One of the more perplexing arguments made in recent days is that toppling, relocating or removing old statues amounts to the erasure of history. It is in fact the very opposite: it is history. To seek a fuller understanding of the past is not wrecking, but restoring, salvaging and deepening history.
History is not just a set of facts but a series of questions, a mode of inquiry that seeks to comprehend and put flesh on dates, events and places, to understand and include all possible perspectives, all while knowing that, until about 50 years ago, history was almost solely written by white men, about white men. This history was comprised of flawed, incomplete and often deceptive stories that not only excluded vital records, but were frequently used for propaganda purposes, and the buffering of myths like: all war is good, mighty and noble, if somewhat sad; the expansion of empire was jolly impressive; all important people sat in parliament or courts; and women and non-white people have not done particularly much of note for millennia.
Why do people panic when this is pointed out? How could a modern prime minister baldly state “there was no slavery in Australia”? When tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were kidnapped or coerced to work as slave labourers on cotton and sugar plantations here, a practice known as “blackbirding”? And First Nations people were forced to work unpaid on cattle stations, kept, wrote the chief protector in the Northern Territory in 1927, “in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery”?
These are not debates, but facts. We don’t get to choose whether or not this happened; but we do get to choose whether or not we deny it. Or see it as somehow not significant.
The Prime Minister later apologised, saying: “My comments were not intended to give offence and if they did I deeply regret that and apologise for that. This is not about getting into the history wars.”
But the recent, ferocious challenging of public forms of history, I have to admit, has thrilled this historian’s heart. I don’t agree with all conclusions, and think a better understanding of context and acceptance of human limitation might temper some of our harsher judgments of remarkable but flawed figures, but overall, the revision is crucial.
What has happened to statues – rolled into harbours, set aflame on their plinths, defaced with graffiti, hung with signs – is merely the visible form of what historians, buried in archives, wrestling with raw material, have been quietly doing to the myths of the past for decades, uncovering and tapping into computers – documenting a more complete account. The time for a public reckoning with the ongoing legacy of slavery, the horrors of colonial expansion, and the fact that we have not considered violence against people of colour, or women, to be of particular note, has come. Consider this fact: from 1870 to 1914, Europe went from having control of 10 per cent of Africa to 90. The horrors of those years are well known: loss of life, the brutal imposition of control, the plundering of resources: gold, diamonds, ivory.
Which brings me to King Leopold II of Belgium, whose statue was set on fire then tipped over in Antwerp. This bloke was responsible for some of the greatest human rights abuses in history. Over the time he spent ruthlessly exploiting its ivory and rubber, when he somehow bought his way to become its “sovereign” – from 1865 to 1909 – the population of the Congo went from approximately 20 million to about 10 million. The first time the term “crimes against humanity” was used was for him. He forced local populations to work for him, regularly amputating hands as punishment and killed those who failed to meet his deadlines or pay the taxes that caused much starvation. Leopold II – who was Queen Victoria’s cousin – was also just gross. He was a paedophile who paid £800 a month to have a steady stream of British virgins delivered to his abode in Belgium, having made clear his preference for young girls aged 10 to 15. When he was 67, he impregnated a teenage sex worker. He was so loathed by the end of his life that Belgians booed his funeral procession.
So why does this matter? Because the “history” that was long taught to Belgian children was that of a great conquerer. A “Great Forgetting” occurred, and he was touted as the “Builder King” for his investment in public works. History, in other words, was erased. Now it is being restored. His statues have been vandalised for years. (Though even today Belgian Prince Laurent said in Leopold II’s defence: “He never went to the Congo. I don’t see how he could have made people suffer on the ground.” His mercenaries did though.) It was also gratifying to see that, after having promised to do so in 2017, yesterday the West Australian government said they (still) planned to rename the King Leopold Ranges that stretch along the Kimberley, in consultation with traditional owners.
We need to stop thinking about history as a kind of binary “positive” or “negative”, as either nice or bad, but as something that reflects all of the wild chaos, dark violence, and glorious triumphs of humanity; the story of all of us. Have we even moved on from the denialism of the “black armband” years? And if we don’t accept the truth of history, can we ever move forward, and seriously address the gnawing, enduring racial inequality in this country?
This reckoning also gives us a chance to be creative in our telling of history, as seen in the previous reworking of art acclaiming communists, eugenicists, fascists and dictators. As pointed out by ABC reporter Siobhan Heanue, after the statue of Emperor Augustus was captured by the Kushites it was decapitated and the head was buried under the steps of a new temple; all who climbed them were trampling it into the dust. The poetry is delicious.
The Australian Catholic University’s Associate Professor Nick Carter pointed out some others: a frieze that honours Mussolini in Bolzano, Italy, overlaid with Hannah Arendt’s words: “Nobody has the right to obey.” This forces us to remember, and reflect on how we remember. He also points to the work of artist Karyn Olivier who reworked African American and Native American figures in a 1934 University of Kentucky mural, and made a new one placing them in the centre.
We could remove statues from plinths and place them at our height, or lower. We could place other figures around them, of the slaves they traded or controlled; show the massacres, the conflicts, the long hidden stories. We could create virtual reality resets, where you might look at a monument and its surrounds through the eyes of a slave, or soldier, a worker, or a maid. We could collect offensive statues and cluster them in museums where their stories would be fully told from myriad perspectives. Or we could grind them to dust and mix them with concrete, placing them on paths we walk on to a place, a country, where we not only accept the truth, but welcome it.
Julia Baird is a presenter on The Drum on ABC-TV and the author of Victoria: The Queen, an Intimate Biography of a Woman Who Ruled an Empire.