As someone who seldom gives statues a second glance, I have found the row over Oriel College, Oxford and their statue of Cecil Rhodes quietly amusing. Major buildings all over Britain and its former Empire were embellished with statues of assorted worthy and unworthy people in much the same way that the House of Lords accumulates the Great and the Good. And all the others. The objections to Rhodes lie in the fact that he was objectionable, a capitalist pirate who seized large tracts of other peoples’ land and resources for the British Crown and made himself immensely rich in the process. Rather than arguing for his removal, which was always a forlorn hope, protestors might instead have regarded the statue in much the way that the heads of executed villains were displayed in medieval and Tudor cities. In my view, the best contemporary comment on Rhodes came from author Mark Twain: “I admire the man, I freely admit it. And when the time comes for him to meet his Maker, I hope to have a piece of the rope as a souvenir”.
Of course, that is all very easy for me to say, a white European who cannot understand the anger that Imperialists such as Rhodes still engender in historically-aware people from former colonies. Or maybe I can, just a little. The village in which I live has several pubs, the most unlovely of which was built not so many years back as ‘planning gain’ when a by-pass was built. This modern road-house goes under the name . The pioneer in question was William Edward Forster (1818-1886), local mill owner, MP for Bradford and architect of the 1870 Elementary Education Act, which began a system of national education in England. Locally, Forster is remembered for the 1870 Act and for a number of philanthropic activities in the region, hence the name of the pub and his recently-restored statue in central Bradford. However, to anyone historically-aware and from an Irish background, Forster is not remembered fondly. As Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1880 to 1882, he was a staunch opponent of any moves towards Home Rule or reforms of land tenure. His reaction to unrest was blunt and armed, hence his nickname ‘Buckshot Forster’. Forster’s 1881 Coercion Bill, amongst other provisions, introduced arrest and imprisonment without trial of anyone whom the police identified as a suspected conspirator. A ‘pioneer’ of a different kind, then, and far from generous to landless Irish people who wanted a say in their own futures. So should I campaign for some recognition of Forster’s less appealing history in the pub that commemorates him? Perhaps not: I take a simple pleasure in the fact that a one-time Quaker who originally went into the weaving industry in order to avoid having business connections with a brewery is now commemorated by a pub. ‘Buckshot’ would have hated that.
Coercion Bills and much else notwithstanding, Ireland achieved independence of a sort, and then faced the problem of what to do with the statues of British heroes scattered around its cities. Admiral Lord Nelson was a particular challenge, unmissable at the top of Nelson’s Pillar in the middle of Dublin. The arguments that swirled around the Pillar were similar to those that have been ranged for and against Rhodes, though the solution was, one hopes, different. Fifty years ago this week, a large quantity of explosives was smuggled into the Pillar, placed at Nelson’s feet and, to quote the Dubliners, “Lord Nelson took a powder and he blew…”. I remember very clearly my father’s sheer delight as the news came on the radio (sorry, the wireless). On hearing an estimate of the quantity of explosive involved, he shook his head at what he saw as profligate waste. “Listen”, he said, “If you ever need to bring down a column or pillar, this is how you lay the charges so as to use the minimum”. There followed a concise tutorial over the breakfast table, the gist of which I can still recall, should the need ever arise. It’s funny where some musings about contentious statues eventually take you.
William Edward Forster, commemorated in London for his good works.By Secret Pilgrim from England (William Forster) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons