A statue's limitations can become monumental problems

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London.
Ross Setford

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London.

OPINION: This column is going to be about - a column, appropriately enough. Nelson's Column to be precise.

It will also be about a number of other statues around the world because suddenly they have become the focus of much attention.

It all kicked off in the United States when it was decided to remove a statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, of General Robert E Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, which pitted the slave-owning Southern states against the North.

The planned removal sparked a backlash from white supremacists and they marched to the statue in protest. There they faced counter-demonstrators and things quickly deteriorated into a disgraceful pitched battle that ended when a peaceful protester was killed and 19 others injured after the driver of a speeding car deliberately ploughed into the group.

Several US cities had already removed Confederate statues after a self-proclaimed white supremacist gunned down nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, but the Charlottesville decision seems to have brought things to a head.

So where does Nelson's Column fit into all this? Well, the world headlines sparked by the Charlottesville riot have engendered a lively debate about the appropriateness of statues to other leading historical figures.

A recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, called for the removal of the statue of Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, because he used his seat in the House of Lords and his high-profile position to support the continuation of slavery.

I was born in England and I have to admit this was a dark side of Nelson of which I was totally unaware. While I'm very disappointed to learn of this, the statue honouring Nelson was erected not to celebrate his views as a white supremacist but as the admiral who died defending his country against the French at Trafalgar.

I'd have more sympathy with the campaigners who would like to see the removal the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University's Oriel College. Rhodes was an imperialist, who is alleged to have caused the massacre of tens of thousands of black Africans and overseen, in the words of one critic, "unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies".

Early last year the college dismissed calls to remove the statue and, while confirming it could lose £100 million in gifts if the statue was to be removed, insisted that the financial implications were not a primary consideration.

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Feel free to disbelieve that.

Statues have been a hot topic for some years now. When a statue to Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris was unveiled in London in 1992 it met with a mixed reception. Harris had been head of Bomber Command during the closing stages of the Second World War and his strategy of carpet-bombing German cities is still hotly debated.

At the unveiling of the statue by the Queen Mother, some people booed and a few threw eggs. The German city of Dresden, where an estimated 60,000 people died in a firestorm attack by Allied bombers, protested against the memorial without success.

The statue controversy has even spread to Australia where Aboriginal leaders are calling for a plaque on a 138-year-old statue of Captain Cook in Sydney to be changed to correct the claim that he "discovered this territory".

An Aboriginal broadcaster and writer, Stan Grant, says he wants the caption changed because clearly Cook didn't discover Australia as the Aborigines had arrived there about 60,000 years earlier. He said indigenous people had become a postscript in Australian history.

And Captain Cook is not safe from controversy here in New Zealand. A statue to the explorer on Gisborne's Kaiti Hill, near to where he made his first landfall in this country, has been repeatedly vandalised amid claims that his arrival in New Zealand led to decades of death, disease and the degradation of Maori culture.

It appears statues to famous people have a limited lifespan of acceptability, so perhaps a law should be enacted requiring their removal when they reach their use-by date.

We could call it the Statues of Limitations.

 - Stuff


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