The latest call from Graun towers to topple the column of Horatio Nelson – he of Trafalgar fame – validates fears that there is no obvious limiting principle to striking down monuments to our morally grey (or indeed, morally black) forebears.
No naval history buff myself, the past of the famous vice-admiral came as something of a surprise to me. As author
‘Nelson […] was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it. Britain’s best known naval hero – so idealised that after his death in 1805 he was compared to no less than “the God who made him” – used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.’
During the latest Confederate monument removals in the US, I recalled that Oliver Cromwell’s statue sits right outside Parliament. Cromwell had a central if complex role establishing the legislature as supreme in Britain, but the violence committed by him in Ireland would make his statue ripe for removal under Hirsch’s logic.
Back in the US, many of the founding fathers memorialised around the National Mall in Washington, DC owned slaves. Even Abraham Lincoln, the president most central to abolition of slavery in the US, could be criticised for toying with the idea of setting up special colonies for freed slaves.
The question is ultimately what such memorials represent. Most Britons and tourists will be unaware of Nelson’s advocacy for slavery, or indeed much beyond his victory at Trafalgar and perhaps his affair with Emma Hamilton. To call the column a monument even for extramarital liaisons seems a stretch. For most it’s an empty relic.
As others have pointed out, there is also something Orwellian in the constant desire to extract every ounce of original sin from the West. A forum-goer from The Straight Dope puts it bluntly:
‘…hysterically removing the past to achieve a continuous revolutionary Year Zero (a la the the wishes of much of the English Parliament men in Cromwell’s time and the French Jacobins in Napoleon’s time ) erases everything in the world eventually, since there is nothing existing in all worlds to which some poor gink won’t take offence’
Civilisation in the world is built on the brutishness of our forebears. Whatever the chequered history of great men, tearing down statues can hardly be a healthy reckoning.
And besides, why stop at statues when there are so many religious and imperial buildings testifying to the superstition and rapaciousness of our fathers? Better stop now, I think.
Image credit – Nelson’s Column, October 2009 by Elliott Brown