The little statue that could

None of us achieved distinction. My father’s people were labourers drifting around Donegal, Derry, and Greenock, wherever work could be found.  My mother’s were scarcely more elevated.  They farmed the West of Scotland, produced one Free Church minister, several masons (and a lot of Masons), and a couple of petty officials. They occupied a lowly niche in the absurd hierarchy of Scotland’s clan system.  Among my seize quartiers, only my mother’s great-grandfather, Hugh Laird, was memorable.

When he was seventeen, Laird joined the 72nd Highlanders and served 12 years in India, based at Mhow as one of the ‘kilties on camels’ who helped brutally suppress the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857-58.  There is no statue to Laird, though the 72nd are magnificently honoured on the Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh.  But Laird received the medal and clasp above, and his name appears on a small memorial statue in our village.  As a child I knew a little about him (but a lot more about the uniforms of the highland regiments).

Yet it was two artefacts—a medal, and a village statue—that created an elective affinity between me, Hugh Laird, the 72nd, and India. You will not be surprised to learn they did not make a schoolboy reflect on Empire, race, or injustice. (You may be surprised to learn that the dispossession, famine, and continuing poverty among my father’s people had already done that.) The only ‘lesson’ I took from Laird is that it was possible to escape. Uniquely in his generation—and very nearly uniquely until mine—Hugh Laird went somewhere else. The rest of us remained within ten miles of where we always had been. My mother’s family were practically indigenous.

But there was a much later ripple.  As a university teacher, I became curious about 1857, the Raj, and even about medieval Indian philosophy: I spent five or six years trying to think through its bearing on the morality of speech.  I planned a book, though other things kept getting in the way of writing it.  When people asked how I ever got interested in any of that, I realized—though rarely said—that it had to do with one old medal and one little statue.   Any number of other things could, and perhaps should, have been more powerful spurs to my interest:  one friend was a Professor of Commonwealth History, another a Professor of Sanskrit; I made my own living as a Professor of the Philosophy of Law.  But for me it took a personal, material connection to care about an old injustice and how we might now help remedy it.

There is nothing generalizable here. That is my point. When Simon Schama says it is silly to suppose that removing statues might ‘erase’ history and that, ‘It is more usually statues, lording it over civic space, which shut off debate in their invitation to reverence’, all I can say is that may be true in some cases. But neither a grand statue in Edinburgh, nor a tiny one in a Scottish village, were able to silence me. Just the contrary. More than anything else I encountered in life, they established a link between me and a country I never visited, an injustice my people never felt, and a civilisation I could admire only from a philosophical distance. I certainly had views about England and Empire, but the racism and oppression I worried about had previously involved only its other provinces.

That tiny connection made me care about what had happened at Mhow and Lucknow, but they never made me proud of it. I never revered the Raj, the 72nd, or even Hugh Laird.  Public artefacts bear social meanings; but how those meanings affect us can be hard to predict. I can think of no more reason why we should be ‘originalists’ about the meaning of statues than about the meaning of statutes.  It rarely matters what a statue meant; what matters is what it now means–and that is often a complex matter.

12 thoughts on “The little statue that could

  1. This is very helpful Les. But one might want to make a distinction between the inspirational effects of some public monument for a bright and imaginative child and its available public meaning, even if the latter cannot be construed according to some version of originalism. I don’t know what the memorial in your village looks like. But I can easily imagine some vestige of British empire that an Indo-British family, newly settled in the village, would find deeply offensive and petition to remove. I don’t think their objections would necessarily be decisive, but they might well be very formidable given the relevant history. (I am probably influenced here by the lingering influence of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy.)

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    • I think I agree. Unlike most writers now, I think that the fact that racialised minorities hate a certain display (they are not merely ‘offended’ in the watery sense) is pertinent to what we should think and do about it. But I think Schama was hasty in suggesting that Imperial statues ordinarily silence debate in their surroundings, by demanding reverence. I guess it’s possible, but neither the big statue in the capital or the small one in the village had that sort of effect on me. Actually, the opposite. They took me places I would never otherwise have gone. I’ve not read Dalrymple, but now will. Thanks!

