This is not the time to ask for ‘a conversation’ about colonial statues, writes historian Giacomo Lichtner, but a rare opportunity for action.
In 1944, when American troops liberated Rome and made their new headquarters in Mussolini’s flagship sports complex – the Foro Italico – they found a vast and hideous mural entitled ‘The Apotheosis of Fascism’.
Faced with the dictator as a demi-god, surrounded by adoring crowds against a dystopian background of mythical figures, war planes and leaden skies, the Allies were understandably uneasy. For good measure, they covered it with a large drape: they literally drew a veil over it.
Over the years, the buildings became the site of Italy’s Olympic Committee, hosting the 1960 Games; behind its veil, the old dictator gathered dust and bid his time. By the time renovations uncovered the painting in the 1990s, it had become a “historical artefact” and the government opted to restore it and leave it in place. In 2014, the prime minister somewhat uneasily launched Italy’s latest Olympic bid under Mussolini’s watchful eye: can you imagine a German Chancellor doing the same?
Like many, I grew up in a country steeped in “divided memories”, as historian John Foot has called them. Italy is littered with plinths that once held fascist statues, and with others that still do.
On the Via Cassia between Rome and Rieti, motorists can still just make out the ‘V’ in the giant DVX – actually DUX, a Latinisation of Il Duce, the nickname of Benito Mussolini – that zealous locals had carved into the hills, spreading salt onto the ground to stop revegetation.
Some symbols were co-opted to rebuild a damaged and shamed national identity. When Mussolini built Via dei Fori Imperiali to celebrate Italy’s new imperial venture in Africa, fascist planners graced its sides with four maps chronologically detailing the imperial expansion of ancient and modern Rome. With remarkable gall, after the war the new government removed only the last one, leaving the three maps of ancient Rome intact. They tore off a page of history and co-opted the fascist adoration of Italy’s ancient past to salvage a new national identity.
Forged in ideological ambiguity and unfinished mourning, postwar Italy normalised both, and its modern monuments reflect that: it is an Italian peculiarity to have annotations, parallel plaques and other devices to acknowledge historical uncertainties or certainties that have changed over time.
These stories are very different from those now sweeping former colonial and colonised nations, but they may be a useful reminder that such official landmarks have always been political and removing them is only one way of dealing with them.
French historian Pierre Nora calls statues (and other monuments, plaques, place names, and so on) “sites of memory”: places and objects through which a society decides to cast in stone (or in bronze) its collective memory, which of course is never really collective, but simply society’s preferred version of events at a given time.
Statues have therefore a dual job to do: to showcase a dominant set of values and to enshrine these so anyone bold enough to question them or offer an alternative view, an alternative memory, might think better of it. Statues shape our landscape; they reinforce community and group identity; they are art; they may move those who look at them; they may serve a social purpose as a place to congregate. But they do not “educate”.
To suggest statues are there to teach history, or that tearing them down is the prelude to burning books – as National Party MP Simeon Brown rather bizarrely suggested – is lazy. Statues do not teach; teachers teach.
Statues can be used as sources to explain the past and how a society chooses to remember it, but without context they are not “educational”. Worldwide, statues of powerful men were designed to make citizens proud and give them a sense of belonging, but also to remind the people – literally at their feet – to look up to their betters, and so to accept the hierarchy of the day.
Statues are vectors of meaning; they were never neutral and are not so now.
For that reason, this is not the time to ask for pause and “conversation” about colonial statues, but a time for action, in the same way the days after the Christchurch Mosque massacres were not a time to discuss weapons, but to ban them.
It is right to draw attention to the ambiguities and complexities of historical figures and the circumstances in which their likenesses were erected, or streets and cities named after them, but it is infinitely more important to harness rare momentum to address the ongoing trauma of tangata whenua.
Confronting the hurt these statues still cause is the responsibility of those who erected them, not those who suffer them, but in deciding whether to remove, replace, veil or unveil, each community should be guided by tangata whenua and mana whenua. Listening to those voices, we may learn not only that some colonial statues are painful perpetuations of historic traumas, but also that New Zealand is dotted with countless sites of conflict, violence and land confiscation that bear no plaque, surrounded by weeds rather than tended flower beds, quite forgotten except by those who trace their whakapapa there. Where is that history displayed?
Dealing with colonial statues would be a small and imperfect redress of historic injustices, but a tangible one nonetheless. Then we can converse and consider. And not only about what, if anything, should replace a statue, but also about how we will guard against the widespread tendency to co-opt symbolic struggles in order to shore up the status quo against more meaningful change.
Neither the country’s past nor its present will benefit from a purely symbolic exercise and erasing the monumental face of colonialism will mean little without addressing the systemic inequalities it has left in its wake.
The sudden, unceremonious removal of Captain John Hamilton’s statue last week may well signal a homegrown solution to an issue that clearly has relevance beyond New Zealand. Although less symbolically powerful than if it had been wrenched by a crowd and thrown into the Waikato River, the unceremonious dispatching of that icon had the advantage of revealing it as perhaps less iconic than some might have thought.
The mundanity of watching Hamilton’s figure uplifted onto a truck by a small crane, like a redundant traffic barrier or an illegally parked car, struck me as possibly more remarkable than the felling of Edward Colston in the Bristol Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. If the Colston act was “historical poetry”, as the mayor of Bristol put it, the Hamilton vote was historical prose.
I remember a school visit to the ancient Roman fora in central Rome, and that I did not join my class underneath its centerpiece: the Arch of Titus, erected in 81 C.E. Even as a boy, I knew Roman Jews have an ancient custom not to walk under that Arch, out of respect for their forefathers, whom Titus had marched to Rome as a slave after besieging Jerusalem and destroying the second temple.
Refusing to walk under it was an ancient form of protest, and while no one ever suggested razing the Arch of Titus, it stands in Rome, not in Jerusalem.
If ancient history still shapes human behaviour, it is disingenuous to dismiss the raw and recent memories of New Zealand’s colonial past as ‘wokeism’. In a democratic country, tangata whenua who walk past the statues of their oppressors should not have to avert their eyes, and everyone else should not be allowed to.
Giacomo Lichtner is an associate professor of history and film at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
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