Removing Statues: A lesson from Trafalgar Square.

Written by George Evans-Hulme.

Amongst the many valid and important discourses that have come to the fore of public life as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the western world following the murder of George Floyd, the debate surrounding who, and what, we as a society choose to remember in our public spaces is amongst those that have emerged.

It does not take long, whilst scrolling on social media, to come across an image relating to the recent deposition of the Edward Colston statue into Bristol harbour. Video footage shows that the statue was pulled from its plinth by protestors before being dragged to the quayside and dumped over the railings into the water below. The reaction has been somewhat polarised between those who argue that the statue, and the man it represents, should topple and that it has no place in Bristolian public space; and those who see the event as wanton criminal damage.

It is not the place of this piece to comment on the legal and moral case for and against this action; rather, it is to set it in a historical context.

A Tale as Old as Time

The debate about public memorials in Britain, of course, is not a new phenomenon (you do not have to cast your mind back too far to recall the debate surrounding the ‘Rhodes must Fall’ campaign that called for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the public façade of Oriel College, Oxford); the fall of the Colston statue will now form the newest strand in this debate.

It should also be acknowledged that, more generally speaking, the arguments for the removal of statues from British public places are not solely confined to those who were complicit in the slave trade; but also to those Britons who were more generally involved in the subjugation and suppression of foreign nationals.

(Statue of Charles James Napier, Trafalgar Square. Image owned by George Evans-Hulme [author], 2020)

For example, the debate in the early 2000s about the presence of the effigies of Charles Napier and Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square (sparked by the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone) made the British people ask whether they wanted the images of two men, each involved in their own controversies on the Indian subcontinent, front and centre in, what some call, the ‘front room’ of the British nation. Although, the key difference in the debate around these monuments and that of Colston is that Napier and Havelock still reside in Trafalgar Square whereas Colston is currently at the bottom of the Avon.

However, not all statues in Trafalgar Square that might be considered controversial by modern standards have remained there. A statue of Charles Gordon, a Victorian general known (and formerly glorified) for his involvement in savagely putting down rebellions across the British Empire, was removed from Trafalgar Square during the Second World War to make way for a Lancaster bomber that was placed in the middle of the square as part of the 1943 ‘Wings for Victory’ campaign.

(Statue of Henry Havelock, Trafalgar Square. Image owned by George Evans-Hulme [author], 2020)

A discourse of identity surrounding the statue emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, with people asking whether Trafalgar Square was an appropriate place for the British General. Some were explicitly in favour of the statue being returned, including the then Leader of the Opposition Winston Churchill who thought it an appropriate place for military heroes. Others, however, labelled Gordon as barbaric, and thought he was undeserving of being re-erected in the square. In the end, the statue was simply never put back (and now resides on the Embankment). Although, it must be said, this was because the statue did not fit in with proposed (but never realised) government plans for the square rather than the influence of public opinion.