On Sunday 7 July 2020 a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol city centre was toppled and deposited in the harbour. As an archaeologist who specialises in the archaeology of damage and destruction in the Middle Ages, I have sometimes looked to other time periods for parallels to help understand events. One of the constants is that deliberately damaging an object is a highly emotive act, no matter the context, and there often aren’t nuanced conversations about what it means. It has been far easier to discuss it as a historical event rather than something that is happening right now. I have put down some thoughts here about what damage and destruction means in the hope that it adds some context.
Damaging of an object is about more than what the object is
What an object means varies depending on who is looking at it. For many people, a statue may be nothing more than a bit of decoration they pass on the way to work and they have no idea who it represents and no interest in finding out. For others it may be an example of civic pride, especially if it has aesthetic value. For others still it is a reminder of the past – what the past means can be positive or negative. If that history is one of oppression and violence, that reminder can keep it fresh.
Within the specific context of the Colston statue, it was erected in 1895 more than 170 years after Colston died as part of a Victorian reinvention of the city in which Colston was portrayed as a key figure and philanthropist. The Society of Merchant Venturers, which was involved in the slave trade, part funded the statue. In the 1920s concerns were raised about how Colston’s had profited from the slave trade and whether commemoration was appropriate; there have been campaigns since to acknowledge Bristol’s role in the slave trade. From the 1990s in particular, there have been petitions for the statue’s removal, attempts to shape interpretation through plaques, and art installations highlighting Colston’s link to the slave trade. Colston Hall in Bristol is changing its name to distance itself from Colston. How you react to an object or understand it may not be the same way someone else does.
The intention of the people who create an object is not always the meaning it conveys. Take the planned piece of public art near Flint Castle a few years ago. The initial idea was to build an iron ring near the castle, an acknowledgement of the castles built by Edward I (dubbed the ‘iron ring’) to secure the conquest of Wales. However, there was a growing sentiment that this glorified the oppression of the Welsh. While that may not have been the intention of the proposal, it is how it was understood by many people. This understanding wasn’t universal, but it was strong enough to result in a petition which gathered thousands of signatures and the plan was changed. In the US, Confederate monuments have been a focus of public debate as they are “symbols [of] oppression and slavery”.
Damaging an object isn’t always about the person linked to an object themselves but what the item represents. When Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution a statue of a Frankish king was also decapitated. The statue was linked to royal authority and so was treated in a way that mirrored Louis. The statue of Colston was more than just a statue of a man who profited from the slave trade, it was a very public and visible reminder of the slave trade as a whole.
Does dismantling mean erasure?
Looking at online comments about the events in Bristol, I’ve noticed that some people have concerns that Colston is being erased from history, and that the legacy of the slave trade will be forgotten if monuments like this are dismantled.
Memory and interpretation fades and the intention behind a particular structure can be lost. Something can be very public and misunderstood. The act of damaging something can also be very public and preserved in memory. There is a concept from classical studies of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (condemnation of memory) which essentially means removing a public figure’s memorials and references to them on public monuments. It leaves a significant gap, which rather than meaning people forget what happened invites the question of who was this person and why have their monuments been damaged in this way? (Classicist Dr. Virginia Campbell has made a similar point.)
Damaging or removing something does not usually totally destroy it, and the gaps and absences can loudly proclaim that a change has taken place. While the statue of Colston is at the bottom of the Bristol Harbour, the plinth it stood on remains and the international news coverage means it is highly unlikely that this event will be forgotten. The empty plinth creates a new space, perhaps for display. Had an earlier petition to remove the statue succeeded, it would have left a much smaller impression on the memory. The method of removal is also important in how an event is remembered. In an age where everyone carries a camera in their pocket, there will be countless photos and videos of events. The memory of Colston and the slave trade has been brought to the fore rather than erased, and the event has made history and Britain’s role in the slave trade is being discussed more publicly than it has been in decades.
We are not used to the historic environment changing
Heritage professionals in the UK have spent decades protecting our built heritage, creating laws to ensure its preservation, and creating a culture of conservation. There are countless charities and trusts set up to preserve historic buildings, as well as museums which give these structures new life. As a consequence, we are often unprepared for change. An overgrown ruin can inspire awe in some people and sadness in others at its neglect.
When change does happen, especially if it happens suddenly, it is shocking and reinforces the feeling that things need to be preserved. This can make discussions about the appropriateness of monuments very difficult, and people taking the position that something should be dismantled usually start at a disadvantage in that conversation.
Within the UK context, English history has at time had a radically changed built environment. The English Reformation under Henry VIII led to the closing of many Catholic religious houses, dismantling abbeys, and melting down artworks. In the 17th century the Puritans engaged in their own acts of iconoclasm during the English Civil War, painting over religious paintings and breaking statues. Further back in history, the Peasants’ Revolt targeted the property of particularly unpopular landowners such as John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace. Damaging property has long been a part of English history, and buildings and structures do not exist in isolation from their past.
Damage and destruction is highly emotive
Think of the destructive events you remember most clearly. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall? The toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein? The fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018? The destruction of Palmyra? Those events prompt very strong emotional reactions, ranging from a sense of loss and grief to freedom from oppression. Destructive events are also caused by strong emotions. When Henry III gave orders to demolish (slight) Bedford Castle in 1224 he was furious that someone had ignored his authority.
Damage and destruction is a tool of both oppressor and the oppressed
Historically, it isn’t a tool used by just one group or segment of society. It is used by people with power, and those who feel like they have none. The tools and targets may vary, but damage and destruction can be an expression of victory, despair, desperation, hope. It can subvert authority and power or reinforce it. In general, the understanding of damage and destruction isn’t particularly nuanced. There will be comparisons between the toppling of the Colston statue and pretty much any destructive event you can think of. There is going to be a lot of misunderstanding and people not listening to each other over the Colston statue and what it means.
Information about the statue of a Frankish king’s statue being beheaded came from Patricia Skinner’s Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe. There’s a preview in Google Books and it’s well worth a read. For anyone who wants to know more about destroyed heritage, you could start with Wikipedia’s list on the subject.
I am an academic working in archaeology and the study of destruction is a growing field. This is an attempt to use that study to understand current events.