New Contested Histories research collaboration sparks a call for more

Grace Sahota Project Updates

This article was triggered by a new collaboration between the Contested Histories Initiative and students in ‘Narratives of the Past’ from France. Contested Histories is a multi-year project designed to identify principles, processes and best practices for addressing these contestations at the community or municipal level and in the classroom. As of September 2020, the project has identified more than 200 cases around the world with research conducted on more than 120 cases. Each case is catalogued in a database and added to a digital map. The long-term goal is to complete in-depth research on each case for review by experts, and create an online platform as a resource for a wide range of stakeholders.

Without research trainees and interns this feat would not be possible; collaborations with bright, motivated and dedicated students are the heart of the project. Research trainees come to the project from EuroClio’s traineeship programme, while research interns join us from associated universities. In addition, we welcome select independent researchers as interns and professional volunteers. 

Which research organisations are involved? 

Contested Histories (CH) is associated with a number of higher education institutions, namely Harvard University, University of Oxford and Erasmus University Rotterdam. Since 2017, more than 70 students--local and international--have taken on a research internship with CH and in doing so have made valuable contributions to the project. In December, we are welcoming an additional 22 students from the University of Oxford. This collaboration is integral to our project. Thanks to these engaged and bright young scholars, the project has grown enormously and has benefited from the various perspectives they bring. The diverse academic and personal backgrounds of research interns, as well as their language capabilities, are invaluable to our multidimensional and interdisciplinary approach to case study research and global mapping of cases. 

What are our researchers working on? 

Interns and the Contested Histories team participate in peer-review of completed cases, revising and updating where necessary, before a case is flagged for extended research and external review by experts in the given field. Several case studies have been published on EuroClio’s website. Launching the series of in-depth case studies in Spring 2020 was the Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, written by Lucas Tse. At the time of writing, Lucas, a Rhodes scholar, was pursuing a Master's of Philosophy in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford and is currently reading for a Doctorate in the same subject, also at Oxford. Additionally, the Legacy of Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore, written by Wan Yii Lee, was published in Summer 2020. Wan Yii Lee is a candidate for the Master's of Philosophy in Development at the University of Oxford. Since completing her research internship with Contested Histories, she has been combing through archives and tracking local building histories in Singapore for her thesis on the politics of the built environment during the development of the nation-state. She's excited to start the second and final year of the MPhil soon, during which she will be taking more courses on development economics and the politics of global health in Africa. Most recently, the case study on a Statue of Robert Towns in Queensland, Australia by Sebastian Rees, a recent Master's of Philosophy graduate in Global History, has been published.

Why get involved with the project? 

Joining the team of an international organisation presents a unique opportunity for young researchers. As an intern or trainee you will become part of a passionate and international team of a fast-growing initiative and receive individual support. Not only will you have the opportunity to build up your research portfolio, CV, and network, but you will also have relative freedom to choose topics or regions that are of personal or academic interest to you,  As a global study the scope is vast, giving you the added option of exploring new interests--ranging from legacies of Japanese imperialism to toppled confederate monuments in the United States--with original research and editing tasks. Additionally, we offer an online work environment with flexible hours, ideal for gaining experience while adhering to coronavirus restrictions.  

What do the interns have to say about their experience? 

A conversation with Pierce, co-author of the upcoming case study on murals in Belfast. 

What was your favorite aspect of your research internship with Contested Histories?

My favourite aspect of the research internship with Contested Histories was the freedom and trust given to us as budding researchers to explore pressing and sensitive topics. The atmosphere was hugely supportive, resulting in case studies that will hopefully give more exposure to these struggles around the world, and, moving forward, perhaps offer a more robust and nuanced framework as to how they may be handled. 

How has your experience helped your professional development? 

The experience has been highly beneficial to my professional development. Not only has it increased my confidence in my own writing and researching abilities, I also had the pleasure of meeting a network of energetic researchers and history professionals from whom I learned a lot.

How do you feel about getting your case study published?

It’s really an honour to have a case study published, particularly one so close to home for me. I’m very pleased to share the Belfast Murals case. As with every example of Contested History, it has its own unique set of circumstances, but it also concerns issues of history, sectarianism, economics and creativity that I believe are relevant to many other cases. I owe a lot to EuroClio, the IHJR and to Luke, the contributing author, who updated the piece.

Would you recommend doing an internship with Contested Histories? If so, why?

I would absolutely recommend an internship with Contested Histories. As we can see, these issues are not going away quietly, so to feel like you are contributing in some small way to how they may be handled constructively in the future is highly rewarding. In addition, the opportunity to work with a great team in a forward-thinking and thought-provoking environment was an invaluable learning experience.

