What should we do with controversial statues?

In recent years controversy over historical persons which had statues erected for them or streets named after them reached the media occasionally. After the death of George Floyd on 25 May anti racism protests gained critical mass and the battle against controversial statues and street names intensified. In Bristol the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown in the harbor by protestors. In Belgium several statues of king Leopold II, responsible for a colonial reign of terror in Congo Free State (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo), were defaced. A statue of Leopold II in Ekeren which was damaged has now been removed and is unlikely to return. I consider it justified that people with migration backgrounds had enough of it and are taking action.

In the two news articles on the statues of Leopold II two opponents of the removal of statues give their opinion as well. Mayor Tommelein of Oostende states that racism doesn’t disappear immediately after the removal of the statues. This argument is a straw man, because nobody is so naive to think that racism would end then. Another argument he gives is that Leopold II was important for Oostende (the king had a villa in this city). He also thinks that the commentary near the statue which describes his role in Congo Free State is sufficient. Another opponent argues that everyone makes mistakes, not just Leopold II. Noah, a proponent of removal with a Congolese background, says it would be unimaginable if Hitler had a statue in Berlin.

In the Netherlands the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn was defaced several times in the past. Coen was responsible for the death of thousands of inhabitants of the Banda Islands (currently part of Indonesia) because they did not respect the monopoly the Dutch East Indies Company had enforced on the nutmeg which was cultivated there. He has the illustrative nickname “the butcher of Banda”. Yet his statue still stands there, albeit with a commentary at its pedestal which mentions the massacre on the Banda islands. Already in 2012 the West Frisian Museum in Hoorn held an exhibition about Coen, which gave exposure to the proponents and opponents of the statue. At the exhibition 63 percent of the 2,466 visitors voted in favor of letting the statue remain, with the addition of a critical text about Coen. Museum director Ad Geerdink told that the proponents in the exhibition argued that the statue serves to remind us of the dark side of the Dutch Golden Age.

In another news article from 2018 several scientists give their opinion in response to the debate about the Dutch slave trade. Some of them don’t want to erase the black pages of history because statues and street names offer opportunities to make the past visible. Another scientist points at the fact that most ‘colonial heroes’ received a statue or street name only hundreds of years after their death. Coen for example died in 1629 and received his statue in 1893. Especially in the nineteenth century blind nationalism and the search for national heroes would have been a motivation to erect a statue for someone like Coen and choose him as prominent part of our history. Now that we in our own time have been liberated from nationalistic tunnel vision, it makes sense that we come to a different insight.

In the end it comes down to the purpose we want to achieve with statues and street names of historical persons. In my view they serve to show respect to those persons and provide us with inspiration. We consider them to be good examples. In my neighborhood streets are named after resistance members from World War II. Elsewhere streets are named after William of Orange and Nelson Mandela. Coen received a statue because he was considered a hero who made us rich, but with his massacres he doesn’t fit in at all with the respectable persons mentioned above. You can place commentaries at statues, but that does not undo the fact that a statue represents respect for the person who is depicted. And who would want to sit on the square de Roode Steen in Hoorn with a good view of the statue of Coen, in the knowledge that you are looking at a mass murderer? I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that! Mass murderers only belong in one place: a prison cell. That’s why both Coen and Leopold II don’t deserve a statue, if you ask me their statues should be removed as soon as possible.

As for those who don’t want to see history erased, we could simply move the statue of Coen to the West Frisian Museum and teach about him in History class. That way nothing is erased. As for street names, I’m more pragmatic. The inhabitants of the street and other parties will face much administrative difficulties if they have to change their address everywhere. I would opt for a commentary at street name signs, only changing the name if the majority of the street’s inhabitants agree with it.

But now the most difficult question: how far do we want to take this? Yes, every person has made mistakes. To answer Noah’s rhetorical question, we all agree Hitler should never have a statue. He is guilty of the greatest sin of all: genocide. Leopold II and Coen are accused of it as well, but their crimes don’t conform to the strict definition of genocide. Opinions are divided on both persons, but possibly their statues will actually be removed in the coming years if the controversy proves too great. How will we continue then? Let’s evaluate two statues which are not controversial now, but which do have the potential for it. For example, the statue of Charlemagne in Luik and the statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki.

Charlemagne ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxons who had surrendered in Verden. Alexander the Great was responsible for the destruction of Thebes (some of the inhabitants, including women and children, were put to the sword, others sold into slavery); the killing of Greek mercenaries who desired to surrender at the end of the Battle of the Granicus (only according to Plutarch); a bloodbath (and only according to Quintus Curtius Rufus a mass crucifixion) after the Siege of Tyre; the mass murder of the Greek Branchidae who welcomed him in Central Asia on friendly terms.

Alexander the Great was not much more cruel than his contemporaries. It was accepted in that time that a cities’ inhabitants were subject to the whims of the victor if the city refused terms, resisted a siege and lost. The killing of those who had surrendered went further, but was not uncommon in history. Even so, if we agree that such acts were atrocious even then, the conclusion that follows is inevitable to me. If we think that Coen and Leopold II don’t deserve a statue because of their mass murdering, neither do Charlemagne and Alexander the Great. Yes, this could mean that many more statues would need to be removed. But there are plenty of other historical persons whose conscience isn’t burdened with murder or execution and are good moral examples.

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