Over the last fortnight, popular protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have led to a wave of removals of statues associated with racism and imperialism. The wave has spread across several states of the USA, particularly the South, to Belgium (where the statue of King Leopold II in Antwerp has been officially removed), and to England, where , where demonstrators threw the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour. Some monuments have been torn down by direct popular action, others removed by municipal authorities under pressure of protest. Several more, still standing, have been the object of major demonstrations.

The statue of Edward Colston is thrown into Bristol harbour, 7 June 2020. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

These initiatives have come under predictable attack as disorderly attempts to ‘erase’ or ‘rewrite history’ – as if history were an inert substance which succeeding generations are tasked with preserving from change. But history, of course, is a record of change, continually rewritten (as well as preserved and renewed) by human action. Thoroughly political decisions have been taken over the last fortnight, by protestors, politicians, and the police, leading to the toppling of statues or their decoration with red paint. Equally political decisions were taken in the past, by politicians, civic dignitaries, and subscribers who combined to install these monuments in prominent public places.

The historical circumstances of present decisions we know, in one sense, for they are all around us: racism, police violence, white nationalism, the Trump and Johnson governments, all complicated by the Coronavirus epidemic. But what were the circumstances of those past decisions, which people are seeking, now, to un-decide? Many belong, of course, to highly particular local histories – like the 36-year-long reign of segregationist Mayor Orville Hubbard in Dearborn, Michigan, or the late-Victorian businessman James Arrowsmith’s personal ‘vanity project’ of erecting a statue of Colston in Bristol. But in the aggregate, they reveal a larger pattern.

 

Timeline of when statues were put up

This timeline shows when the statues in question were originally erected. It includes those actually torn down from 30 May to 9 June, ones whose removal was announced during that period, and some which are still standing but have been the object of major demonstrations. These 36 monuments are – or were – located in cities in many US States (many in Virginia), England, and Belgium.

The timeline reveals a distinct clustering around the turn of the twentieth century. Half of the monuments taken down or seriously challenged recently were put up in the three decades between 1889 and 1919. A smaller cluster of five monuments followed shortly afterwards, in 1926-1929. The remainder are spread more thinly, from 1813 (a statue of plantation owner Robert Milligan on West India Docks, London) to 2013 (a statue of Confederate captain Charles Linn in Birmingham, Alabama). The period of clustering is not when all the historical events the statues are associated with by today’s protestors took place (the British slave trade ran from 1562-1807, slavery in the US South from 1619-1865). But it does map quite well onto others:  King Leopold’s rule over the Congo, 1885-1908; Cecil Rhodes’ public career, 1880-1902.

Leopold and Rhodes, though, were instances of something bigger. The decades in which half the statues were put up, c. 1890 to c. 1920, saw not only the installation of Jim Crow in the USA but also, around the world, the high noon of formal imperialism, and the proclamation of ‘race’ as a prime mover in human affairs. It was in the middle of this era, in 1903, that W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that ‘the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line’. As Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds see it in their book Drawing the Global Colour Line, Du Bois, and others, were witnessing ‘a tidal wave of whiteness’, ‘a new, modern phenomenon’ that ‘crossed national borders and shaped global politics’ (p. 2).

The actions of protestors, politicians and police over the past ten days grow out of particular histories, often consummating tenacious local struggles to challenge these monuments’ overbearing presence. But they also reveal a wider structure: the role of those three decades in the entrenchment of whiteness, the creation of favourable conditions for the memorialisation of slave-holders and colonialists. Others have noted it too: US observers have remarked how many of the Confederate monuments were erected in the Jim Crow era. Extending our scope to England and Belgium helps us to see the global reach of this project.

The history of racism and whiteness is not, of course, limited to these decades. As the timeline of statues itself suggests, it stretches both backwards and forwards in time: one group of US monuments belongs, significantly, to a period when white supremacy was reaffirming itself in the face of challenge, the 1950s and 1960s. Further patterns may be revealed as the current moment of protest unfolds itself, for there will surely soon be more to add to the list: two statues were pulled down during the writing of this piece. But the selections made by antiracists and others over the last few days suggests how much of what they intend to undo was done in the thirty years around 1900. The present moment flashes connections across contemporary space, as Black Lives Matter protests spread with incredible swiftness across the world – but also, as it confronts these monuments, casts its illumination backwards, deep into a global past. The ‘tidal wave of whiteness’ of those decades is laid bare, a century on, as it meets and clashes with another global ‘wave’ – the antiracist movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and affirming the worth of Black lives.

List of monuments pulled down or protested against

These are the monuments which I am aware of, which have been pulled down, had their removal announced, or seen major protests between 30 May and 9 June 2020, with the dates they were erected. This adds to the list of US monuments on Wikipedia.

