The downfall of Colston’s statue in Bristol came as something of a shock. As a former resident of Bristol the statue was well known to me as a landmark and nobody who has lived in Bristol can be unaware of the Colston name-the name of a concert hall, a famous school and alms houses. All of these places have for generations honoured the name of one whose generosity gave so much to the city of his birth. But there’s another side to Colston’s legacy as we have been reminded recently.
Now I live in Worcester and across the road from the Cathedral bus stop and at the entrance to the Cathedral itself there is another memorial. It is to the men of Worcestershire “who gave their lives for their country in South Africa 1899-1902”. This commemorates the Boer War, strictly speaking the second Boer war, fought to extinguish the independence of the Afrikaner speaking republics by the British Empire. The war was fought with a combination of incompetence and great cruelty by the British. The non-combatant Boer population was herded into concentration camps (we invented the term) where many died as a consequence of squalor and neglect.
The war was controversial in Britain. There were protests and demonstrations against it at the time. A famous one occurred in Birmingham in 1901 at which David Lloyd-George gave a powerful speech and was nearly lynched by a patriotic mob for his pains. The feminist campaigner Emily Hobhouse travelled to South Africa and exposed the appalling conditions in the camps. This greatly embarrassed the government but did not prevent them from winning the next general election!
The Boer War was an imperialist war. We might feel critical of Afrikanerdom because of its association with apartheid but the war was not fought because black lives matter or to release black people from oppression. On the contrary this was a war between rival oppressors. In the aftermath of the fall of Colston there have been renewed calls in Oxford for the fall of Cecil Rhodes statue in the city. Rhodes was an imperialist and an evil genius behind the Boer War but he was also a great benefactor to Oxford University.
Should these memorials be taken down? I don’t think so. They stand as testimony to the sinful character of humanity, mute witnesses to mixed motives and self-interested illusions. They should stimulate penitential reflection and an acknowledgement that we are not saved by self-righteousness and by virtue signalling but by the grace of a loving and forgiving God.
They should also inspire a resolve to critically examine the past and do better in the future. Where is there a statue to Emily Hobhouse? What shall we do to honour the memory of Martin Luther-King? I merely ask!
Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem at the end of the Boer war. Its final lines are well known.
We’ve had no end of a lesson
It will do us no end of good.
But as to what that lesson was that must be left to historians and prophets to discern.