Ideasroom

History is in the eye of the beholder

Nicholas Agar explains why relocating statues and erasing their names may be what the people they commemorate would have wanted

Would Clive of India really want to have a town in Hawkes Bay named after him?

I’m writing these words in a café in Clive, Hawkes Bay. Clive was named for Robert Clive, the man whose military exploits extended British rule over much of India. In a recent reappraisal, the historian William Dalrymple describes Clive as a “vicious asset-stripper” who presided over the deaths of millions of Bengalis. Dalrymple calls for the removal of Clive’s statue outside the British Foreign Office in London.

This week, I'm heading back to Wellington. I’m a proud Wellingtonian. But am I proud of the name “Wellington”?

My university has recently gone through a brand refresh that gives greater emphasis to the name “Wellington”. The refresh was not designed to strengthen ties between the university and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and victor over Napoleon. Fortunately for Wellesley’s reputation in the age of Black Lives Matter, his most famous victories were over other Europeans. He did serve in India but, luckily for him, too late to have been a key lieutenant of Clive and too early to have been tasked with brutally suppressing the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

I doubt many visitors to Clive, Hawkes Bay, spend any time reflecting on the misdeeds of the British East India Company. When I say the word “Wellington”, I think of the description offered by the travel guide book Lonely Planet – “the coolest little capital in the world”. This is what should attract students to the university, not a link with “the Iron Duke”.

When we use people’s names for cities or institutions, we can’t control the associations created in the minds of others. We expect the cities and institutions we name to long outlive us and we can only guess how our descendants will think about things we celebrate. Clive, Hawkes Bay, was named at a time of pride in the exploits of Robert Clive. Those who chose this name couldn’t have predicted today’s reassessments of empire.

... we should expect that the Kiwis of 2120 will be especially unforgiving of leaders who merely expressed displeasure about human-caused climate change and the growing number of losers in the digital economy but did little about it.

Many of New Zealand’s towns and streets bear the names of historical colonisers who did well out of Aotearoa’s subdivision. I suspect most of them can be thankful no forward-thinking journalist of their time thought to quiz them about their views on race relations and attitudes to women.

Morrinsville was named by Thomas Morrin, who made some shrewd land purchases from local iwi in the 1870s. What will be in the minds of the Morrinsville town councillors of 2070 as they consider a brand refresh to Jacindaville, a name that more closely connects them to their favourite daughter, Jacinda Ardern?

There’s a pattern in our angry rejection of historical figures who were revered in their time. We are especially unforgiving of people who could have done something about what we clearly see as a great evil, but chose not to.

We today remember the American Civil War general Robert E Lee as the great defender of slavery. The immorality of owning other human beings is obvious to us, even if it wasn’t quite so apparent to many of Lee’s contemporaries.

Lee seems to have been personally opposed to slavery. In a letter written before the war, he said slavery “as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country”, although he did somewhat spoil things by clarifying that slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race”. Apparently, it was a bigger hardship to own a slave than to be one.

Lee might be annoyed to learn we today remember him as the defender of slavery – an institution he viewed as evil. We judge him harshly because we think of him as someone who could have accelerated the end of slavery but instead used his considerable martial skills to prolong it. We don’t give him much credit for sentiments expressed in a letter to his wife. What he did matters much more than what he wrote privately.

We can’t quiz the people of 2120 about what they think about living in Jacindaville. But we can make an educated guess by quizzing today’s young people.

In the ethics classes I teach, young people are especially forthcoming about their concerns about climate change and increasing wealth inequality.

If these are a guide to the moral beliefs of future people then we should expect that the Kiwis of 2120 will be especially unforgiving of leaders who merely expressed displeasure about human-caused climate change and the growing number of losers in the digital economy but did little about it.

They won’t be mollified by emails to loved ones describing poverty and desertification as moral and political evils, or by public declarations to do something but only “when the time is right”.

These descriptions of the attitudes of 2120 are speculations. History could take a different course. Suppose a time traveller were to come back from that time and tell us about a United States dotted with Trumptons and Ivankonias, all packed with Robert E Lee statues. The Wellington of 2120 contains statues of our own angry populists who came to power in 2030. I suspect this is a future in which the people we admire today wouldn’t want to be affectionately remembered.

Perhaps this is a way to make peace with the British slavers and Confederate generals whose statues we remove and names we erase. Perhaps if we were able to ask them, they would be quite content about this.

Would Clive of India and General Lee really want to be affectionately remembered by effete types such as us with our strange moral notions? What would Clive – the asset-stripper – really think if he were to come back and learn we’d chosen to remember him as symbol of respect for the livelihood and property of all people regardless of their ethnicity?

Relocating their statues and erasing their names may be our age’s way of doing right by them.

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