Hirsch’s column: must Nelson fall?

I wrote this piece in August 2017 based on a careless misreading of Afua Hirsh’s article Toppling status? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next’ in which she makes the case for removing the statue of Nelson from the top of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Misled by the headline, I managed to come away with the impression that Hirsch advocated removing Nelson’s column in its entirety! Since writing this, I have read and been enjoyably challenged by more of Afua Hirsch’s work, including her book ‘Brit(ish): on race, identity and belonging’ and, meanwhile, Britain has become engulfed in a much more wide-ranging debate on statues in light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the tearing down of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

I suppose one of the less obvious perks of white, male privilege is the unlikelihood of feeling personally threatened by a statue. Hard as I try, I can’t imagine a plausible scenario in today’s UK where a statue would make me question whether I am welcome there. It is precisely because I lack that particular lived experience that at a certain visceral level I can never fully appreciate the psychology behind campaigns like “Rhodes Must Fall”.

This is probably also why my first reaction to the headline of Afua Hirsch’s 22/8/17 article in The Guardian,Toppling statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next”, was to roll my eyes. Surely this is parody, I thought. Surely anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that this is taking the decolonisation agenda too far?

Part of me still thinks that way, but reading the article did two things for me: it opened my eyes to the less savoury aspects of Nelson’s career, and it prompted me to think harder. Starting with Nelson, I realise that I’ve never really spent much time on him. I have a sketchy mental outline of the Battle of Trafalgar and a passing awareness of Lady Emma Hamilton, and I once sang in a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass. I never grew up thinking of him as a personal hero, or part of what made me proud to be British (if indeed I am, but that’s a not a minefield I plan to stray into right now). Far less was I aware that he could be described (in Hirsh’ words) as a “white supremacist” who “vigorously” defended slavery – see, for example, his 1805 letter to Simon Taylor.

Without further research, I don’t feel qualified to make any pronouncement on Nelson other than to hide behind platitudes along the lines that he was clearly a “complex” figure. Yes, he was war hero to whom the British nation remains hugely indebted, but given he was a contemporary of William Wilberforce, it seems insufficient to excuse his views on slavery as simply “of their time”.

But what about Nelson’s column? Well let’s first go back to Cecil Rhodes. I am grateful to the Rhodes Must Fall movement for educating me as to the extent of the man’s brutality, and clarifying that the use of his wealth to fund the education of students from (among others) Britain’s former colonial possessions, doesn’t absolve him from manner in which said wealth was accumulated. Despite this, I find it difficult to make up my mind about the Oriel College statue, which has been the focus of the movement in the UK (although as an important side note, Rhodes Must Fall has always been about much more than pulling down statues, as Amit Chaudhuri’s thoughtful piece makes clear).

I have a strong instinct that toppling statues is an enterprise that shouldn’t be undertaken without thorough consideration and, even then, only in extreme circumstances. I don’t agree with those who equate the reasoned demands of activists to remove statues of objectionable figures to the blanket cultural barbarism of ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra, but I do think there is a scale here. At one end I can appreciate the catharsis that a society might feel by demolishing the statue of a recently ousted dictator. Further along the scale, while I can understand the demands to remove Rhodes from his pedestal, the connection between the Rhodes and the Rhodes Must Fall activists is not as simple or urgent as that between dictator and those he (yes, almost always he) directly oppressed.

Much further along we come to Nelson’s column. I might be wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine that anybody could seriously claim to feel traumatised by the presence of Nelson towering over Trafalgar Square. Moreover, Nelson’s column is far more integral to Britain’s landscape than is the Rhodes statue in Oriel College. It has immense value as a historic national symbol, a tourist attraction and a work of monumental architecture. I feel that some kind of formula might be put to work here: that the greater the intrinsic value (be that historical, societal, artistic etc.) of a monument, the more compelling the case for demolition needs to be. Needless to say, none of that would work if “intrinsic value” is only judged from a white, patriarchal viewpoint.

In most cases, I think a preferable option to demolishing a statue would be to “reframe” it. Oriel College, for example, could work with Rhodes Must Fall activists to produce a signboard explaining Rhodes’ problematic legacy and perhaps even agree on an appropriate counter-monument to erect on college grounds. In Trafalgar Square, why not repurpose the fourth plinth as a home for art that specifically explores the more difficult aspects of Britain’s past, or, borrowing Hirsh’s words, that celebrates the  “the enormous contribution of black people at the time [of Nelson and Wilberforce]”?

So to answer the title question, no, I don’t think Nelson should fall. Actually, I’m not convinced Afua Hirsch really does either. But rather than fulminating at the folly of snowflake left, as so many commentators seem to be doing, let’s thank her for provoking debate and reminding us that no history is sacred, and that no hero should be above thoughtful re-examination.

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