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  2. Quite agree, and I would add that often-times the meanings and/or presence of certain public artefacts may not yield any predictions at all, neither shutting off debate or inviting reverence nor the opposite (this is a bit like Chomsky’s point against Skinner that it is hard to predict what a person would say when presented with a given stimulus, for such a person need not say anything at all).

    For me at least most statues, and most street names for that matter, are mostly part of the landscape rather than holding any meaning or celebrating anything (as in they are landmarks and, well, street names), and I don’t think it should be taken as a given that the presence of a statue that was put up a long time ago, even hundreds of years ago in some cases, means that we are still celebrating that person or the ideas they espoused – it seems to me that for the most part our current societies do not espouse many of the beliefs being called out at present, and without the need to have any statues around to prove it.

    That’s not to say that I disagree with the point that each generation should decide who and what to have represented in public, and past artefacts can and should be reviewed and modified/changed if necessary, but surely the actual effect of any of the artefacts around is being greatly exaggerated one way or the other.

    (And in any case, when ever are people consulted when it comes to putting up new statues or naming new airports or train lines? Here in present UK we keep naming anything we build after the Queen and we are hardly ever consulted about it; the same was surely the case in the past, and I don’t think we should assume that most people agreed with what was being celebrated then, either – public artefacts are the preserve of the elites for the most part).

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  3. In public statuary, airports, etc. it seems to me that the public is never consulted. Even in private contexts, names and honours are rarely put to a general vote. For example, I have no idea who approved the naming of Oxford’s Sackler Library. It is now utterly obscene, given what we have learned about the monstrous way the Sacklers made their money. And this is not something the vintage of a Victorian bust. It is recent.

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  4. For some reason, WordPress will not post Mohan Matthen’s. comment, so I’ll just paste it in here, and reply below.

    Mohan Matthen commented on The little statue that could

    “I’m quite certain that this is well-meant and sincere, but I can’t help feeling a little nauseated. You were not prevented from forming a critical opinion, and were indeed helped to do so. That’s wonderful: you became a distinguished scholar.

    But we know that both in the UK and in the US, grand statues fuel regressive origin-myths about past greatness. And you were not, by your own admission, entirely immune to this. Hugh Laird escaped oppression in Scotland by joining a bunch of war-criminals. (Do you know just how brutal the British were in 1857?) And yet a memorial statue made you feel some “elective affinity” with him, and caused you to preserve and display a medal that makes my stomach turn. A perfect illustration of the intended role of these statues.

    You felt only affinity with an individual, but the effect on many others is to extend such affinity to racial pride. (The Scots still, for all of their purported independence, take pride in their instrumental role in English imperialism, do they not?) That is not so great. As for members of “racialized minorities,” as you call us, there’s a flip side. The statues in Edinburgh and London are, and are intended to be, constant reminders of how once we were beaten and trampled on, and how some wish it still so. And that is extendible to feelings of racial shame. And once again, this is not an unintended effect.”

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    • Thanks, Mohan.

      I’m afraid you’ve badly misunderstood.

      I do know a bit about how brutal was the oppression of India, including in 1857-58. I wrote to explain how that oppression came to attract my own attention.

      You write, ‘a memorial statue made you feel some “elective affinity” with him [Hugh Laird], and caused you to preserve and display a medal that makes my stomach turn. A perfect illustration of the intended role of these statues.’

      That is false. I neither preserved nor display the medal; it is in a public collection in the US. And the affinity (not approval) the artefacts made me feel led me a period of study (with shame, not pride) of 1857-58 and the appalling colonial oppression to which I had not (yet ) given enough thought. I wrote, ‘That tiny connection made me care about what had happened at Mhow and Lucknow, but they never made me proud of it. I never revered the Raj, the 72nd, or even Hugh Laird.’

      You write, You felt only affinity with an individual…’. That, too, is false. I write, ‘More than anything else I encountered in life, they established a link between me and a country I never visited, an injustice my people never felt, and a civilisation I could admire only from a philosophical distance.’

      You write, ‘The Scots still, for all of their purported independence, take pride in their instrumental role in English imperialism.’

      Where do you get these stomach-turning stereotypes? Do you also think we are a nation of miserly drunks? Can you not conceive that different Scots might hold a variety of feelings—often conflicted, sometimes hostile—about their nation’s involvement with English imperialism? We suffered enough of it including, as I mention in my post, in my father’s own family.

