A few thoughts on statues – or – what do we do about Clive of India?

Yesterday in Bristol, the long-controversial statue of city merchant and slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and thrown into the Avon. I had mixed feelings watching that scene unfold on TV. As someone who has been thinking more lately about what makes our society friendly and inclusive of all its citizens, it felt just to see the toppling of someone who’s actions were so barbarous and which represent the origins of racial injustice which still has a legacy today. On the other hand, as someone who likes historic townscapes and generally wants to preserve them, I couldn’t help but wince as the angry mob pulled a statue to the ground. What ever we think about a particular statue, this can’t be the way we decide whether or not we keep them, and in Bristol the authorities had dithered too long – it shouldn’t have got this far. Inevitably, it raises questions about other monuments in towns and cities around the country.
And so it was that today, a petition was launched about the removal of Robert Clive’s statue from Shrewsbury’s Market Square. He was a pretty ruthless individual whose skulduggery for the East India Company – atrocities, high taxes, the forced cultivation of crops that exacerbated famines – laid the foundations for the British Raj. He was even controversial in his own day, and went on trial before parliament for the way he had enriched himself through his exploits.
From what I’ve seen of it, this proposition to unseat this former MP for Shrewsbury has sparked a healthy online debate. So, with apologies to the people of Shrewsbury that this is written by a London-dwelling Wellington man, here are some of my reflections on the points that people typically raise about this and similar statue-based controversies…
“If you take down the statues, you’re eroding history.”
No. The history is still there, it’s just not very nice to make people look at someone who captured and enslaved their ancestors when they’re on their way to work every day (in the case of Colston and other slave traders). Yes Colston did a lot of work for charidee, but so did Jimmy Saville. One of the issues with Clive for me is that he stands in glorious isolation, right there in the middle of the Square – this isn’t a street filled with statues, demonstrating the heroes venerated by different generations – he’s the only one. Of all the Salopians who could occupy that position, do we really want it to be him, even now?
“Why take down the statue You can’t undo history – keep it there and learn from it”
Yes – history should be explored, understood, learned from. And we have plenty of ways of doing that – reading books, watching documentaries, visiting museums. In all those cases you can look at the crimes and controversies of a person, the lives of those that a person helped and harmed. But a statue in a public place doesn’t do that – it was put there to celebrate someone and as long as it’s there, that’s what it does. Don’t think they’re worth celebrating anymore? Take it down. You cant imagine the Germans keeping a statue of Hitler or a swastika on the Reichstag ‘as a reminder’ can you? It would kind of send out the wrong message. Whereas keeping the concentration camps as a monument to the horrors he committed is very different.
“But slavery and empire funded most of the country houses, the civic buildings, the railways – do we pull them all down too?”
No. The argument isn’t that we should destroy everything built on the proceeds of cruelty or injustice – sadly that’s how most of modern Europe got built, and we should at least be humble enough to remember that. But again, there’s something very specific about statues in public spaces – they are celebratory monuments. Country houses might have been funded by bad stuff – and let’s put up plaques to say so – but they can be valued and used in many ways. You can’t say the same for a statue.
“So where does it all end? How do we decide who gets to stay on their plinth and who doesn’t?”
It can only really be decided on a case by case basis, in each community. I’d run a day-long citizens’ jury, hearing from different sides and asking the people in the room to make a recommendation. I think slave traders probably need to go on the bad guys list as those undeserving of public celebration. For other characters it might be trickier – lots of great people said and did morally dubious things, but maybe it’s not so much about what they did as how much that resonates with our experience today. Like it or not, racial injustice persists in small and big ways all around us, and that has its roots in colonialism, so we should care about the messages we send to our fellow citizens by celebrating colonial icons. By contrast, some medieval kings might have been pretty brutal and probably weren’t very socially liberal by modern standards, but that doesn’t connect to our identities and experiences today – so they can probably stay on their plinths!
“If we take down the statues, what do we put in their place?”
Thinking about the Clive statue in particular, I personally would miss the aesthetic contribution it makes to the Square in Shrewsbury – as Midsummer Fayre attendees will know, I have a soft spot for portly Georgians in uniforms. But as you’ll have gathered from the article above, my view would be that overall, someone like this should is not deserving of our modern-day respect, and I’d remove him to the museum where her can be properly – ahem – explained. The folks of Shrewsbury could have a very interesting debate about who to replace him with, I’m sure. Darwin is the town’s most famous son and already has a statue outside the library – his old school – so he’s off the list. War poet Wilfred Owen might be a contender. And there’s always Carol Decker from T’Pau. But personally I’d advocate someone contemporary with the Square’s largely pre-Victorian aesthetic – ideally a Tudor. I’d go for Richard Tarlton, the Condover man who became an actor and court jester in Elizabethan London – a man of the people, a jolly character to have looking down at you, and a perfect historical fit for the Square. And he didn’t even nick anyone’s country – bonus! 

Note: some typos were corrected and a sentence added on 11/06/20.