J. E. B. Stuart Monument, Richmond, Virginia, currently scheduled for removal by the city. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Confederate Monument, Athens, Georgia, 1872
plans for removal announced by the city, 2 June

King Leopold II, Antwerp (Ekeren), Belgium, 1873
set on fire and covered in paint, 3 June; removed 9 June

Confederate soldier ‘Appomattox’, Alexandria, Virginia, 1889
removed by the city, 8 June

General Robert E. Lee, Richmond, Virginia, 1890
spray-painted, 30 May; under inspection for removal by the state, as of 8 June

General Williams Carter Wickham, Richmond, Virginia, 1891
pulled down by popular action, 6 June

Edward Colston, Bristol, England, 1895
pulled down and thrown into Bristol harbour by popular action, 7 June

Admiral Raphael Semmes, Mobile, Alabama, 1899
spray-painted, 1 June; removed by the city, 5 June

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Birmingham, Alabama, 1905
attempted removal by popular action, 1 June; taken down by the city, from 2 June

Confederate Monument, University of Mississippi (Oxford, Miss.) 1907
still standing; spray-painted, 30 May; University plans to move to Confederate Cemetery

General J. E. B. Stuart, Richmond, Virginia, 1907
still standing; city announced removal, 3 June

Jefferson Davis Monument, Richmond, Virginia, 1907
still standing; city announced removal, 3 June

Confederate Monument, Norfolk, Virginia, 1907
still standing; city announced removed, 2 June

General Robert E. Lee, Montgomery, Virginia, 1908
pulled down by popular action, 1 June

Confederate Monument, Bentonville, Arkansas, 1908
still standing; plans for removal announced during protests, 1 June

Cecil John Rhodes, Oxford, England, 1911
still standing; protest 9 June

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1912 (moved to more prominent site, 1928)
removed by the city, 8 June

John B. Castleman (Confederate officer), Louisville, Kentucky, 1913
removed by the city, 8 June

Nash County Confederate Monument, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1917
still standing; removal announced, 2 June

General Stonewall Jackson, Richmond, Virginia, 1919
removal announced by the city, 3 June

King Leopold II, Brussels, 1926
still standing; demonstration, 7 June

Edward W. Carmack, Nashville, Tennessee, 1927
pulled down by popular action, 30 May

Matthew Fontaine Maury (Confederate captain), Richmond, Virginia, 1929
still standing; removal announced by the city, 3 June

King Leopold II, Ghent, Belgium, 1955
still standing; covered in red paint, 2 June

Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, 1957
burned by popular action, 30 May

‘One Riot, One Ranger’ statue, Dallas Love Field Airport, Texas, 1962
removed by the city, 4 June

General Robert E. Lee (bust), Fort Myers, Florida, 1966
removed by Sons of Confederate Veterans, 1 June

Mayor Orville Hubbard, Dearborn, Michigan, 1989 (moved 2015)
removed by the city, 5 June

Police Chief and Mayor Frank Rizzo (mural), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1995
painted over by the city, 7 June

Police Chief and Mayor Frank Rizzo (statue), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1998
spray-painted and attempted removal by popular action, 30 May; removed by the city, 3 June

Sam Davis, Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, Tennessee, 1999
removal announced by school, 5 June

Captain Charles Linn, Birmingham, Alabama, 2013
pulled down by popular action, 1 June

The removal of statues is a rapidly developing popular movement; the information here is as far as we can tell accurate up to the morning of 10th June 2020.


Peter Hill is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in History at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. His research focusses on the Middle East during the long nineteenth century, within its comparative and global contexts. His first book, Utopia and Civilisation in the Arab Nahda, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. He has published articles in journals such as Past & Present, the Journal of Global History, and the Journal of Arabic Literature.

One Comment

  1. Very interesting. This pattern would arguably be replicated in relation to both Germany and Austria and therefore suggest a collective and competitive attempt to construct powerful nationalistic narratives in the period of great power rivalry, narratives that could be (literally) weaponised to legitimate the expansion and modernisation of these powers’ armed forces in the run-up to WW1. It was also a period where the vulnerability of formal empires was becoming more evident to imperial elites in both resistance struggles in the colonies, in the rising cost of repression and in the emergence of anti-imperial movements in Europe. My initial thought, however, was to underscore the vital importance of imperial myths for the shaping of the post-war order in countries like Britain and, most regrettably, in the anti-European discourse of Brexit-campaigners. There is a clear irony in the contrast between the international dimension of the “black lives matter” and “decolonising history” movements, and the regressive, nationalist populism that is poisoning international cooperation in Europe and elsewhere.

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