded with calls to action, and the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction like never before. All of this was sparked by the very-present reality of anti-Black racism and police brutality. But the protests reflected a wider sense of growing anger at the failure of many countries to reckon with their violent, discriminatory pasts. 

In this context, debate around the public display of colonial statues has reignited. In the US, monuments to Civil War-era Confederate leaders have been toppled and vandalised by protestors, though some have also been removed by state authorities. Statues of Christopher Columbus, once celebrated as the “founder” of the Americas, have been targeted. Dramatic footage from the UK shows protestors in Bristol tearing down a statue of Edward Colston, a merchant and wealthy slave trader. And in Aotearoa, a statue of John Hamilton, a British naval officer who led a regiment in the bloody New Zealand Wars, was removed by Hamilton city council after a request from iwi in the area. 

Why the controversy around pieces of stone and bronze? These figures are a part of our history, aren’t they? Why should we erase the past?

The truth is that many of these people are part of history, but not a part to be celebrated. Mounting a statue of someone out in the sunlight is not a neutral act but a celebratory one. As historian David Olusoga said after Edward Colston’s statue was torn down, such statues are about glorifying a person. They are not simply “the mechanisms by which we understand history” like books or documentaries. 

Calling for these monuments to be taken down is not about erasing the past but putting the past where it belongs: in a museum where the person’s actions can be understood in their full context. This is what happened in Gisborne last year when a statue of Captain Cook that stood on Titirangi Hill was relocated to a local museum. It is vital to preserve history so it is not forgotten but the focus should be firmly on education.

The argument against appreciation is clear. Many famous figures in history were responsible for enslaving or colonising people. They participated in or promoted practices that have resulted in certain groups of society being marginalised to this day. When an eye-catching piece of art, like a statue, is set out in a public area we send a symbolic message that we accept the person’s ideology even if it led to mass harm and enduring inequality; and that this ideology is still part of our identity.

We should applaud institutions recognising that this kind of ideology should no longer be part of their identity. Oxford University’s Oriel College has voted to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from its facade. Hopefully the next step is asking why we still have a prestigious scholarship named after Rhodes, when a cursory Google search reveals he believed that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was superior. 

There is a popular proverb: “out of sight, out of mind”. Advocates for keeping the statues say if we don’t see these historical figures they will pass out of our minds. Yet it is a privilege to even have the luxury of forgetting.

Some groups have not had the opportunity to forget: Māori remain aware of the many places named by and after colonisers, how Pākehā settlers encouraged the erosion of te reo Māori, and how iwi are still attempting to recover confiscated land. 

We must end racism in all spheres and dismantle structures that perpetuate it, even when it is an uncomfortable process. Removing and relocating statues that romanticise a racist past is one step toward this goal — but it cannot be our only step. We should go on remembering the painful events in our history, perhaps through replacing statues of colonial-era leaders with monuments commemorating the victims of their policies. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

ANUJA MITRA – Law/Arts student trying to fit creative endeavours into her never-ending degree. Full time nerd and avocado enthusiast. She is probably currently ranting about something, re-organising her bookshelves or petting her multiple cats

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