At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, a statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston was taken down, dragged through the streets and pushed into Bristol Harbour. This sparked a global conversation, with many protestors glad to see a figure responsible for trading in the lives of others thrown into the sea. After this happened, people started to notice more long-lasting monuments to injustice in our society. In our daily lives, we see colonisers and plantation-owners immortalised in bronze statues and street names. Why do we allow this to continue? It is time for us to accept that the celebration of Britain’s horrific past has to be stopped in order for us to make changes to our systemically racist society.
Iconography refers to the veneration of a physical object as something greater. It’s recognisable in religious and social contexts, but also in political ones. It is not unusual to see activists and politicians memorialised, even when the values that person stood for are now widely recognised to be harmful. If we look to the United States, we can see a prime example of this in Mount Rushmore (a monument to several US Presidents, half of which were prolific slave-owners, built on sacred indigenous ground, by a man with links to the KKK).
So what happens when some people decide they don’t want to glorify the lives of such individuals? Iconoclasm is the concept of destroying monuments or images, therefore symbolically rejecting the values that go alongside them. This is not a new phenomenon. Anger over offensive or obsolete imagery can be seen throughout history. Take the statue of Queen Victoria that was erected in Dublin over a hundred years ago, in 1908. Many Irish people took this to be a reminder of their colonisation and the cruelty of the British establishment at the time of the famine. By 1948, and in accordance with Ireland’s move towards distancing itself from past British rule, the statue was first removed from its position outside the parliament buildings and then shipped to Sydney, Australia. This was seen as a symbolic victory by many Irish people. Although Victoria was long dead, her memory was no longer venerated after all the harm done to the country during her reign.
A similar symbolic destruction is taking place in our modern-day situation, and the charge is being lead by BLM. There have been a wide range of political tactics deployed, from peaceful street demonstrations to looting, rioting and defacing statues. People are looking for a way to make a statement and have their voices heard in whatever way possible; they know that bringing attention to a well-known monument is a way for their message to reach more people. For example, in Glasgow, it was brought to the public’s attention that a large number of street names were in recognition of tobacco lords (a group of 18th-century merchants and slave traders responsible for 19 recorded slave voyages. This led over 2000 people into slavery). Now there are over 11,500 signatures on a petition calling to rename streets linked to these men. Furthermore, an initial campaign by South African students in 2015, #RhodesMustFall, spread to Oxford.This resulted in plans to remove the statue of the white supremacist and colonizer Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.
However, symbolism isn’t enough. These gestures may be justified, but they provide little in the way of structural change protecting those minority groups who still suffer under racist institutions today. Britain is a country which not only transported 3.1 million African slaves, but also facilitated the Windrush scandal, and is not blameless in issues like police brutality. Now there must come a physical link with the anti-racism movement and a conscious effort to improve.