If Statues to Slave Traders Were 'Educational', We'd Have Hitler on the Public Square | Opinion

I don't know how your echo chamber took the news that anti-racism protesters toppled the statue of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston in Bristol, England, on Sunday. Aside from a few "what took them so long?" grumbles, mine was bouncing with whoops of delight and justice—not unlike the protestors themselves, who cheered and jumped up and down on the statue before rolling it to Bristol Harbour and dumping it into the water, not too far from where his slave ships used to dock.

A few themes have emerged on the side of those who disagree with the toppling of the statue, many of them not just knee-jerk but demonstrably wrong. No, Karen, history has not been erased: if only erasing something so heinous were that simple. Even the city's approval of Colston has not been erased, it's just been symbolically and dramatically withdrawn—and all it took was 125 years, a global protest for the incredibly reasonable suggestion that black lives matter, a crash, a roll and a splash.

Some of the complaints sidestep the symbolism of the act and focus on criminality and property damage. Labour leader Keir Starmer, while accepting it's wrong to have a statue of a slaver in 2020, said, "It shouldn't be done in that way... That statue should have been brought down properly with consent." Many others have lamented that the removal of the statue didn't happen in deference to a due process that would have had vastly less emotional impact at what feels like a pivotal moment. Teams "Property Damage Is Bad" and "Why Didn't They Do It Democratically?" invariably leave out the fact that for years the people of Bristol had been calling for the statue to be removed, and nothing had happened.

But the take I'd like to chuck into the sea with Colston is that statues of slave traders educate people on why enslavement was A Bad Thing, and therefore should stay where they are. It's not just untrue; it's infuriatingly disingenuous, both for this particular statue and statues in general.

Absolutely no one walking past this likeness of Colston—dapper, dressed up and deep in thought – would find themselves "educated" about a man whose wealth came from the slave trade. They'd also have a hard time getting that impression from the inscription on the south-face base, "Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city", or from the west-face base depicting his charitable acts to Bristol's poor children. Nowhere does it say, "Colston had money with which to be philanthropic from his business trading human beings, and today the descendants of these enslaved people still face systemic discrimination in this country and across the world."

Nowhere on the statue is his part in slavery even alluded to—unless you count the north face of it, where he's shown at the harbor. But even then you'd have to use your imagination to edit in his ships transporting the 100,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas as goods to be sold, the 20,000 who died from the hideous conditions on board, the unimaginable suffering from which Colston—and Bristol—profited.

The most infuriating thing about the suggestion that a statue of a slave trader in any way educated people about one of the darkest, sickest blots on our nation's history is that no one really believes it. Because everyone knows what statues are for. They are erected to venerate, celebrate, or memorialize. That's why there are no statues of Hitler. That's why there won't be any statues of Harvey Weinstein, or of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 or even the cat-bin lady.

If a statue of Hitler was erected, people would not see it as an opportunity to be educated about the Holocaust. They would ask why we're venerating a genocidal murderer.

The same is true of the reverse question: which statues should be preserved and why. On social media, some have suggested the recently-defaced statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square (two minutes' walk and perhaps a 10-minute roll from the Thames) should get the same treatment as Colston. But the outrage at the suggestion that Churchill's statue should be pulled down and chucked in the river did not come, funnily enough, from people horrified by the loss of a reminder that Churchill helped cause a Bengal famine that killed three million people, or that he advocated the use of poison gas against "uncivilized tribes", or that of the slaughter of native Americans and Australians he said, "I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race... has come in and taken their place." People are not outraged because they think statues educate us about the wrongs of the past; they are outraged because they think Churchill is worthy of celebration.

Rationalizing is the act of finding a noble reason for your feelings after you've had them. I don't know what the real reason is for people to feel a twinge at the sight of the toppling of a statue of a slave trader, to feel more concern about a depiction of him being thrown into the water than the real, living bodies of those 20,000 people.

Whatever the real, deep-seated motivation for where their sympathies lie, it isn't concern about losing the lesson that enslavement is wrong.

Because everyone knows what statues are for.

Erica Buist is a London-based writer, journalist and the author of the book This Party's Dead.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​