What should Wales do with the symbols of our colonial history?
“England expects that every man will do his duty”.
This is not a phrase one would perhaps expect to see on a statue by the shores of the Menai Strait in Anglesey. The words in question are found on a plaque at the base of Lord Nelson’s column, situated next to the Britannia Bridge.
The statue was erected in 1873, much later than the Battle of Trafalgar 1805, by Lord Clarence Paget, a former Lord of the Admiralty who lived nearby.
The quote is of words that Nelson is claimed to have uttered at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was to be a signal message to rally the British Navy. However, they certainly were not his exact words, with some accounts suggesting that he asked for the signalling of the message: “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty”.
So, from the outset, his message was edited, and the battle mythologised in order to present his life and death of that of an English national hero.
Even at the time, it was well known that sailors from nations other than England were serving in Nelson’s navy at Trafalgar, including Scotsmen, Irishmen, Americans and Italians.
There were also 18 Welshmen with Nelson on HMS Victory. Among them was Hugh Hughes from Holyhead, a 17-year-old from Anglesey like myself.
By emphasising Nelson’s own credentials as a national hero, therefore, the efforts and sacrifices of these men were brushed aside.
This was, therefore, a multi-national effort presented in hindsight as a victory and sacrifice for and by England.
Even at the time, therefore, the way this statue was presented on Anglesey was inappropriate and ahistorical, and it seems even more needless and out-dated today. These words, still boldly presented on the shores of Wales, may have been offensive at the time but are particularly provocative in today’s Britain.
This was a time when the Welsh were treated as inferior to our English counterparts, a time when the Welsh Not and The Blue Books (1847) were vivid reminders of Welsh cultural repression. When Wales was expected to be subsumed as a county of England.
The wording on the plaque no longer reflects a modern outward-looking Wales, with its own National Assembly and its own international ambitions in the world.
So, what should be done about it? Do we preserve the plaque as a historical relic – quite literally, a sign of its times?
Other nations have had their own conversations about the legacy of statues, with some arguing for historical preservation and others than their propagandist message continues to resonate to the present day and so that they should be removed.
In Oxford University students have protested for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes as representative of colonialism and supremacist attitudes.
In America historical re-evaluation has led to calls for removing Confederate legacy like the statues of General Robert E. Lee.
In Barbados, a report on their Nelson statue was commissioned recommending it should be moved to a less prominent position because of Nelson’s links to slavery.
In Dublin, in 1966, their Nelson’s Pillar was blown up.
And what about other symbols of the British Empire, which glory in the active and enthusiastic role Wales itself played? Sir Thomas Picton, celebrated all over Wales in the form of statues, portraits, and place names, is now widely considered to have been a monster.
Is it time for us in Wales to discuss what we do with the symbols of our own oppression, from a time where social and cultural privilege in England branded the Welsh identity as inferior? And also, what we do with the symbols celebrating our own oppression of others?
I don’t know all the answers I am only asking the questions. But I ask so that others who are more knowledgeable on the subject can continue the debate.
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I am afraid when so many agree with Democrat Candidate Joe Biden who recently said “We choose truth over facts.” Everyone gets their own truth, see? No, I like facts. Like, for example, any skoolboy no that Nelson’s signal “confides” required a flag-per-letter, so they used “expects” which only needed one signal flag. It wasn’t myth-making at that stage. Also, as Trump warned, you start with a statue of Robert E.Lee, a highly respected figure on both sides. And soon they may come for George Washington, which didn’t seem likely when he said it. But they have just boarded up… Read more »
Broadly agree with that. Also we need things that cause discomfort to remind ourselves of our past, recent and remote. The nonsense in USA about removing statues of likes of Confederacy generals must be resisted. Those statues remind Americans and visitors of what happened only 160 years ago and the fake history of “liberating slaves”. They are still working that one out but pulling down Robert E Lee or even Jefferson Davis won’t help. Maybe a few more of the Yankees who stole New Mexico and lands west of the Rockies in late 1840’s should be commemorated just to remind… Read more »
Statues are okay. Change the inscription if you must.
