Edinburgh's statue slavery row: Interactive, digital plaques could be used to teach us their real history – Alastair Stewart
The Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review needs a shorter name. Gordian knot just might be it.
In July 2020, Edinburgh City Council's policy and sustainability committee agreed to address historic racial injustice and stem modern-day discrimination.
An independent review was ordered to examine and recommend ways to remedy Edinburgh's legacy of slavery and colonialism in the civic realm. There is now a public consultation underway until January next year.
It is no secret that Edinburgh has a controversial past. But while statues and monuments are an easy target, it fails to consider the fleeting memory of people.
Will we tear down old buildings in the New Town because its expansion may have been funded by residents who owned slaves? Will paintings depicting controversial figures be removed from our national galleries? Will we close the Royal Botanic Gardens because it bolstered imperial expansion?
This is not to be facetious but a warning. The consultation is broken into ten themes, with an "indicative selection" of controversies. We need to be extremely wary that the shortlist is the whole picture – there will be many, many more. A complete historical financial audit may reveal a centuries-old saturation of controversy.
To borrow from 19th century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, we “cannot begin again”.
What can be done? The likes of the Melville Monument now has a warning plaque about how Henry Dundas delayed the abolition of slavery. Last year Professor Sir Tom Devine denounced the new wording as “bad history” and the process of review a “kangaroo court”.
Rampant short-termism will not solve the legacy of slavery and colonialism. The very controversies we seek to address have been in place for hundreds of years. This seems particularly stark in a 12-week consultation which only provides an indicative list. Edinburgh's residents should embrace any recommendations that actively promote the entire story.
We should encourage and invest in interactive, digital plaques of the kind we see in museums that can be tailored, detailed and provide the kind of context we need.
The entire city should be an interactive education centre, given its global prestige and Unesco World Heritage status. It will presumably be cheaper to change the text if these kinds of revisions are to continue.
If there is a concern about vandalism, this seems a sad inevitability given the controversies we are now handling. Statues are already being targeted. But it might just be a risk worth taking if we look to promote nothing but the truth.
Already the toppled statue in Bristol seems a distant memory rather than a public reminder of slaver Edward Colston's sins.
Rather than trying to remedy the issues of individual streets, names, statues, monuments, schools, hospitals and every other facet touched by empire – we need to ringfence our collective long-term memory well into the future.
Transforming banal, background statues into a healthy reminder that they can sometimes celebrate something far more sinister than “just a few old people” is just as pressing, if not more, than a principled reassessment.