Staying involved as a professional volunteer

Some students remain dedicated to the project even after their traineeship or internship has ended and continue as professional volunteers. 

“Whether in the context of the West reckoning with its colonial past or former Soviet states reconciling antagonistic historical narratives to recover or reaffirm their own distinct identities, history has increasingly served as a flashpoint for conflict over the past three decades. I chose to continue working on Contested Histories as I believe its contribution to the field of memory and security studies is invaluable and will shape dialogue around information warfare and geopolitical conflict in years to come. The project is driven by a dedicated team of internationally-based researchers who push me to challenge assumptions, continuously learn, and refine my skill set. It goes without saying – I couldn’t ask for better colleagues.” - Katria

My research internship with IHJR solidified my professional interest in historical memory and gave me the practical experience necessary to write my undergraduate thesis and pursue research positions in the field. I returned as a professional volunteer because of the supportive team and the opportunity to raise awareness about this relevant topic.” - Miranda

The passion and energy that display is truly humbling to our organisation, we are excited to see more and more people raising awareness about the complexities and consequences of public memory. 

Interested in joining the team? 

Are you a research organisation or university looking for new opportunities?

Are you a student or recent graduate with an eye on a future in research or an independent researcher looking for a new project? 

Then Contested Histories may be the perfect project for you. 

Internship applicants must: 

  • Be in the final stages of their undergraduate degree or be enrolled in a Master’s of PhD programme with outstanding academic achievement, preferably in the area of history, international relations, or related fields
  • Proven research and academic English writing and/or editing skills
  • Fluency in English, additional language comprehension is a plus
  • Willingness to commit a minimum of 5 hours per week for at least 3 months
  • Willingness to join virtual weekly team meetings
  • Some knowledge of WordPress and database management is an asset, not a must

Submit your CV, letter of motivation and names of 2 references to info@ihjr.org. Indicate also your availability to start, desired hours and duration of internship. 

Interested research organisations or universities should email info@ihjr.org for further information.

Contested Histories: Robert Towns’ Statue and his Blackbirding Legacy

Grace Sahota Articles ,

We are pleased to present the case on a statue of Robert Towns in Townsville, Australia, as part of a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces. This case comes amid global debate on historical statues and monuments, related to and inspired by this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and calls for a reckoning of Australia’s colonial history.

Townsville, in north Queensland, is home to a life-sized statue of its namesake Robert Towns. Unlike many of the cases catalogued by Contested Histories, this statue was erected in recent history--in 2004--with funds from the local council, in spite of instant controversy. Towns was a merchant entrepreneur and ‘blackbirder’, whose ship ‘Don Juan’ brought one of the earliest shiploads of South Sea Islanders from present-day Vanuatu to labour on his Queensland properties in 1863.

 

What is ‘blackbirding’?

‘Blackbirding’ refers to the kidnapping or luring of South Sea Islanders, mostly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, but it also included ‘recruiting’ from parts of New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji. Blackbirding occurred from 1863 until the early 1900s and saw more than 62,000 South Sea Islanders transported to Australia for labour in pastoral, sugar and maritime industries. 

There exists debate as to whether blackbirding can be likened to enslavement, and the (il)legality of the process by which South Sea Islanders were recruited for indentured labour. The Australian South Sea Islanders organisation (ASSI) notes that the degree of choice in recruitment does not negate the reality of exploitation, nor is the distinction between kidnapping and choice so simple. Professor Clive Moore, a leading researcher on South Sea Islander history at the University of Queensland, coined the term ‘cultural kidnapping’ to refer to the exploitation that many Islanders unknowingly signed up for. According to Moore, "whether you call them slaves or not, they [blackbirded Islanders] definitely worked in slave-like conditions. It was often horrific." 

 

Still standing

The statue of Towns remains despite controversy. While there have been calls for its removal, Emelda Davis, president of ASSI, argues instead that “there needs to be a greater understanding, a broader discussion”, that “the full truth needs to be told”. Removal, which has the potential to become erasure, is often a quick-fix which leaves the underlying cause of the dispute unconsidered and unresolved. In the case of Towns, simply removing his statue risks burying the legacy of his involvement in blackbirding. 

Engagement in discussion and the notion of ‘full truth’ is central to the work of Contested Histories. Contextualising disputed historical sites can balance and/or resignify narratives concerning historical figures and events to present multiple perspectives, including those that have been and perhaps remain enduringly under-represented, marginalised and oppressed. Moreover, additive elements can act as a means through which uncomfortable histories can be reflected upon and worked through for deeper, more nuanced understandings of the past and present. It is here that the educative potential of public spaces shines through, potential which may have otherwise been lost with hasty removal. 

