A student beats the statue of Cecil John Rhodes with a belt as it is removed from UCT. Born-frees want radical transformation now, says the writer. File picture: Mike Hutchings
A student beats the statue of Cecil John Rhodes with a belt as it is removed from UCT. Born-frees want radical transformation now, says the writer. File picture: Mike Hutchings

Around the world statues topple

By Donal P. McCracken Time of article published Apr 12, 2015

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That colonial statuary has not been the target of attack or condemnation before now is surprising, for such reactions are not confined to South Africa, writes Donal P McCracken.

One of the iconic images of the Second Gulf War is Robert Nicelsberg’s photograph of the dramatic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 9 April 2003.

Twelve years later it would appear some students at the Universities of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal would like to see similar fates for the statues of Cecil John Rhodes and King George V.

Both of these statues have two things in common: both were rulers of all or part of South Africa. Rhodes was premier of the Cape from 1890 until 1896.

George V was the formal and ceremonial head of state of the Union of South Africa from 1910 until his death in 1936.

Rhodes, who has already been metaphorically toppled by the pens of several historians, lived in South Africa, whereas George V never visited while he was monarch.

Critically speaking, South Africa has some very fine examples of statuary from the pre-1910 era: the human and equine South African War statue in Port Elizabeth and the Dick King statue on Durban’s esplanade are cases in point.

Some have mysteriously disappeared like the one of the Irish revolutionary Robert Emmett which used to stand in Uitenhage.

The statue of Queen Victoria in central Durban, apparently one of the dozens of 1897 ‘jubilee statues’ scattered across the Commonwealth, is in fact unique.

It represents the monarch as she was when she became queen at the age of 18, rather than as she was at the age of her Diamond Jubilee (of which you can still see footage on YouTube, incidentally).

That some of this colonial statuary has not been the target of attack or condemnation before now is surprising, for such reactions are not confined to South Africa, and are especially likely in any immediate post-revolutionary period.

In Delhi following independence a large number of colonial statues were removed from their prominent positions around the Indian capital and placed all together in a park, as a kind of statue graveyard.

Sometimes by various means they found their way ‘home’ to Britain or Ireland.

The statue of General John Nicholson (the controversial Nikkol Sein) stands today in the grounds of his old school at Dungannon.

From Lahore the statue of Sir John Lawrence (pen in one hand and sword in the other) was taken to the city of Derry where it looks over the grounds of Foyle and Londonderry College.

But in Ireland a number of pieces of colonial statuary were blown up by the IRA during the 20th century. In Dublin, these included statues of King William III, General Gough and Admiral Nelson (the statues of kings George I and George II were sold off).

Attempts to blow up the Wellington memorial were unsuccessful as the structure of Wicklow granite solidly defied the new order – but then the iron duke was Irish himself. In the Irish university world, though, there was nothing so ostentatious as explosives or even a brush with paint. The statue of Queen Victoria in the grounds of the University College Cork was buried in 1934.

Another statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Irish parliament was finally removed to the grounds of the old Kilmainham hospital in 1948, to be replaced by 64 car parking spaces. But the ‘ould’ queen was not finished yet; in 1987 the statue was sold to the state government and transported, like so many Irish people during her reign, to Sydney, Australia. Meanwhile the buried Victoria statue in Cork was dug up in 1995, unharmed after 60 years in its grave and now graces the senior common room in the university.

Time can temper zeal.

To some, statues are symbols of the old order, symbolic of repression and all that they hate. But others view such attacks as triumphalist and an attempt to airbrush away their historical heritage.

George V’s statue in Durban cannot but be viewed for good or ill as symbolic of the White English-speaking Liberal tradition. Some countries have viewed the past with more philosophical eyes – Raffles’ statute stand resplendent still in central Singapore, carefully preserved and maintained.

What this recent South African statue saga shows to us is the need to confront our history in as honest and detached a manner as possible.

Recently a Roman statue was found in an English river. No one now cares why someone threw it into the torrent 2000 years ago. But we do care about finding out who the statue represented and why he or she was so commemorated.

The plastering of white paint over the statue of George V brings to my mind some words that that same king said in another country in 1921. These are perhaps as relevant to us today as they were 94 years ago:

“I speak from a full heart when… I appeal to (you) all ... to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill”.

* McCracken is Acting Dean of the School of Arts and senior professor of History at University of KwaZulu-Natal.

** The views expressed here are not necesarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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