Tag Archives: Nelson’s column

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.


CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).


Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.


Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.

Ghosts of No Nation: Forgotten Histories Revealed in Children’s Literature

Author Zetta Elliott recently sent me a copy of The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta, 2017), her most recent children’s book, because it is about an American searching for Black History in England (can’t think why she thought I might be interested, ha ha). The main character, Zaria, is Afro-Caribbean; she lives in New York City but like many people with Caribbean ancestry, she has relations in many countries, including England. Zaria is making her first trip to London to visit her grandfather, who is ill; but despite never having been to Britain before, she comes with pre-conceived notions about what it will be like.

She gets these notions about Britain and the British people from books. Zaria says, “The England I’ve read about in books and seen in so many movies is full of wizards, and unicorns, and magic wands. It rains every day, and kids live in castles or mansions that have secret rooms or ghosts in the attic” (5). Zaria’s reading reflects something that is true not only of Americans reading about Britain, but about Brits reading about their own country: whiteness. Danuta Kean, writing in the Guardian this week, says, “British readers may recognise the value of literature to encourage social cohesion – but the perspective they gain from novels remains overwhelmingly white, male and middle class, according to a survey of public attitudes to literature released on Wednesday” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/01/literature-report-shows-british-readers-stuck-in-very-white-past). Because whiteness seems “normal” for Britain, Zaria (and British readers) accepts the idea that the “real” England is about white people. But fortunately Zaria has a radical aunt, who points out her assumptions. “You love books about castles and wizards and magical creatures, but you are not in those books. The hero is always White” (31). Zaria’s aunt would like her own son—and Zaria as well—to read books that reflect the Black British contribution to the nation, but Zaria feels conflicted about this. Although she is interested in what she is learning about Black British history, she likes fantasy, and wants to read about castles and magic and ghosts.


In most “classic” British fantasy, this is as close as you get to a Black character.

Fortunately for Zaria, her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle, where she learns about the history of Africans connected with Queen Victoria. As I’ve written about before, Queen Victoria had a habit of adopting young Africans and educating them in Britain, and Zaria comes across the ghosts of two of them, the Abyssinian Prince Alemayehu and Sarah Bonetta Forbes. The two Africans are a contrast; Alemayehu is angry and homesick, while Sarah (or Sally, as Zaria calls her) is happy to please those who have taken her away from Africa. This is an important difference between the two for readers, who might have mixed feelings about living in a white-dominated society (no matter what their race). Zaria and her cousin Winston must help both ghosts, but particularly Alemayehu. They do this through reminding Alemayehu of his home with souvenirs they purchase in Brixton Market. In the end, Alemayehu learns that love, and remembering that love, allows you to roam freely, and learn fully. Zaria does not “lay the ghosts to rest” but rather sets them free, and gives them the world as their playground.


There throughout history: Olusoga makes the point that Black Britons did not just arrive beginning with Windrush.

The Ghosts in the Castle is the third in Zetta Elliott’s City Kids series. The series format, and the fact that the first two are set in Zaria’s home of Brooklyn, makes it perhaps inevitable that when offered a chance to go to boarding school in England, Zaria decides to return home. But I admit to a feeling of disappointment that she did, in part because I have been reading David Olusoga’s very heavy history, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016; I also watched the accompanying television series from the BBC). Olusoga, who lived during his childhood in my own recent home of Newcastle, grew up much like Elliott’s Zaria—unaware of the role that Black Britons played in their own nation. His history makes an excellent case, not just for the recent past but for the long past, of the pivotal part that people of African descent had in shaping the very things that we think of as “British,” and, too often, also as “white.” Like Elliott, Olusoga works to reveal the Black British presence that is often in front of our eyes if we know where to look. Elliott, for example, points out both the brass memorial plaque to Alewayehu in the nave of St George’s chapel and the additional plaque beneath it commemorating the visit of Haile Selassie I to Alewayehu’s memorial in 1924 (61-62). Olusoga describes the Black British sailor depicted on the brass relief at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square—and then, to indicate the significance of the inclusion of the Black sailor, Olusoga goes on to describe all the Black sailors known to have sailed with Nelson (19-21). And this is just one such incident of Black Britons appearing in very public places that people walk by every day without ever noticing, in a book that is over 500 pages.


England Expects Every Man to Do his Duty: might Zaria come back to London to meet the Black soldier defending Nelson at the base of the column in Trafalgar Square next time?

Britain often seems through its literature and other cultural production to be a place where whiteness is not only dominant, but sometimes exclusive, both to its own citizens and to the global tourists and consumers of children’s books. Elliott’s book takes a step toward changing the image of Britain—but based on David Olusoga’s history, Zaria is going to have to return and find more ghosts to set free from invisibility. Only then will they move from being ghosts of no nation, to belonging to us all.