For Towns, who signifies the white settler majority in Australia, the installation of a counter monument may present an effective remedy. The creation of a counter monument offers opportunities for dialogue, reflection and learning; a means to decentre the colonising gaze of Robert Towns and address intergenerational trauma from blackbirding. 

 

Image by denisbin titled “Statue of Robert Towns in central Townsville. The man after whom the city was named.” CC BY-NA 2.0.

 

Further readings

https://theconversation.com/australias-hidden-history-of-slavery-the-government-divides-to-conquer-86140  

http://www.assipj.com.au/southsea/wp-content/uploads/docs/02_blackbirding_kidnapping_and_slavery.pdf 

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/24/full-truth-needs-to-be-told-descendants-of-blackbirded-south-sea-islanders-want-memorials-amended

 

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College

Oliver Anthony Articles , , ,

When a protestor left a sign on the doors of Oxford’s University Church reading ‘Rhodes, You’re Next’, there was little doubt that the monumental Black Lives Matter movement, sweeping the world after the death of George Floyd, would next be turning its attention to the statue of the imperialist figure adorning Oriel College’s entrance arch. 

With the pulling down of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol only days earlier, a fresh series of protests, beginning on Tuesday 9th June, sought removal of the controversial monument of Cecil Rhodes, fuelled by the 19th century mining magnate’s association with colonialism and racism on multiple accounts.

On the 12th June, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, released an open letter that reached no binary view about Rhodes’ legacy, though did warn against “hiding our history and indicated little accord to the aims of the protestors. Her statement was also later criticised by fourteen dons at the University who wrote that it was “inappropriate” of Professor Richardson to “ventriloquise” the anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, by using his words to defend a colonial-era statue. (1)

Following Professor Richardson’s statement, significant headway was made within Oriel College’s Middle Common Room (MCR – graduate student body of Oriel College) in response to the renewed protests. On Sunday 14th June, numerous motions were passed in support of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, including 124 votes for and 62 votes against endorsement of the removal of Cecil Rhodes on the high street façade of Oriel College, with a further 143 votes for and 32 votes against preserving Rhodes’ statue in a museum/exhibition. (2) 

On Wednesday 17th June, the governing body of Oriel released a much-awaited statement, recommending the removal of the statue and the King Edward Street plaque (3). The report stated that an Independent Commission would be launched to  examine Rhodes’ legacy, chaired by Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College, and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund (4). It has more recently been announced that broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, former Conservative shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth, and Oriel College’s alumni advisory committee chairman Geoffrey Austin will also sit on the inquiry group (5). Alongside deliberating on the legacy of Rhodes, the commission will additionally consider improvements to BAME access and attendance at the College. A public notice is expected to be posted near to the statue, outlining how people are able to contribute their views, including both written and oral submissions, as well as further oral evidence public sessions to take place at a later date.

It will undoubtedly make for an interesting case to reflect upon as the Commission’s findings are published in January 2021, particularly since a similar consultation was organised by the College in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign initially called for the removal of the statue. In this earlier instance the Oriel’s governing body released a statement suggesting they were seeking information from the city council relating to the removal of objects of listed status (of which the Rhodes Statue is Grade II listed) (6). A six-month listening exercise was also set to take place but fell short of becoming fully realised, with some leaked documents to The Telegraph suggesting that this was in part because of threats made by College Alumni to withdraw funding equating to £100 million if the statue were to be removed (7)

Since the protests in June there have already been pledges to cover any withdrawn funds. Particularly notable is that of Oxford alumni, Husayn Kassai, founder of Onfido, who has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist donors pull”, further stating that, “All racist status and symbols belong in museums, where we can safeguard our history, in all its gore and glory” (8). While there are yet to be any reports of donors withdrawing support to Oriel, there is certainly the capacity for future disputes to arise from stakeholders less receptive of the statue’s removal.

The decision made by Oriel College to seek consultation to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been described by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a founder of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, as a “greatly vindicated” feeling (9). Although, as he further outlines, a successful outcome is only dependent upon the Commission’s decision to remove the statue, which, given the the earlier short-lived inquiry of 2015, is certainly not one which is inevitable. In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, the current inquiry’s Chair, Carole Seuter, said it “was not a forgone conclusion” that “Rhodes would fall”, adding that, “We acknowledge politely that the governing body has expressed a view but there wouldn't be any point at all setting up this sort of Commission if it was already a foregone conclusion” (10).

