Jean-François Manicom is curator of transatlantic slavery & legacies at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.
LIVERPOOL — The Egyptian pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten. The Roman emperors Nero, Domitian, Gallienus, Aurelian, Probus, Geta and Macrinus. Dictators like Napoleon Bonaparte, Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, François Duvalier and Saddam Hussein. History has seen a great many leaders toppled from their plinths.
It’s a tradition we seem to have rediscovered in recent weeks, as demonstrators across the world have made new additions to the list of victims of what the ancient Romans called Damnatio Memoriae — the damnation of memory.
Protesters in Martinique toppled two statues of the 19th-century abolitionist Victor Schoelcher last month, condemning him for authoring a decree that compensated slave owners for their losses. In Bristol, a statue of the 17th-century slaver Edward Colston was dumped into the harbor. A monument in Antwerp honoring Leopold II, the Belgian king who plundered the Congo, will be relocated to a museum after it was defaced by demonstrators. And in the United States, statues honoring the explorer Christopher Columbus and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis were among those that were pulled down or, in Columbus’ case, beheaded.
In Roman antiquity, Damnatio Memoriae was the punishment applied to political figures who were condemned post mortem by the senate. Their statues were knocked over. Coins bearing their visage were melted. Their names were erased from the public space. Records of their lives and deeds were destroyed. Even poets and historians were prevented from naming them or refer to them in any way.
Toppling statues is also undeniably a violent act, an assault on a realistic and symbolic replica of a person.
Throughout human history, toppling a statue has always meant a break from old beliefs. Damnatio Memoriae was intended to enable a society to rid itself of its past, to obliterate whatever was found to be objectionable — or too painful to consider.
Christians systematically destroyed idols and statues representing pagan gods, as they saw them as representing savagery. The end of communism was accompanied by the tumbling of Lenins and Stalins across the former Soviet Union. At its best, expunging the past is a recognition by a society that it is hoping to finish one cycle and enter another, more enlightened, one.
But toppling statues is also undeniably a violent act, an assault on a realistic and symbolic replica of a person. In Ancient Egypt, sculptors were called “the guardians of life,” because the role of the statue in a tomb was to keep the dead alive by serving as a spiritual avatar of their mortal remains.
The society that produces such images is, by definition, a violent one. The past from which people are trying to get justice is a violent past. The legacy of Colston’s slave trading, everyday racial discrimination, poverty and disproportionate vulnerability to the coronavirus among minorities are all violent realities.
When we see Colston’s statue rolling down the streets of Bristol, it is hard not to think about the bodies of the enemies rolled into dust during gladiator games or dragged by the Greek chariot of war. We are not that far from a physical urge to kill a body that belongs to the past. Symbolic lynchings, it would seem, are still necessary to move from one epoch to another.
But there’s a cost to that violence, no matter how legitimate and true the struggle might be, how sincere and strong the wish to better the world might be, how outstanding and honorable the motivation of the activists.
Memory, when damned, ends up rotten. It contaminates the body that expelled it. Its banishment allows for human denial and historical falsehoods.
At the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, where I work, we take another approach. Where museums were once considered as places to store, conserve and display memory, we are becoming active makers of the future.
Memory needs to be addressed and looked right into the eyes — to be domesticated like a wild and dangerous animal. Our weapons are education and knowledge. Our tools are human resilience and understanding. Knowledge about the traumas of our past empowers us to change the future. Let us not damn memory but tame it.