Statues, street names, and contested memory

Proudly 'anti-woke' posturing is just the latest government attempt to memorialise white supremacy. Meghan Tinsley reports on the politics of commemoration

February 10, 2021 · 7 min read

A street sign in Watford marks Colonial Way leading to Rhodes Way, Imperial Way and Clive Way

On 16 January 2021, Robert Jenrick, MP – Boris Johnson’s Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – published a now-infamous opinion piece in The Telegraph, denouncing a recent decision by Birmingham City Council to give aspirational names – Humanity Close, Diversity Grove – to six new streets. The council’s decision, Jenrick lamented, pandered to the ‘baying mobs’ who, six months earlier, had caused Robert Milligan to be lifted from his plinth in the London Docklands and had thrown Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour. 

Calling for the removal of monuments to slavery and empire was, Jenrick claimed, an erasure of history. After the ‘Common Sense Group’ of Conservative MPs called for a new statue of every Victoria Cross awardee to be erected in their birthplace, Jenrick proposed in a subsequent statement that new streets should be named for VC ‘heroes’.

Jenrick is right about one thing: the incident in Birmingham was only the latest front in a protracted battle over how to commemorate the past. The contestation of statues and memorials, which erupted with the South African Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015, accelerated rapidly in the UK last summer. Strikingly, a global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against police violence in the US came to focus on, in Britain, ubiquitous statues of white men in city centres.

The politics of commemoration

Despite Jenrick’s claims to the contrary, commemoration does not remember history objectively. Instead, it makes sense of the present by imposing meaning on the past. This is always a political act: choosing to commemorate one individual, or one event, necessarily means choosing not to commemorate others. This holds true even for progressive acts of commemoration: when Mancunians voted to erect a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, they implicitly rejected the nineteen other women on the longlist – which included trade unionists, anti-racist activists, and birth control pioneers. 

Commemoration deems some individuals and events important for the public at large, while diminishing others. Paradoxically, by setting certain memories in stone, commemoration is an act of erasure.

Unnamed and unmarked memories may be forgotten more readily than those that are commemorated publicly. Yet memorialised people and events are also easily forgotten. Indeed, monuments depict only one politically useful aspect of complex histories. 

The statue of Colston in Bristol, for example, was erected 174 years after its subject’s death, and bore little physical resemblance to Colston himself. The inscription on the plinth highlighted only a few palatable aspects of Colston’s life, depicting him as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of Bristol whilst summarily negating his role in the slave trade – which financed his ‘virtuous’ philanthropy. In that respect, the statue itself, and the public persona it popularised, enabled Bristolians to forget Colston as a historical figure.

Paradoxically, by setting certain memories in stone, commemoration is an act of erasure

The distortions and omissions of Colston’s statue raise the question of why it was erected at all. Another salient case of commemoration hints at an answer: in the Southern United States, the majority of Confederate memorials – particularly those in public spaces, in front of courthouses and city halls – were erected a generation after the end of the Civil War, in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The timing was no accident. Those who erected them sought not to memorialise individual Confederate soldiers, but to emphatically proclaim the ideal that the Confederacy represented: white supremacy. 

Amid the proliferation of Jim Crow laws and the physical violence of rape and lynchings, the memorials were an additional form of racial terror. By occupying public space, Confederate statues asserted that white supremacy was set in stone.

Who gets to be a hero?

What, in this context, would it mean to name a Birmingham street after a Victoria Cross winner? Tellingly, Jenrick did not name any individual honourees. After all, the purpose of commemoration is rarely to remember a particular person in all their complexity, but to impose a particular set of values on them and impose those values in public space. As Jenrick himself argued, naming the streets thus would foster national ‘unity’ in honour of ‘heroism’. 

His words are carefully chosen. ‘Unity’ positions the ongoing contestation of monuments as divisive, and to ‘honour’ is in contrast with the removal of statues. In both instances, Jenrick is rejecting the approach taken by BLM and other protesters. His emphasis on ‘heroism’, however, needs closer attention.

The term ‘heroism’ is sharply racialised and gendered. Of the 1,355 VC holders since 1857, all have been men and the vast majority have been white. Among the awardees, for example, are just twenty-seven Indians (pre-Partition, including present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh), one Kenyan, and one Jamaican. For much of the award’s history, most soldiers of colour served in regiments overseen by the Colonial Office and governed by martial races ideology – which, for example, deemed Pathans ‘hot-tempered’ and well-suited for direct combat, whilst consigning 400,000 East Africans to strenuous manual labour in the Carrier Corps. During the two world wars, a colour bar formally restricted service in the British armed forces to ‘British subjects of pure European descent’. 

With their roles in combat already circumscribed by racist practices, and their individual actions interpreted through a racialised lens, it is unsurprising that so few colonial soldiers have been awarded the VC. Commemorating VC winners by naming streets after them, however, would remember them as individual soldiers who embody ‘heroic’ traits, extracting them from their historical context. As such, naming and renaming thousands of streets for overwhelmingly white, male ‘heroes’ would be an act of erasure: it would whitewash the imperial past and – by supplanting the aspirational names proposed by Birmingham City Council – denigrate the multicultural present.

If commemoration is an act of erasure, then we should read the contestation of memory in a new light. Activists point out the things statues fail to commemorate: an individual’s role in the slave trade or colonisation, the political context in which a statue was erected, and the government’s refusal to reckon with the contemporary legacies of empire and slavery. Toppling statues – whether of Rhodes, Colston, or Robert E. Lee – forces the government, and society, to reckon with past and present. Rejecting increasingly adamant calls for ‘honour’, for ‘respect’, or for ‘unity’ will do the same. 

Meghan Tinsley is the Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities at the University of Manchester

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