A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues
The furore over statues from both sides of the political spectrum can be alienating. There are often legitimate reasons as to why a statue is problematic. Edward Colston’s had gone through a long-running process of consultation between those for and against, with the end result of absolutely nothing being done to satisfy the legitimate concerns of those troubled by its existence. Even a small plaque proposed to highlight his participation in the slave trade was rejected. Oh, how I bet The Society of Merchant Adventurers regret that rather short-sighted decision. On the other hand, the sight of mobs delivering their own form of justice certainly makes me uncomfortable.
Enter a new contribution to the debate, A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues, and from a writer, Peter Hughes, who is also a psychologist specialising in the madness of crowds. It is this perspective, along with impeccable research and compelling story-telling that makes the book an original and enlightening approach.
Beginning with Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt, through antiquity and the medieval period featuring Nero, Athena and Huitzilopochtli of the Aztecs, the majority deal with destruction from the 20th and 21st centuries. But each essay is far more than an account of their removal. There is gold dust to be found within each, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s experience with a Trump supporting plumber (that had me optimistic for the future); and the analysis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Belgian colonial behaviour behind it is spellbinding.
Towards the end Hughes deals with the big-guns: Colston, Cecil Rhodes, Stalin and Saddam Hussein and each is handled brilliantly as other histories are interweaved to make the reader see the implications of each demolition. If you’re looking to really understand the statue question, this is the book for you.
It is the final statue, that of Frederick Douglass, that gives pause for thought. This was a man who suffered the savage crime of slavery, but was then able to meet (if not reconcile) with his former master on his deathbed, and this is the message from Hughes’ book. If we’re all to live on the same planet in peace, surely we need to find a way to accommodate passionately held beliefs. The great Khaled Al-Asaad, brutally murdered by ISIS, has left an important lesson for us all. He gave his life for monuments and statues but he didn’t do so because he agreed with our ancient forbears. His sacrifice was for cultural heritage, and as Hughes says in a moving conclusion, in devotion to shared humanity.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.