What do you do with a problematic statue?

Some good sense from Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe: some statues of controversial people really should come down from their places of prominence, while others deserve to stay up despite their subjects’ flaws. And either way, it’s not up to angry mobs (some of whom have been targeting monuments to anti-slavery activists, whether out of ignorance or sheer nihilism) to decide.

There are two issues here to contend with.

One ought to be straightforward: The disposition of public art and public spaces should not be settled by mob action. The wanton and malicious destruction of public property is a crime, and not prosecuting serious vandalism is tantamount to inviting more of it. The case for getting rid of a statue may be entirely compelling, but the issue shouldn’t be decided by the impulse of an angry crowd. Militant activism is a dangerous substitute for the democratic process, and almost inevitably goes too far.

But the deeper issue — when is it appropriate to purge statues and monuments that people find offensive? — is less clear-cut.

Plainly there will be instances where the case for removing a statue or other form of public acclaim (such as the name of a street or building) is compelling; there will be other instances where the case for not doing so is equally irresistible. A good example of the former is Leopold II, who was reviled even in his own day for his ghastly crimes against humanity in the Congo, and who is remembered today for almost nothing else. Good examples of the latter are the statues of Lincoln, Churchill, and Gandhi, who — however unenlightened some of their racial views by 21st-century standards — were towering figures of extraordinary importance who indisputably changed the world for the better.

But often the issue won’t be as easy, because there are strong arguments both ways.

[…]

How should we decide when it’s appropriate to remove a statue or monument to some person from a public place of honor? I argue for a two-part test: (1) Was that person honored for unworthy or indecent behavior? (2) Is that person known today primarily for unworthy or indecent behavior? When the answer to both is no, the statue or monument should stay.

Back home in St. John’s, a statue of Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real is in the crosshairs. This CBC article tells the strange tale of how it got to Newfoundland in the first place:

Erected in 1965, the statue — according to a plaque at the site — not so much celebrates Corte-Real himself as recognizes the connection between the province and Portugal, through their mutual fishing of the Grand Banks.

The statue has been notorious for years. In contemporary accounts, Corte-Real was said to have abducted around 57 Indigenous people on his 1501 arrival in Newfoundland or Labrador to sell as slaves.

That is enough for many to want the statue removed.

However, according to York University professor Gilberto Fernandes, the history of the statue is even more controversial than critics suspect.

[…]

One push of the propaganda wing of Portugal’s right-wing regime, the Estado Novo, was to clear up their image by promoting the Corte-Real brothers — Gaspar and Miguel — as important founding figures in the colonization of North America, thus making Portugal a more legitimate player in Canadian and American identity. 

During an official visit in 1963, the Portuguese ambassador suggested a Corte-Real statue to celebrate the connection between that country and Newfoundland. Premier Joseph Smallwood enthusiastically received the proposal.

The piece was sculpted by Martins Correia, an artist frequently used by the Estado Novo office of propaganda.

“Smallwood … promised to place it in front of the new legislative building in St. John’s and surround it with Portuguese soil and proclaim an annual Portugal day in the province,” said Fernandes.

Smallwood even invited dictator António Salazar to attend the unveiling.

Turns out it’s not just left-wing dictators with whom Smallwood was besotted.

Corte-Real’s connection to Newfoundland may have been tenuous in any event, and maybe it is indeed time to move his statue. But I also think its unusual history means it should be preserved somewhere.

One thought on “What do you do with a problematic statue?

  1. M says:

    It would make good sense to preserve the statue of Corte-Real in a place where it will be seen by people that are interested in the history that it represents, such as a museum. Leaving it accessible to the public outside at this point will only mean that it ends up being damaged or destroyed. Many people don’t see that these pieces of history are all part of how we came to be, here and now. Few are interested in looking back and trying to understand – which perhaps explains why people seem to repeat the same errors over and over through the generations.

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