For good and bad, history recorded in stone

Workers remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Dallas, Texas, last month. Photo: Reuters
Workers remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Dallas, Texas, last month. Photo: Reuters
Statues have a place and should not be removed lightly, writes Joss Miller.

Statues are worth looking at. They provide a permanent snapshot into the past and a moment in time in history. Many countries have them and some date back to antiquity.

New Zealand has its share but perhaps less than in Europe or the United States. Our country, though, has an abundance of war memorials and given the significance of sport, not surprisingly there have been recent statues of Peter Snell and the late Sir Colin Meads. Richie McCaw's is a work in progress.

In Europe the subjects are more diverse and include politicians, explorers, theologians, scientists, writers, poets and philosophers.

Standing recently in Trafalgar Square, London, gave me pause to reflect on this topic. For a start, trying to view the top of Nelson's Column was a challenge given its immense height - the column, including a 5.5m statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson on top, is 52m high.

His fame stems primarily from his courage and leadership at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 in which the British Navy defeated the combined forces of France and Spain, thereby ensuring British naval supremacy well into the early 20th century.

At no point did I ponder on what Nelson's private thoughts or views may have been at that now distant point in history but rather appreciated how his actions and this event transformed a nation.

Located in the corner of the same square is a recent statue of Winston Churchill displaying a Buddha-like repose. Churchill's principal legacy was the inspiration he provided to the nation during the difficult years of World War 2. He was also awarded the Nobel prize for literature and continued in parliament until his late 80s.

He was no saint, however, and as first Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 was instrumental to the ill-conceived and short-lived Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign that caused the needless loss of thousands of soldiers including New Zealanders.

Some would say he was an imperialist and racist. However, his compelling leadership when the English were literally on their knees arguably transcends all other considerations.

A statue of Oliver Cromwell sits astride a horse near the Houses of Parliament. Despite some bloody and controversial military campaigns in Ireland he is mainly remembered for establishing England's first and only republic (1649-60) after centuries of monarchy.

There are times when the removal of statues is justified, particularly where the subject has exhibited genocidal and grossly inhuman conduct. Massive statues of Stalin were demolished following uprisings in Budapest and Prague even though repressive communist rule continued in these countries for many more years.

A large statue of Ronald Reagan now stands tall in Budapest's Liberty Square to honour his efforts in bringing to an end the Cold War. The memory of a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad in 2003 remains fresh.

Latterly there has been a lot of discussion in America relating to Confederate statues in southern states. Some people regard these as emblems of slavery and others as an appropriate historical record from the Civil War in which 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died, and untold suffering was inflicted on both sides.

How can one forget the destruction inflicted by the Taliban on the Buddhas of Bamiyan structures that dated back to the 4th and 5th centuries or the actions of Islamic State in Palmyra, Syria, where it wantonly and cynically set about erasing world heritage site ruins dating back to Roman times.

In my view, history needs to be seen as a continuum. We should not judge through a narrow lens but always have the big picture in mind. By preserving statues we can learn much about history. They should never be removed lightly.

-Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.

Comments

In the midst of the present is the past. Some past has just got to go: there would be no place for Cecil Rhodes, plinthed, in modern Harare. Nor should we move stationary City fathers, who, due to the imposts of the changing landscape, seem to be looking at a House of Demimondane.

They are not. They are stoned.