Gilded Monuments and History

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, controversy over the proposed removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis has been quietly brewing for nearly four decades.

300px-CornwallisStatueHalifaxNovaScotia[1]Cornwallis was a British military man, who was given the task of establishing the city of Halifax, and  was Governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-1752, after which, he retired back in England. At the very least, the statue is a tribute to colonialism, to the “conquering” of the new world and its first inhabitants. In short, the statue symbolizes the beginning of the modern Canadian nation-state, as well as the beginning of the decimation–some would say genocide–of indigenous Canadians.

We are hearing similar debates in the USA this year, with discussions about public commemorations of Civil War leaders. As in Canada, one side wants the statues to celebrate “glorious history” and the other wants to put an end to the public display of the vile politics of an earlier era.

There really isn’t much to say about the issue in general, apart from the observation that every public monument is different. Staying within Canada, consider Mt. Stalin. After the end of the second World War, the Canadian government honoured our great allies by renaming three peaks in the Rockies after Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin. Since the war, we haven’t learned much to make us regret the first two, but as the realities of Stalin’s rule of terror became known, Mt. Stalin became a public embarrassment. But it took a fair bit of debate before the mountain was renamed Mt. Peck  in 1987. The fact is that Stalin was a major contributor to victory in the War. Yet, this wasn’t enough to outweigh his atrocities. Canada chose to stop honouring Josef Stalin. And rightly so.

Cornwallis will be a more difficult case. He was, undoubtedly, a man of his time, and we can’t hold that against him. On the other hand, we are acutely aware of the pains of colonialism and its legacy. The people of Halifax will have to weigh three things:

  1. Cornwallis was founder of the city.
  2. The statue celebrates the colonial imbalance of power that was instrumental in the decimation of First Nations.
  3. The statue itself has been a part of the civic culture for almost a century.

I have no pony in this race, and I leave it to the good people of Halifax to figure this out.

 

But what about history? What are we to make of the claim that the removal of statues is the destruction or denial of history.

It’s nonsense.

These statues are not history. They are public markers of admiration. When they were installed, the admiration was undoubtedly real. But it’s our world now, and we have both the right and the duty to carefully consider and reconsider who we choose to display publicly. Do the people of Halifax value the British presence and dominance in Nova Scotia more than they decry the destruction of indigenous peoples? Does the civic pride in looking at a depiction of a dead general outweigh the personal anguish of the victims of colonialism and their descendants?

Weigh carefully, my friends.

Finally, let’s think about historical precedents. Often after revolutions or even after minor insurrections, zealous crowds have toppled statues. I’m talking about something different. Let people use the wisdom of public assembly to guide decisions of public policy.

In the end, though, time will be the judge. All these dead guys displayed in bronze remain in the historical record. And the judgment of historians–and history students, will continue to evolve as do our collective beliefs of justice and goodness change. Time gets the final word.

Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

 

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