Taking Down Statues Does Not Cause us to Forget History

In American jurisprudence, the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ is the principle that evidence which has been acquired unlawfully, regardless of how valuable, cannot be used in court. The original sin taints everything that comes from it. This is a helpful metaphor for how to consider Edward Colston. As many have recently learnt, he was a noted philanthropist, whose money has done, and continues to do, much good. All of this good, however, unequivocally comes from the heinous sin of slavery. It is irrevocably tainted.
Attempts to qualify Colston’s legacy, such as through a plaque acknowledging his culpability in the slave trade, came to nought. The democratic means of clarifying history and recognising wrong failed, in no small part due to the intervention of societies like the ‘Merchant Venturers’, who were inexcusably determined to ensure that the people of Bristol were left ignorant of Colston’s history as a slaver. Dragging him from his plinth and dumping him in the river was no more than he-  and his modern-day defenders – deserved.
Statues are not mere decorations, pleasant distractions from the monotony of the high street. Nor are they a record of our history – indeed, as Robert Saunders has noted, they curate it. They demonstrate our values and principles as a society. It is no little thing to fund and commission a statue – who we carve in marble is as revealing as who we do not. Cecil Rhodes looms over Oxford High Street, his presence there dictated by the terms of his bequest. Much like Colston, this bequest – and all the other creditable causes that Rhodes funded and founded – was gained inhumanely, through oppression and brutality. That Rhodes Scholarships are now awarded to black students from Africa does not absolve Rhodes of the pain and suffering that he inflicted upon the African peoples.
Colston’s dunking in Bristol Harbour has reinvigorated calls for other statues to be de-plinthed, as a way of our modern society atoning for the sins of our forefathers. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign has resurged, with the netting intended to protect Rhodes from desecration from pigeons now serving to protect him from the even greater ignominy of crashing to Oxford’s High Street.
Read more: Nicholas Reed Langen, Justice Gap,

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