      You appear to object to the term ‘racialized minorities’ –[‘as you call us’]. I was unaware until your objection that anyone takes that to be a slur. Its common function is to avoid not only the use, but also mention, of the term ‘race’. It implies that racialization is something that people do to other people. Systems of race, including caste, are systems of racialization. They are grave evils and have scarred, and continue to scar, many countries.

      You say, ‘statues in Edinburgh and London are, and are intended to be, constant reminders of how once we were beaten and trampled on, and how some wish it still so. .. this is not an unintended effect.’

      But I say nothing about any statues in London, nor do I make any claims about the *original intended* effect of the statues I do discuss. Like you, I imagine they were originally intended to celebrate actions that were in fact profound injustices. But as my post argues–or anyway tries to get a reader to at least consider–that the original intention of those who erected a statute is not what matters now.

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  5. I am sorry I misunderstood, Les, about the medal, but on the central point, I’m still not clear how. You said that a medal and a village statue led you personally to reflect on the wrongs of what happened in Mhow and Lucknow. And you seemed to conclude that there is “no more reason why we should be ‘originalists’ about the meaning of statues than about the meaning of statutes.”

    I don’t think that you have to be an originalist to believe that the true meaning, and (more importantly) the typical effect, of these statues is (and was) racial pride in the native-born of previously imperialist countries, and racial shame in people who were previously subjected. I think that matters now, and that’s the reason these statues should be brought to earth. One way of doing that is to topple them. But maybe a plaque ridiculing some of these people would do as well. I guess I could live with that statue of Churchill in London if the inscription “Prime Minister, racist, killer of hundreds of thousands, drunk” was carved under his name.

    I am also sorry about my unfairly objecting to the term “racialized minorities.” I don’t personally like the term when it is used by white people. It has an objectifying feel about it. But I acknowledge that that might just be me.

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  6. Then we have no disagreement, Mohan. I think that the intention with which a statue was originally erected (or is now polished) is not the most important question. You think what matters is the current effects—and that is what I say, too. The only area where we might, possibly, have a disagreement is whether or not there always exists a ‘typical effect’ that has the silencing power that Schama affirms. I think Schama is wrong about that. I think they can have various effects, depending on the character of the statue, how people react to it, the physical and social context, and so on. But we agree that it is current effects, and not makers or keepers intention that is important.

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    • I wanted to let some time go before getting a comment in, to let the emotions of the moment die down.

      I guess I am left somewhat puzzled by what you meant to convey in the original post. You say, memorably, that your connection with your great great grandfather had two effects on you, one that it made you want to get away, and then much later that it made you reflect on imperialism. And you say, “Public artefacts bear social meanings; but how those meanings affect us can be hard to predict. . . It rarely matters what a statue meant; what matters is what it now means–and that is often a complex matter.” I am honestly having a hard time figuring out what an atypical effect now shows, given that you acknowledge that there is such a thing as social meaning.

      Here’s a different story. When I walk to my office in Toronto, I pass an equestrian statue of Edward VII–an odious imperialist twit if ever there was one. By coincidence that statue happened to stand in Delhi decades ago, outside the Red Fort. And as a young man, I used to pass it on my way to University. So when I encounter the statue in Toronto, I am pleasantly reminded of my youth. It’s beautiful that my daily commute takes me past the same monument in Toronto as it did when I was an undergraduate in Delhi.

      Does this mean that the meaning of the statue has changed? I guess its meaning is transformed in its current resting place, but the fact remains that it used to mean that Indians were subject to the Raj and it would have meant that if it had stayed put. That, presumably, is why it was removed from its original site. An idiosyncratic effect doesn’t alter that.

      Both stories, yours and mine, illustrate your point about the variable power of symbols over time and place and individuals. But neither contradicts Schama’s point that statues “invite reverence,” and more importantly to me, that they can emit a force field of humiliation.

      Anyway: I am not arguing with you, just wondering what you meant to say.

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      • I meant to say that such statutes don’t always invite reverence: (a) because maker’s intention to do so is no longer—possibly never was—determinative. Meanings are not in the head, or statue, and (b) insofar as an invitation to revere depends on uptake that can no longer be assumed, a fact reflected in the diversity of actual reactions to the work.

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