Oriel College’s recent statements have certainly not quietened protests. Further Black Lives Matter marches took place in Oxford on the 18th and 26th June, with sustained emphasis on Rhodes, further calls for the removal of a statue of slave owner Christopher Codrington at All Souls College and demands for decolonisation of the curriculum. Discussions of Oxford’s problematic past are clearly not diminishing, with organisations such as Uncomfortable Oxford dedicating tours, talks, and blogposts to the histories of inequality, discrimination, and imperialism throughout Oxford (11). Taking these movements as indicatory of unresolved points of contention, it is fair to say that campaigns for social justice in Oxford are only just beginning. In regard to the statue of Cecil Rhodes, it will be an interesting case to watch now that significant advances have been made with regards to its future legacy.

Monuments Matter: A Singaporean Solution

Miranda Richman Articles

We are pleased to present the case on The Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles and His Legacy as part of a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces.

Oftentimes, the Contested Histories Team encounters statues embroiled in conflict, which can result in destruction or removal of a monument. The public debates over images of Cecil Rhodes or the watery ending that met the Colston statue in Bristol, England are two memorable examples. In stark contrast, the case of the Sir Stamford Raffles statue in Singapore presents an absence of contestation that offers an innovative way to simultaneously preserve and contextualize history in the public space. Despite its associations with colonialism, the Raffles statue attracts very little controversy. This case study provides a unique opportunity to examine the role of States in shaping narratives and underscores the positive power of public space to spark thoughtful dialogue.

The white polymarble statue of Raffles occupies a very public and central location, along the banks of the Singapore River where Raffles allegedly stepped ashore in 1819. Thousands of tourists pass by the statue daily where it stands against a backdrop of the sleek Singapore skyline. The statue was intentionally installed in this iconic spot for the 1919 Centennial celebration of Singapore’s founding. Today’s statue is a 1972 replica of the bronze original, with a plaque that celebrates Raffles’ ‘genius and perception [that] changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis’. This complimentary and curated historical narrative, which paints the colonial period as ‘ineffectual’ rather than cruel, helped facilitate Singapore’s transition into independent statehood.

Modern Singaporean history begins with Sir Stamford Raffles; his arrival to the Southeast Asian city state brought Singapore under the British Imperial umbrella in 1819. Today, Singapore openly acknowledges both the benefits and detriments of its colonial legacy, celebrating its independence from colonialism while also attributing modern Singaporean institutions, like the rule of law, to British influence. This 1819 origin story was not an accident; Singaporean officials deliberately centered Raffles at the beginning of Singapore’s modern history. As the country embraced independence in 1959, public officials sought to craft a historical origin story that achieved two goals. First, they did not want to elevate any single ethnic group over the others. Although British colonial structures reinforced racial stereotypes in Singapore in many ways, pinning modern Singapore’s inception on Raffles’ arrival allowed the state to celebrate the diversification and globalization of Singaporean society. Officials also wanted to send the message that Singapore was still open for business. Investors were wary of the new socialist republic, and Singapore wanted to emphasize its connection to the past in order to reinforce relationships moving into the future. Thus, Raffles became a household name in Singapore and 1819 became a date to remember in history class.

Singapore decided to use the 2019 Bicentennial as an opportunity to revisit the Raffles statue in a new, contextualized way. A committee of government ministers, an advisory panel composed of civilians, and over 300 partner organizations contributed to planning the Bicentennial event. As a teaser for the upcoming celebration, artists painted the front side of the Raffles statue a dark gray so that when onlookers observed the statue head-on, it blended into the industrial steel building behind it. Raffles being indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape was meant to spark reflection and broaden people’s understanding of Singaporean history beyond the role of a single man. Once the Bicentennial truly got underway, officials added 4 additional statues beside Raffles, each honoring a key historical figure in Singapore. Together the 5 statues are meant to represent the multiculturalism behind Singapore’s founding and reflect the diversity of modern Singaporean society. Free exhibitions exploring Singapore’s history and the colonial period also called on the public to ask questions and consider a deeper understanding of Singapore’s origins. One exhibition helped visitors explore Singapore’s pre-1819 history, starting at 1299. The second exhibition offered a multidimensional analysis of Raffles, investigating the authenticity of his historical contributions while also acknowledging his imperialist role. Some wished the exhibition had done more to critically frame Raffles within Singapore’s history.

