king leopold II bust covered in red paint
A statue of King Leopold II is removed in Ghent, Belgium on June 30, 2020 (Image: Belga/Sipa/James Arthur Gekiere)

There’s a campaign to move Captain Cook’s statue to the museum. It’s part of a global movement to remove monuments to former national heroes whose actions, once celebrated, offend some modern sensibilities.

Worldwide there has been mob destruction of sculptures, or vandalism sugar-coated with virtue. 

The notion that the attitudes and cultural context of people from another age differ from those of contemporary kids is utterly unsurprising. But is it a reason to pull down their statues? 

Some think it righteous, others find it belligerent. 

Is there a better way?

A GoFundMe page #BlackLivesMatter Recontextualise Colonial Statues points to an alternative of keeping the statues, but augmenting them with others that tell the other side of the story. A picture shows the silhouette of a man hanging from a tree.

In the Belgian town of Ghent, a bust of King Leopold the Second was daubed with red paint before it was removed entirely by authorities.

Leopold was popular at home, but less so in Africa. He ran the Congo as a private company, making a fortune from ivory and rubber. When locals failed to meet their rubber quotas he had their hands hacked off.

He was responsible for between 1 million and 15 million Congolese deaths, with consensus settling on 10 million. He used the profits to fund great buildings in Belgium that he subsequently gifted to the nation.

It seems laudable that the bust of this butcher be removed from public view — but is it? After all, he is a seminal figure in the history of Belgium. To celebrate him is beyond churlish, to expunge him from the public record is to whitewash history. It’s a form of sanctimonious denialism perilously close to book burning.

It also has the potential to drive the wedge of division deeper, offering new inspiration to the very demagoguery it opposes. Donald Trump’s Independence Day speech this past weekend used recent calls for monument removal as fuel for a fire of righteous fury among the conservative faithful:

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they’re doing this, but some know what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive, but no, the American people are strong and proud and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history, and culture to be taken from them.”

He delivered his oration positioned in front of Mount Rushmore, as a de facto fifth head, and clearly revelled in the chants of “USA, USA!” and “four more years!” that his words inspired.

In the UK, some are calling for statues of Churchill to be torn down on the grounds he was a racist. He may have been, but as a figure instrumental in the defeat of Adolf Hitler the karmic scales seem to tilt his way, and to attempt to excise him from history is silly.

The purpose of studying history is not to learn that King Egbert was followed by Aethelwulf and Aethelbald; it is surely to get a long-run dataset on human behaviour and thus better understand what our species has done right, and what it’s stuffed up. George Santayana’s original dictum was paraphrased in a speech to Commons by Churchill in 1948: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Might recontextualisation be better?

If the statue of King Leopold II were retained by the good burghers of Ghent, yet accompanied by a pile of amputated stone hands and an explanation of his atrocities and civic generosities, is that not more useful?

Is the destruction of statues led by ardent students of history keen to show a better way, or an inauthentic displacement of generic frustration? Is it a generational power play or just self-indulgent attendance at a giant pity party?

Decide for yourself. But, tellingly, the GoFundMe page has only raised $60.

Is it time to remove statues of historical figures who committed atrocities, or is that whitewashing history? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s new Your Say section.

Toby Ralph is a global marketing consultant who has worked the Liberal Party in Australia and on elections around the world.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW