What should be done about our colonial statues?

by The Listener / 14 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Charlottesville

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.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

New Zealanders love a good ghost story
86094 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z History

New Zealanders love a good ghost story

by Redmer Yska

We New Zealanders are known for being down to earth and no-nonsense, but there's a surprising number of Kiwi stories with a supernatural element.

Read more
How to avoid burnout at work
86051 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

How to avoid burnout at work

by Marc Wilson

Taking positive steps at work will help keep weariness at bay.

Read more
A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog
86100 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog

by Sally Blundell

Just saying “oh, how adorable” is not all you need to do before taking on a new dog.

Read more
Tarawera eruption: What was the mysterious ghost canoe?
86076 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z History

Tarawera eruption: What was the mysterious ghost c…

by Dale Williams

For more than 130 years, lovers of ghost stories have enjoyed talking about one of our most enduring mysteries: the Phantom Canoe of Lake Tarawera.

Read more
How to get the health benefits of nuts without the cost
85733 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to get the health benefits of nuts without the…

by Jennifer Bowden

You need 30g of nuts a day to maximise their health benefits. Here's some tips on how to do it without putting a hole in your wallet.

Read more
Model car collector Winton Amies: 'I'm just a big kid collecting toys'
84783 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Model car collector Winton Amies: 'I'm just a big …

by Guy Frederick

When Amies moved to Naseby’s old butcher shop 22 years ago, he brought 1200 model cars with him; now he has more than 3000.

Read more
Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bulldogs
86110 2018-01-20 10:49:32Z Business

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bul…

by Sally Blundell

As a result of growing concern over the welfare of pugs, British and French bulldogs, Trade Me has announced they're banning the sale of these breeds.

Read more
Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding shame
86056 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Currently

Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding s…

by Sally Blundell

NZ has an unregulated puppy-breeding industry where unscrupulous operators can flourish, so why aren’t we following the lead of overseas governments?

Read more