However, this use of public art and public space created access for Singaporeans to reflect on the 200 years of history since Raffles’ landing. Singaporean officials chose to contextualize Raffles by adding monuments to the public space that commemorated the achievements of other local communities. By visually transforming the Raffles statue to make a familiar monument unfamiliar, it became dynamic. Officials leveraged the public space to elicit curiosity about Raffles’ role in history and challenged passersby to take a second look. The Singapore case provides a unique opportunity to explore the absence of contestation and the active role that the state can play in narrative formation, contextualization, and public debate.

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

The Contested Histories Project: A response to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities’ open letter on symbols in public spaces

A statue of King Leopold II of Belgium was set alight and covered in red paint. Antwerp, 4 June 2020.

Whether in the context of the West reckoning with its colonial past or former Soviet states reconciling antagonistic historical narratives to recover or reaffirm their own distinct identities, over the past three decades, contested histories have increasingly served as a flashpoint for conflict. 

Last Friday, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities issued a letter on symbols in public spaces to Ambassadors of 57 OSCE Participating States that underscores the importance of respecting the ways individuals relate themselves to history when attempting to resolve contestations around historical legacies. The institution of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities is an instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage. Its mandate involves containing and de-escalating tensions involving national minorities by providing early warning and early action where a situation has the potential to turn into a conflict.

The Grandstand, Budapest. A replica of the tribune serves as the pedestal for the 8-meter-tall bronze statue of Soviet party secretary, head of state, and general Stalin. A crowd revolting against the communist regime sawed the statue at its knees and pulled it down. The General’s boots remain as a reminder.

In this letter, the High Commissioner highlighted his own experience engaging with groups throughout the OSCE region where opposing perceptions of history and their tangible, public representations have led to instability. It is understood that differing interpretations of historical legacies can exacerbate internal tensions and that the exploitation of memory can have geopolitical implications, spurring the involvement of kin-states in domestic issues of sovereign states. To contribute to greater societal cohesiveness and transnational security, the HCNM supports the establishment of consultative processes with clear mandates that include representatives from aggrieved groups.

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation’s Contested Histories project understands that, in almost all cases, calls for the removal of statues, renaming of streets, and reframing of school or university curricula, are symptomatic of deeper divisions within societies. Confronted with public protests and social media campaigns, decision-makers often respond in haste, out of panic, and without the benefit of established principles, processes, or best practices. This results in inadequate, ineffective, or arbitrary remedies with unintended long-term consequences, including but not limited to ‘whitewashing’, i.e., purposeful public forgetting of traumatic events and contentious figures, through erasure (destruction or removal). This failure to engage society in critical discourse about historical traumas can fuel further conflict. 

In recent articles published by EuroClio, Le Monde, and Novoye Vremya, the Contested Histories team presented possible solutions for such contestations over monuments, among them remedies that facilitate important educational discussions and contribute to raising awareness of historical wrongdoings. Placarding, additive elements, and counter monuments are just a few examples of remedies that can serve to contextualize historical legacies and foster debate and discussion. Removal and destruction are underscored as tools of last resort reserved for extreme cases. The CH team stands firmly behind the idea that erasure of scars on a community’s landscape alone cannot conceal or heal the influence of ones on the public’s psyche.

Read the full text of the High Commissioner’s Open letter on symbols in public spaces here.

 

 

A statue of Edward Colston thrown into Bristol Harbor, UK. 7 June 2020.

About the Contested Histories project

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation is a research center at EuroClio that works in cooperation with a range of public, private, and independent institutions.

The Contested Histories project seeks to identify, document, and examine cases of contestation around the world with the goal of identifying a set of principles, processes, and best practices that inform decision making. To this end, the IHJR has identified and conducted research on more than a hundred cases in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. At present, an interactive web platform that will host a digital map and related database is under construction and will soon be accessible to a wide range of stakeholders. Although each case is unique and underlying causes are context-specific, the CH team is confident that the aggregated materials will (a) provide insights that facilitate better-informed decision making in response to future contestations and (b) serve as a resource for educators interested in examining multi-perspective approaches to history education.

Follow the work of the Contested Histories project here

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, an iconic case to launch Contested Histories Series

Grace Sahota Articles , , ,

We are pleased to present the case on The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford as the first in a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces.

Rhodes at Oxford is an iconic case in our catalogue of more than 160 cases globally. It relates to the #RhodesMustFall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and saw a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes defaced and removed from the campus in 2015. The movement has since spread to the University of Oxford, UK, where Rhodes’ legacy remains an unresolved point of contention. Rhodes, who received an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University in 1899, was a principal figure in the diamond mining industry in South Africa, frequently divided public opinion–both in his own time and today–for his racist views and imperialist morals.

