There’s been a lot of talk recently about the removal of statues being an assault on our history, and the decision of the Shelbourne Hotel to remove, yesterday, four statues that had adorned its exterior walls for a century and a half is interesting, in that context:
The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin has taken down four statues which have stood outside it for the last 153 years because of their associations with slavery.
The four bronze statues were commissioned by the Shelbourne Hotel’s owner in 1867 when the celebrated facade was erected.
They depict two Nubian princesses from the lower Nile and their slave girls holding torches.
The four statues that have been removed are historic, obviously, because they’ve been around for so long. But are they a part of Irish history? Have we lost anything from their departure?
They’re not historic, in the sense that they did not, obviously, depict any scene from Irish history or mythology. Ireland has no meaningful historic connection to Nubia, or Egypt. Elsewhere in the world, when statues are being torn down, there’s usually at least some case to keep them standing on the basis that they reflect a part of that country’s history, whether it’s good or ill: In Bristol, for example, the statue of Edward Colston memorialised a British slave trader – but also the man whose money built modern Bristol.
In the United States, taking down statues of confederate generals is a legitimate debate because while confederate generals fought to keep people enslaved, the statues also commemorate many ordinary soldiers who were just fighting for their states, and also serve as a monument to history.
But these statues outside the Shelbourne? They’re different, in several respects. For one thing, they are privately owned. A person who owns a statue has a perfect right to display it in public, or hide it away in a darkened room. It is not really any of our business. For another thing, these statues have no great significance to the Irish public, or to Irish culture. They were erected, you might recall, at great expense, in 1853, when most of the country was recovering from the famine. Their purpose was purely aesthetic, never cultural. And honestly, are many people going to miss them?
Green MEP, Ciarán Cuffe, though, makes an important point:
Wait, isn't this a Protected Structure, so Planning Permission is surely required? It would be useful and informative to have a period of public consultation before taking such a significant step https://t.co/ZFlVwCJVul
— CiaranCuffe (@CiaranCuffe) July 28, 2020
Whether we like it or not, Cuffe is basically saying, the statues are an integral part of a building of historic significance, and therefore have value regardless of what they depict. Is that true? Wouldn’t it be possible to replace them with statues of something else, in a similar style? If the Shelbourne had replaced the Nubian princesses and slave girls overnight with four statues of roman goddesses, would anybody even have noticed?
In some ways, the fact that the statues are so utterly meaningless is also the strongest argument against their removal. Is there anybody in Ireland, you might reasonably ask, who passed by the Shelbourne Hotel and thought to themselves “look at those appalling monuments to slavery in ancient Nubia”? Anybody?
In fact, if anything, the statues make an important point that’s regularly lost in the modern era: That slavery, while racial in nature in the US, was rarely racial in nature anywhere else. Most Roman slaves were white. Most Egyptian slaves were black. Slavery, throughout history, was nearly always more based on social class than it was on race.
And the reason for removing them seems utterly ludicrous. “In light of recent world events” is what the Shelbourne says, which can be translated as “black lives matter”. And matter they do – but there are two points to make about those statues in that context. First, the statues depict black slaves, and black princesses from an ancient civilisation ruled by black people. Nubia was, at one time, the most powerful African kingdom, and a place that had immense influence over Europe. By its own standards, it is a Kingdom that the “black lives matter” movement should want us to learn more about in Europe, not erase.
Second, the statues reflect, do they not, that black lives have historically been as varied and different as white lives – Kings and princesses, paupers and slaves. The history of black people is more than slavery, which is, you’d think the very point that BLM wants to make – and it’s neatly made by those statues, even if that was not the reason they were erected.
Finally, what exactly is happening here, when owners of art are voluntarily removing it just out of a fear that it might prove problematic to a tiny minority of activists? Will the Shelbourne be reviewing all of the paintings it owns to make sure that none of them display colonial attitudes? And what about the name of the Hotel?
The Shelbourne is named, after all, for William Petty, the second earl of Shelbourne, who was British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783, a period during which slavery was perfectly legal in the British Empire, and during which Petty’s government profited from it. Surely the hotel itself is a monument to slavery, much more so than the statues that have just been removed?