Does removing statues rewrite history?

The role of the statue in upholding inequalities in society is predictably ignored by those who benefit from them
Summer Jasmin OxladeBy Summer Jasmin Oxlade  •  Sep 25, 2017 at 11:51pm  •  Features, Human Rights, Race, Social Issues

2017 has brought with it a plethora of political change. Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called and won a controversial referendum to extend his power over the state, and Theresa May formed a minority government with the DUP. With such dramatic political change coming from the top, radical social change has also accelerated from below.

Recently, world news has covered the large-scale protests in the U.S, with the most notorious example being in Charlottesville, Virginia. In August, discussions were had about whether to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and a protest was carried out to oppose this by various far-right groups. In response to the “Unite the Right” rally, which resulted in a number of injuries and one murder, anti-fascist protesters in Durham, North Carolina, tore down a similar Confederate statue. The forceful removal of the statue and the planned removal of many other statues across the U.S. sparked an international debate around whether the removal of statues constitute the re-writing of history.


Why do we have statues in the first place?

First, lets start off with what statues actually are, and what they mean in their historical context. By definition, a statue is a “a carved or cast figure of a person or animal, especially one that is life-size or larger.”

Statues are usually commemorations of a person or an event in their most obvious form, however commemorating an event is rarely an apolitical act. For example, in the U.S., mass-produced Confederate statues were erected at times of heightened racial conflict. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the first wave of statues popping up came around the 1900’s and the period when states in the American south were developing the Jim Crow laws, as a response to the civil rights movement.

The second period began in the 1950’s and lasted in to the 1960’s during the second, larger civil rights movement. These particular statues serve as a reminder of the negative reaction to the end of slavery and the civil war that ensued. They also remind people of the reactions of white southerners to the demand for basic civil rights such as the right to vote, the right to marry between races, integration in public spaces and the battle for black people to be seen as human beings. Statues of figures like Confederate generals do not serve to educate people on the intricacies of historical thought, but to commemorate the people they emulate.


Demolition of the monument to Alexander III in Moscow (source)


Historical Revisionism

Now, another issue that was raised by the media response to the Durham statue removal was the apparent historical revisionism taking place by the “snowflake left”. The removal of statues however is not a new phenomenon, and has taken place throughout history. For example, between 876 – 670 B.C in modern day Syria, archaeological records suggest deliberate statue toppling took place as dynastic regimes changed. Similarly, the practice of revolutionary iconoclasm (meaning to get rid of an image) in ancient Rome happened so often the term Damnatio memoriae was coined, and several emperors and political figures fell victim to the practice; including Sejanus, Publius Septimius Geta, and Domitian.

From France to Russia, modern historical revolutions have included the tearing down of monuments as a precursor to conflict, or as a solidification of political power afterwards. After the revolution of 1917, Russian civilians took part in the deconstruction of statues of Tsarist leaders and according to Christopher Wharton, “In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble”.


Russian revolutionaries removing a statue of Tsar Alexander.


Removing statues is always part of something bigger

The removal of statues usually represents a larger change in social and political events historically. For example, after India gained its independence from the British Empire there was, according to McGarr, little rush to remove symbols of British power. In the 20 years that followed independence, decolonial politics grew in popularity, and pressure escalated to replace symbols of British oppression with monuments dedicated to Indian nationalism. Coronation Park, in Delhi, once the site where Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, is now home to the statues of Viceroys, Governors and the Queen herself, in an effort to preserve the heritage of the country, without commemorating it in the public sphere.

In South Africa, as well as Oxford, UK, the Rhodes Must Fall movement have campaigned for the removal of various statues of Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist Prime Minister of South Africa, coloniser of Zimbabwean and Zambian territory and diamond mine owner. Rhodes’ racist political views are well known, however his statue, installed at a time where such views were celebrated, still stands on university campuses. Similarly to the campaigns to remove confederate statues in the U.S, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign highlights the role of statues as political agents rather than just neutral examples of heritage in the urban landscape.

Notable figures such as Sir Roy Strong, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum disagree with the campaigns, stating “Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing….The past is the past. You can’t rewrite history.” This view, however, fundamentally misunderstands the aims of the groups that are trying to have statues of harmful figures removed.



The role of the statue in upholding inequalities in society is highlighted by the pressure groups, but predictably ignored by those who benefit from such inequalities. The intergenerational trauma of communities impacted by individuals such as Cecil Rhodes and Robert E. Lee, as well as the modern inequalities that still plague society must be considered in the discussion to remove statues, and we must remember that history cannot be rewritten by simply removing an image from a public space. Perhaps we can look to India for an example of how to remember and celebrate heritage without commemorating the negative aspects of it.


Further Reading

– Niehr, H. (2014) The Aramaeans in Ancient Syria, Leiden: Brill, 236.
– The Hammer and Sickle: The Role of Symbolism and Rituals in the Russian Revolution, Westminister College.
– McGarr, P. (2015) ‘The viceroys are disappearing from the roundabouts in Delhi’: British symbols of power in post-colonial India, Modern Asian Studies 49, 787 – 831.

Featured image via Flickr

About the Author

Summer Jasmin Oxlade is a heritage studies masters student at Newcastle University, part time cleaner, asylum rights advocate and proud Mackem lass. Twitter: @SummerOxlade

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