What should be done about our colonial statues?

by The Listener / 14 September, 2017
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Memorial to Colonel Marmaduke George Nixon in Otahuhu. Photo/NZHistory

After the Charlottesville riots in the United States, many are asking what New Zealand should do about its statues and symbols of colonial oppression.

History can be terribly inconvenient. We must not and indeed cannot rewrite it, but we should continually reassess its interpretation over the years.

From Peter Jackson’s Dam Busters remake dilemma over whether to retain the name of the hero’s black labrador (Nigger) to the United States’ deadly civil unrest over whether Confederate monuments equate to a celebration of slavery, the great and small actions of our forebears can be hard to reconcile with modern standards that are themselves constantly evolving.

Inevitably, the Charlottesville riots in the US, ignited by plans to remove a sculpture of Confederate general Robert E Lee and his horse, have sent ripples of unease round the world, including to New Zealand where we have many symbols of now-regretted colonial oppression.

Few countries have not at some stage erected memorials to conquerors, who upon a century or two’s reflection, look like brutes or, often, war criminals. Even commemorating one’s war dead can be provocative: what about those who died on the other side of the conflict?

One echo of this dichotomy is a little-regarded Otahuhu obelisk commemorating Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the casualties of whose actions in the 1860s Land Wars, historians believe, included Waikato iwi women, children and elderly, who were sheltering from the conflict in Rangiaowhia village.

Local Shane Te Pou is asking Auckland authorities to relocate the statue to a museum or similar institution, where its context can be properly explained. He regards Nixon’s war record as thuggish and, by modern standards, criminal, and it’s hard to disagree with him. Yet rather than an attempt to obliterate historical fact and memory, he makes a relocation suggestion that is constructive.

The issue has sparked a lively and welcome debate about monuments found in other cities and towns. The key distinction is in the difference between commemorating and celebrating. We should commemorate battles and similar events. But in doing so, we should also try to understand the ethos that drove past generations to erect monuments. Few would support a wholesale purge, which has the book-burning taint of trying to edit or censor history. But continuing to glorify some historical figures through such monuments no longer accords with the public’s sense of decency.

Tellingly, Lee would no doubt have agreed that his continued glorification is wrong. On record as holding slavery to be “a moral and political evil in any country”, despite his role as a Virginia patriot in defending the pro-slavery confederacy, Lee later opposed building Confederate monuments after the war. “I think it wiser,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

Lee might, however, have agreed with the modern solution of moving monuments depicting both sides of a battle to the battleground, as with the long-established Gettysburg site where the whole story is told.

In this country, a constructive move would be for communities to find ways to add context to commemorative monuments. Perhaps we could leave the offending symbols in place, but add companion pieces. Nixon, for example, could be joined by an equally imposing monument detailing the carnage he oversaw or depicting the struggle of Land War victims. We no longer wish to honour just one part of our past.

Yet our own era has its controversies. New York’s Wall Street provides an example, this year admitting the Fearless Girl sculpture, commissioned to temporarily highlight the dearth of women in the financial district’s leadership. She stands in the “path” of the landmark prosperity-depicting Charging Bull sculpture. The bull’s sculptor vigorously objected, saying it marred his work’s message, a celebration of American prosperity and spirit. Questions abound: is modern feminism a block to progress and wealth? Or might more women in charge halt the relentless on-rush of capitalism? Is this a vignette of a stand-off or is it the perfect balance?

The controversy serves as a perfect reminder that such public monuments are an expression of power. That power once belonged to élites who erected now-lichen-encrusted statues to perpetuate their view of events. Now the power to debate our cultural perspective and shape how it is to be depicted belongs to all.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Nixon memorial. This has now been corrected.

This editorial was first published in the September 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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