(Photo credit: John Merrington, 9/6/2020 Oxford protests)

His legacy is most visible at his erstwhile college, Oriel, where a statue to his honour decorates the building on High Street. Additionally, the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and Rhodes House, where the scholarship is administered, also bear his name. Rhodes also acted as a benefactor to the University of Oxford, leaving £100,000 to the College in his will.

Movements that call for the removal of objects such as statues, often referred to as fallist movements, use the object as a symbol to raise awareness of historical injustices and campaign more broadly for social justice. The RMFOxford movement is “determined to decolonise the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford”, stating that “statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important.” The movement garnered national media attention and led to heated discussions over historical revisionism and the erasure of history, the complexity of historical figures and embedded racism and colonial legacies in UK society.

Most recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US and across Europe has stimulated momentum for many disputed statues and monuments that pay homage to historical figures associated with colonialism, imperialism and slavery, and which symbolise systemic racism. Rhodes at Oxford is no exception. After the statue of Bristolian slave trader Edward Colston was toppled by protestors, dragged through the streets and dumped in the harbour on Sunday June 7th, a sign was taped to the doors of Oriel College, warning: “Rhodes, you’re next”.

(Photo credit: John Merrington)

Protests were held at Oriel on Tuesday June 9th (pictured above), calling (again) for the removal of Rhodes. Despite claiming to be “deeply committed to equality”, Oriel’s Governing Body remains evasive, stating that they “continue to debate and discuss the issues raised” by the continued presence of Rhodes’ imposing legacy. Meanwhile the chancellor of the University accused student protestors who receive the Rhodes Scholarship of a “bit of hypocrisy”.

Additionally, similar discussions over various colonial and slavery related legacies at higher education institutions and in wider public spaces in the UK have been held in recent years. For example, the legacy of eugenicist Francis Galton at University College London, and inquiries into historical links to slavery at the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge have garnered media attention. The movement is also present in the United States with legacies of benefactors and historical figures connected with Yale, Harvard and Stanford coming under consideration. Similar fallist movements have also been launched, for example GandhiMustFall at the University of Ghana, LeopoldMustFall in Belgium, and FaidherbeMustFall in France, as well as movements calling for street names to be changed, for example those referencing slave traders in Le Havre, France, Glasgow, Scotland, and Liverpool, England. 

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

Photo credit cover image: Christopher Hilton, Statue of Cecil Rhodes, High Street frontage of Oriel College, Oxford, CC BY-SA 2.0

Who will deal with the real issues once the statues are out of sight?

EuroClio Articles ,

This week, activists in Europe and the United States attacked statues of historical figures because they are seen as colonialists, imperialists, slave-traders, and racists. Will these symbolic acts result in the structural and systematic changes that are needed? 

Steven Stegers, Marie-Louise Ryback-Jansen, 10 June 2020, The Hague/Berlin

A monumental movement is sweeping the world. Sparked by the death of George Floyd and propelled by widespread public outrage at systemic racism and police brutality, statues that blended into the scenery for the average person have been vandalized, toppled, stomped on, and – in the case of Bristol's Colston statue – dragged through the streets and dumped into the harbor. These acts appear to have brought years of debate about these statues to an abrupt conclusion – they must fall. But is this the most effective measure to achieve the aims protesters are seeking?

Soon after the removal of Colston, a protester left a sign on the doors of Oxford’s Oriel College that read "Rhodes, You're Next". Thousands of protesters are demanding its fall as we write this piece. In Virginia, we witnessed the statue of Columbus set alight and thrown into a lake. The transnational nature and broad applicability of the movement’s message are clear. Related protests have touched numerous countries with a history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism – Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, James Cook in Australia, Leopold II in Belgium, Columbus in Argentina, and Confederate monuments in the United States, to name just a few. 

Many of these figures glorified in stone were heralded for their heroic actions, philanthropy, or other accomplishments without acknowledgment of the human rights violations committed in achieving these deeds. Erected to honour the conquests and wealth that brought their countries and themselves fame, the injustices these “heroes” committed remained for most of their tenure camouflaged, but not for everyone. For many, these statues symbolize the deep systemic and structural inequalities rooted in historical legacies of slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism. 