PS – melt down the Glyndwr Statue in Corwen, because, although a hero to some, in ‘truth’ he was a white male patriarch nationalist/fascist who favoured violence and probably favoured smacking and wasn’t bothered by sugary drinks? Satire – how do you know Leanne Wood wouldn’t secretly like to melt him down? Tell us, LW
Oh you are a provocative boy ! or are you a girl ( Joanna ?) pretending to be a boy just to take the mickey to the limit ? Such confusion these days with these people shuttling back and fore between genders and political parties.
Like it or not these things are part and parcel of out history, what next book burning?
Knock it down, it’s very patronising to us Welsh.
Add a plaque outlining the truth which is based on the facts.
An interesting debate! Personally, I think our historical monuments should be left as they are: as you said, like it or not Wales was an enthusiastic collaborator in the British Empire and, whilst cultural repression of the Welsh did happen, we are not blameless when it comes to matters of colonialism. It’s important we understand that as we assess our personal and national attitudes to our past, to ourselves, to our place in the world. These monuments are tangible gateways to the past, how people thought, the politics and propagandas of a bygone era; removing them distances us from history… Read more »
It’s unfortunate, but history is written mainly by the winners. We must learn yo better ourselves from our own history, British and Welsh. All nations and peoples have been both oppressors and oppressed. Those who don’t learn the lessons, mistakes, whatever of history will repeat them, so true!
‘We Welsh’ really grates on lots of people. Some Welsh people did benefit, yes, as with all other countries that had been colonised and suffered from inner duality – grew to ‘identify with the aggressor’. But, please remember that over a million people spoke Welsh in this period, with a significant amount only speaking Welsh. It’s like my Taid always tells me of his father – an English General used to tell him that he’d be one of the top men in the British Army for his sporting talent, if only he could master the English language. Think about that… Read more »
So do we destroy all the castles Edward Longhshanks built, Rip up all Roman remains? What do you think would have become of Wales, had the French defeated the Royal Navy in 1805, and invaded Britain? Leave all historical monuments alone, we need to understand history, and not try to eradicate it. You can’t change the past.
Dylia ni eu malu nhw’n racs fel ddaru nhw’n Iwerddon.
This is the kind of article that I like to see – one that raises issues and asks questions – rather than pushing a particular ideological point (like the promotion of “diversity” that is intolerant of diversity of opinion, for example). Regarding the Nelson statue, I think it should stay, not as a glorification of Empire days but an echo of our past good for generating discussion and reappraisal.
You shouldnt remove parts of history, just because you dont like the past or we become ignorant of the past and what happend. Otherwise your no better than hitler who wanted people of the future to be ignorant by trying to remove parts of history like burning books. Lets not be ignorant; lets be aware, educated & recognise times have moved on instead. If you removed that statue as it represent parts of “english” history, firstly your wrong the welsh also served with Nelson, so are part of it, secondly on that basis we’d have to also remove all the… Read more »
There are currently more pressing matters than trying to edit out monuments which may or may not upset people. Its the future that important . We can hide the obvious evidence of inconvenient history but we can’t change the past. Is it really worth the effort?
Just leave them alone and let people come to their own conclusions.
Since we do not teach Welsh history in our schools, on what basis will people “come to their own conclusions”?
We should let our artists imagine the past.
Personally, not being any kind of artist, I would commission a certain number (take your pick, 1282, 1066 etc) of small hammers and let some people hack away at the inscription until it could be replaced by a new one. Repeat every generation in an everlasting inheritance to pass on to our children and our children’s children.
They should serve as a reminder of a colonial past so that future generations learn the true human cost of empire It would also be prudent to offer them back to England for their preservation but the important question for us to consider is that of whether welsh artifacts such as the Mold gold cape, held in the British Museum( otherwise known as the empire evidence locker) would be returned to Wales when we achieve independence.