Horrible history

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New Zealand has 123 statues of named people on outdoor public land. Over 2018 and 2019, a team from the University of Otago, Wellington studied whether these statues had ever been attacked. Almost a quarter of them had. The weapons of choice? Hammers, axes, concrete cutters, and paint: gold, red, blue.

Seven per cent of statues had had their noses damaged or knocked off. (Robbie Burns, in Hokitika, is still missing his.) Six had been decapitated, some repeatedly. (A statue of King George V in Matakana has lost his head five times.) Three statues were destroyed entirely.

The study found that 93 per cent of statues were of European people, and 87 per cent of them were men. Only one statue on public land featured a person of Pacific ethnicity: that of rugby player Sir Michael Jones.

This research is thought to be the world’s first study surveying a country’s attitude towards its public statues. It wasn’t funded; the four authors carried it out in their spare time, out of personal interest.

Its publication comes at a time when we’re asking ourselves: Who do we venerate? Who are our cities and streets and maunga named after?

The answers to these questions can be rather dismaying. Recently Wairarapa resident Raihānia Tipoki looked into the namesakes of five of the region’s towns: Joseph Masters, Charles Carter, George Grey, Isaac Featherston and John Martin. All were active in displacing the area’s original inhabitants.

“So as the many kāinga throughout Wairarapa slowly shrank behind the billowing smoke of the growing colonial towns, new streets were created, monuments erected,” writes Tipoki, “and now as I drive north to visit my friends in Masterton, my eyes are subjected time and time and time again to the names of the people riddled throughout our region who sought and succeeded to suppress the indigenous peoples of this land.”

A former mayor of Hamilton is calling for a referendum on restoring the city’s original name, Kirikiriroa, which means “long stretch of gravel” in reference to the Waikato River. A statue of Captain John Hamilton was removed by the city council in June after a request by the confederated iwi of Waikato-Tainui.

A statue of George Eden, Lord Auckland, only ended up in its namesake city after being kicked out of West Bengal. (Eden had been Governor-General of India; he never set foot in New Zealand.) When one state government in India decided in 1969 to retire all colonial statues, a New Zealand insurance company offered to ship Lord Auckland over here. His statue, which usually stands near Aotea Square, is presently in storage due to construction work.

Some of our public figures are not connected to this country at all. Some of them were responsible for terrible things. What do we do with these monsters of history, looming at us all of a sudden out of the dark?

As more than one nation is learning, it isn’t possible to move on from a racist past by pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t just switch the lights off and hope the darkness makes our monsters disappear.

Ocean Mercier, profiled here, suggests we tell the full story of people that our statues commemorate, crucial as they were to New Zealand history. The George Edens and the George Greys alike.

But my favourite solution to the problem comes from Tūhoe activist Tame Iti, who wrote on Twitter: “Don’t destroy the statues! Put them in a place all together where people can talk about them… like a racist museum… having them altogether in one space as racists and no longer as upstanding citizens is way more useful than having them at the bottom of a river.”

Let’s turn the lights on. Let’s remember the racism of our past, so that we can recognise it when it looms up again, and turn with confidence to a different future.

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