Destruction is not the route to reconciliation
ATHENA—WHO takes a close interest in such things—was disturbed, a couple of decades ago, to learn that some clever historians were proposing that monuments and memorials actually help people to forget rather than remember. She concedes this much: when the stone is in place, we are better able to ‘move on’. This doesn’t mean forgetting, however—rather, it involves controlling and focusing memory and grief. It’s a point that deserves more attention and exploration in the light of recent events at Oxford.
This is a city especially rich in public memorials. Some, such as the Martyrs’ Memorial, commemorating the Anglican bishops burnt at the stake under Queen Mary, still attract floral offerings. Others, including the inscription revealing that King John was born at the west end of Beaumont Street, are not much noticed.
It is generally to this latter category that statues of benefactors belong. They’re seldom erected on building façades out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude, more as a legal or moral obligation or out of a sense of propriety. In due course, such statues, good or bad, and the complex rhetoric embodied not only in the wording, but also in the lettering and the architectural framework, become part of our history.
Athena was pleased, therefore, that one such—the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College in Oxford—will be allowed to remain. She acknowledges that the controversy has done something to promote historical awareness. Furthermore, she has sympathy for the disquiet that some monuments may cause and wouldn’t wish to deny that there are deeply distasteful aspects to the imperial enterprise that made Rhodes so famous and so wealthy. However, campaigns to demolish this and other commemorative sculptures misconceive their object.
In Britain we haven’t often relocated statues (at least, not for political reasons) and still less often have we smashed them (even the equestrian Charles I survived the Commonwealth). Inscriptions, however, have been subject to major revision. That on the pedestal of the Monument to the Great Fire of London alleging that the fire was caused by Roman Catholics is an interesting case of addition and deletion.
The addition of the words ‘patriotism is not enough’ to Edith Cavell’s memorial in Saint Martin’s Place was an especially effective and indeed eloquent intervention that completely altered the original purpose, but, at the same time, matched the noble resolve of the statue.
Athena suggests that thought might be given to further inscriptions at Oriel (although not necessarily on the street front, where there is no room). One of these might explain the nature of the debt to Rhodes and another could provide an account of the price that Africans had to pay. This would be good for our historical awareness. And it need not be in Latin.
‘The controversy over Rhodes has promoted historical awareness