Of all the measures that can be taken to protest controversial statues, removal and destruction are the most extreme. There are in situ remedies that facilitate important educational discussions and contribute to awareness raising of historical wrongdoings. Placarding, additive elements, or counter monuments can serve to contextualize historical legacies, fostering debate and discussion. The statue of Josephine Bonaparte in Martinique, erected in 1859 to honour the French empress in her native land, has been decapitated several times over the last decades for her alleged actions to convince Napoleon to re-instate slavery. She now remains headless and splattered with red paint as a symbol of  France’s culpability in the slave-trade. In 1956, during a revolution in Hungary, 100,000+ protesters destroyed a famous statue of Joseph Stalin, leaving only his giant boots. A monument to these empty boots now stands in the Memento Statue Park in Budapest as a reminder of Soviet occupation. In Paraguay, a statue of Alfredo Stroessner, whose vicious reign of terror lasted from 1954 to 1989, has been crushed into a huge block, face and hands visible, in the place where the original once stood as a reminder of the crimes he committed. Additional remedies include moving statues to museums and including protest signs, images, and videos for display in an exhibition. 

Such measures, however, may not feel sufficient for those outraged by extrajudicial killing, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people. What is the destruction of stone when compared to destruction of life? The removal of a statue may appear to be the only act that does justice to the severity of the situation. 

There are also those not part of the movement who have chosen to remove statues preemptively. Violating Alabama state law intended to protect memorials, the cities of Mobile and Birmingham have taken down Confederate monuments. The University of Alabama has removed plaques honoring students who served in the Confederate Army and released a statement saying they “will be placed at a more appropriate historical setting”. In Virginia, the removal of a slave auction block and the infamous Robert E. Lee in Richmond is underway. 

Other policy-makers have chosen not to make ad-hoc decisions and opted for research and consultations on how to deal with contentious monuments. We applaud Mayor Sadiq Khan in London and the authorities in England, Scotland, and Wales who decided to form commissions to appraise monuments in their cities or regions. A consultative process with a clear mandate that includes representatives from aggrieved groups can contribute to greater social cohesiveness.

In the long-term, the question remains: what does the removal or erasure of a statue or monument accomplish? It does not alleviate the underlying grievances dividing a society. Without structural changes in justice, policing, social, and educational systems, removal will be a Pyrrhic victory, a purely symbolic act. When the statue is gone, how will we remind the public of past injustices and the connected, pervasive issues that remain? In contrast to the statues that were partially removed, there is nothing to remind people who visit the University of Cape Town of the issues raised by the #RhodesMustFall movement. Whenever a statue is removed, the question should be asked, what should be put in its place? 

There are more than 80 cases in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas of contested histories related to the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and racism and an equal number that deal with the legacies of fascism, communism, genocide, human rights violations, sectarian violence, and authoritarian regimes.

Those who suffered from egregious wrongs and their descendants are calling for restorative justice. When their voices remain unheard, they will protest and direct their pain towards the symbolic representations of their trauma – the figures we have placed on pedestals. The fact that these protesters were joined by allies outside their communities this week, gives hope that more sustainable change can be achieved.

Educators, civil society activists, and community leaders each have a responsibility to raise awareness and facilitate open discussion and public debate about contested historical legacies. We, as educators, know that history is not confined to classrooms. Current events provide us with a valuable opportunity to show our students that history and the way we choose to remember it is not about memorizing dates and names, rather it is an evolving process that impacts our lives in ways that truly matter. Failing to teach the past in a multiperspective and inclusive manner will contribute to the silencing of invaluable voices, foment unrest, and leave marginalized members of the public feeling their only recourse is to remove tangible manifestations of whitewashed history. We cannot continue on in this way. 

 

About the authors

Marie-Louise Ryback Jansen, Director, Contested Histories Project, Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation 

Steven Stegers, Executive Director of EuroClio, the European Association of History Educators

 

Acknowledgements

This piece was written with contributions of the staff (Andreas Holtberget, Alice Modena, and Catherine Savitsky) and the team working on the Contested Histories project (Lorraine Besnier, Catalina Gaete, Grace Sahota and Katria Tomko).

Photo credit: Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Copyright free images that may be useful:


The headless statue of Josephine Bonaparte in Fort-de-France, Martinique. (Terrazo, CC BY 2.0)


Stalin’s boots in Memento Park, Budapest Hungary (Ben, CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

Monuments Matter: A comment on Bristol

Marie-Louise Jansen Articles ,

Yesterday, protestors in the English port city of Bristol toppled a statue of an 18th Century slave- trader, dragged the life-size bronze through the streets, and heaved it over a stone embankment into the Bristol harbour. Hundreds of Bristol residents looked on and cheered. (See appended link). The statue’s unauthorized removal and disposal appeared to resolve a decades-long debate over Edward Colston, a slave trader and local benefactor, whose name and image are honored throughout the city, including by a statue on central square. "Well that put an end to the debate (unless someone tries to put it back up),” someone observed on Twitter Sunday afternoon. “Slave trader Edward Colston statue taken down in #Bristol #BlackLivesMattters".

