By Pradip Rodrigues
I’ve been watching the raging protests in various cities and towns over the names and statues of divisive and controversial historical figures here in Canada and in the US with growing consternation.
To me statues and monuments shouldn’t be about politics, merely a reminder of history however painful that might be. They anywhere stand as a mute testimony to their good, bad and at times even evil deeds as per today’s standards. These are individuals who are were product of their times, they held views that in all probability corresponded with the large swath of the population back then which included our own grandparents and forefathers who like these figures currently despised. But removing them and trying to erase monuments that have been on display for decades and centuries simply risks inflaming passions and needlessly exposing social and cultural fault lines in our society without fundamentally changing the ground reality.
If it could be demonstrated that getting rid of the long and growing list of historical ‘offenders’ would somehow bring us all together and remove the last obstacles to true equality, I would be out there myself rolling up my sleeves and getting ready to tear down the nearest memorial to a one-time offender who caused so much grief and pain.
Here in Canada there are moves to change the name of Ryerson University by the Ryerson Students Union and the Indigenous Students Association. Why? Because Egerton Ryerson, a pioneer of public education in Ontario widely believed to have helped shape the reviled residential school policy through his ideas on education for Indigenous children. Not that he had anything to do with what was perpetrated on hundreds of Indigenous children. It was seen as a good plan at the time which went horribly wrong.
In Halifax, there is a growing movement to dislodge the iconic statue of Halifax’s controversial founder and former governor Edward Cornwallis.
Cornwallis was governor of Nova Scotia who founded Halifax, in 1749 he issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists. It was the kind of thing that happened back in the early days. It is the equivalent of launching an attack on ISIS after they’ve committed a particularly horrific attack in another country. It was a hard and dangerous time for settlers in the process of taming the land and building a society. Was what Cornwallis did wrong? Sure it was, but it was also probably necessary to display brutality as a means of deterring future attacks. This was really a way things were done not just here in North America but even in Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. An eye-for-an-eye was an approach something that most feudal rulers were committed to in the absence of the UN or diplomats.
When I visit any city, the first thing I look for are the old monuments and statues scattered across the city. These statues and monuments tell the story and evolution of a city and the country. I make it a point to also visit the museums.
Whether it is the Immigration museum on Ellis Island, New York, or the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C can be enlightening, disturbing and even haunting because museums present to visitors the unvarnished truth, in other words the bare facts. If anything these museums like statues and monuments and statues of divisive figures in history can teach tourists and remind citizens of how far we’ve come as a society. These were flawed men and women who were products of their time, working within a framework that was acceptable at the time. While at one time statues of controversial figures would have been revered by some and loathed by others, these monuments to a bygone era stand testimony to history that was not always pleasant. I remember an Indian immigrant in the UK being upset with the installation of statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square, Westminster, London. It irritated him to see people click pictures in front of the statue of a man he blamed for India’s partition among a whole slew of other grievances. If he had his way, he’d bring down the statue. Should the statue be brought down because historians have revealed facts about Gandhi’s life that were far from positive? I don’t think so but there are many more who may believe Gandhi’s statues and names of streets etc in India should be taken down.
I was never a fan of changing names or destroying statues and monuments some of which are landmarks and works of art.
In Delhi Coronation Park is described as a junkyard of Raj-era statues—of King George V and some other eminent British personalities—which, exposed and neglected, are day-by-day being whittled down by the elements.
In Mumbai, the name of the city itself was changed to from Bombay, its anglicized version had dozens of statues and monuments taken down and hauled away to the local zoo and adjoining museum.
Taking away these statues doesn’t necessarily erase history unless of course you intend rewriting history and deleting all references to unpleasant truths in school textbooks.
This is something that was done countries such as Afghanistan where the majestic Buddhas of Bamiyan that went back to the 4th and 5th century were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 because the zealots said it went against the tenets of Islam. To them these Buddhist statues represented a past that deserved to be destroyed. They aspired to rid the country of any physical proof of life before Islam took hold. Likewise one of ISIS’s first acts after gaining control of Mosul was to ransack Mosul’s central museum, destroying priceless artifacts that were thousands of years old. They destroyed ancient churches and other cultural and religious icons that were incompatible with the world order they hoped to impose upon all the lands they conquered.
In a way these fanatics were incensed by history, by the pluralism that once existed in these lands. By erasing all physical traces of the existence of other civilizations, they hoped to create their version of Utopia.
What is being done in North America is something of the opposite. Those bent on scrubbing clean from public spaces all statues of people who at one time espoused racist ideologies and segregation for example are hoping to create public spaces that have nothing that could remind people and future generations of an unpleasant past unless of course someone read up on the history of cities and towns, this is something that few tourists or people really do. I’ve seen tourists in Lisbon, Portugal pause in front of the iconic São Jorge Castle a Moorish castle that is one of the country’s most important tourist destinations ask his companion, “What the hell is this?”
I don’t for a minute think that a statue or an institution bearing the name of someone who today is being seen in a dim light could cause people of color to feel nervous or distressed and neither would it prompt perfectly normal people to suddenly start showing interest in racist ideologies that have no place in the modern world. And there are those who say that these statues inspire the alt-right to violence in order to justify the taking down of statues think that this is the way forward. Wrong, today, racists don’t get inspired by standing in front of a stone or bronze statue of a historical figure they revere. He or she simply has to go to the internet and get radicalized. Taking down statues will only inspire more racism not less. This is short-sighted. – CINEWS