Glasgow too must confront its past

Earl Roberts statue

Credit: Geograph / Sandy Gemmill

Josh Upton
Writer

Glasgow, just like America, has a problem with statues

America has a problem with statues. Every few weeks we see yet another article, “Memphis takes down confederate statues,” “Virginia General Assembly blocks cities from removing statues”, and the debate rages on. Across the pond, we look on in disbelief. “Why would they ever have made statues to commemorate such horrible things in the first place?” we ask. Or, alternatively some question why such a fuss is being made at all – “it’s just history” after all.

Yet what so many Brits fail to realise is that we have statues dedicated to men equally as horrific in their crimes as the commanders of the Confederacy. We have statues dedicated not just to men who died rebelling against their government, but who slaughtered in its name. A statue to one such man resides in Kelvingrove Park. You’ll have seen him, atop his horse high upon the hill opposite the University, looking down on all those who pass below. His name was Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts.

Aside from the usual crimes of empire, the conquest of other peoples and the violent suppression of revolts, he was involved in one of the most blatant and shamefully unknown crimes of the British Empire. As Commander of the British Forces in the Second Anglo-Boer war, he was responsible for crushing the Boers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and their black auxiliaries. After defeating the Boers militarily, Roberts and his successor Lord Kitchener (the World War One commander famous for the “Your Country Needs You” poster) fought a Boer guerrilla insurgency that persisted even after the defeat of the Boer armies. One tactic devised by the British to aid in the crushing of the Boer revolt was a scorched earth policy that coupled the burning of Boer farms, the slaughtering of Boer livestock, and the placing of Boer civilians and local black natives in concentration camps. 26,370 Boer women and children, a tenth of the total Boer population, 81% of them children, died in the camps; alongside over 20,000 natives. Boer men who surrendered themselves in the hopes of freeing their families were shipped to foreign colonies, never to return: 26,000 men were deported.

For their crimes against the people of Africa, India, Afghanistan, Australia, the Americas and almost every corner of the globe, these men were lauded as heroes. We erected statues to them, we publicised their achievements, covered them in medals, and swept their crimes under the rug. Over the years we have come to think only of the alleged positives of the Empire, and we ignore the dark and bloody history that stares us in the face every day. This can’t continue, we cannot continue to ignore the history of this country and the men and their acts that helped build it up. We pass judgement on the situation in America and yet we have monuments to monstrous acts in our own parks and cities. When we see Roberts atop his horse looking down on us, we must remember what he did, and that Britain was built on actions like his. Yes, great men and women helped build Britain, but evil men did too, and we stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us. So while our hands may be clean, we must acknowledge the blood that stains our feet.