The Colston statue “removal” is the most dramatic turn in a series of incidents that have found statues at the center of mass protests over the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by police in Minnesota. Last Saturday, protesters placed a noose around the neck of a statue of a Confederate general and toppled it from its plinth in a park in Richmond, Virginia. A few days earlier, a statue of Philadelphia’s former mayor and police chief, Frank Rizzo, an avowed racist, was removed by the city when the statue became the focus of mass protests, as reported on this blog.

As one of Bristol’s leading slave traders and most generous benefactors, Edward Colston is omnipresent in this southwestern port city. Statues, schools, parks, streets and even pastries bear his name. The main cathedral has a large stained-glass window commemorating Colston, and each year November 13 is celebrated as “Colston Day.” At Colston's Girls' School, the pupils wear “Colston's flower” (chrysanthemum), and during the school ceremony read passages of his will while hearing a sermon on the good Samaritan. They were never told about the 85,000 people enslaved on Royal African Company ships while he was involved with the company.

Bristol’s confrontation with the Edward Colston legacy dates to 1921 when a biography written by Rev Wilkes questioned Bristol’s “cult of Colston”, detailing Colston’s involvement in slavery. It took another 70 years for the controversy to come to broader public attention. In 1998 an activist scrawled the words 'Slave Trader' on the statue's base, and the protest movement became more vocal. In 2015, a new civil society campaign, Countering Colston, was formed, carrying out historical research, cataloguing the various Colston memorializations in the city and publicizing findings in the local press. Countering Colston also lobbied to have the name erased from Colston Hall, the city’s primary music venue, and Colston Primary School.

In 2007 when Nelson Mandela was invited to Bristol to commemorate the bicentennial of the act abolishing the slave trade in Bristol, local activists wrote to the South African president cautioning him that “Bristol is not quite the liberal, multi-racial place it pretends to be”. Mandela declined the invitation. That same year, the BBC reported that the popular Bristol rock band, Massive Attack refused to perform at Colston Hall, where stars like The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and others have performed.

Marti Burgess, a Countering Colston activist, and a former trustee of Colston Hall, was instrumental in persuading the board to change the name of the Hall. In April 2017, the trustees voted to rename the venue as part of the refurbishment for its 150th anniversary in 2020. Two petitions circulated opposing the renaming, each gathering circa 5000 names. Dr Joanna Burch-Brown from the University of Bristol, an active member of Countering Colston, analyzed the social media responses, as well as the hundreds of letters submitted to the local press. “Letter-writers argued that removing Colston’s name from Colston Hall amounted to erasing history,” Burch-Brown wrote, summarizing a wide range of arguments, “sanitizing the past, destroying heritage, doing injustice to a great Bristolian, pandering to a politically correct minority, removing decisions about Bristolian heritage from Bristolian hands, ignoring the fact that white people too have been exploited and enslaved, indulging a ‘snowflake’ victim mentality, ignoring more important contemporary issues like ‘modern day slavery’ and FGM, and unfairly blaming British people for slavery when it was Africans who enslaved fellow Africans in the first place.” Burch-Brown cites letter-writers who called the renaming Colston Hall ‘a fascist, Stalinesque and Orwellian rewriting of history.’” 1

The movement was also successful in bringing name change to Colston’s Primary School, which, over a three-month period, held an awareness-raising campaign with the school community, after which they voted to rename the school. Unlike the response to the renaming of Colston Hall, the press reported little negative reaction, due perhaps to the consultative process undertaken by the school administrators. In spring 2018, the new lord mayor of Bristol, Cleo Lake, an activist with Countering Colston, ordered Colston’s portrait removed from her office. “I won’t be comfortable sharing it with the portrait of Colston,” Lake told the press. “As part of my role in campaigning with the Countering Colston team, I also think it’s fitting that I don’t share this office with the portrait.”

Deliberations were also underway for the disposition of the Colston statue until last Sunday when Bristol residents took matters into the their own hands. The city must now decide whether to leave Colston at the bottom of the river, fish the statue out and find it a new home, or “put it back up,” as the Sunday tweet observed, and let the debate go on.

1 Joanna Burch-Brown, “Is it Wrong to Topple Statues& Rename Schools? Journal of Political Theory and Philosophy, 2017 Vol 1: 72-73.

Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams (CC BY 2.0)

Marie-Louise Jansen
Director
Project on Contested Histories in Public Spaces

 

Interested in further exploring the topic of contested monuments? EuroClio has published a source collection that offers various examples from across Europe of controversial monuments and of monuments that represent/commemorate controversial history.