Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

La Peste: Plague, heresy and murder in Spain

I’ve watched some terrible historical dramas on TV of late – awful scripting, casting and plotting. So, discovering the Spanish TV six part drama La Peste (The Plague) has given me hope for the genre!

La Peste transports you back in time!

Set in 16th century Spain, the action takes place in the city of Seville. Though now resolutely Catholic, the city still reveals traces of its previous Moorish, Muslim rulers. Casting a shadow over the lives of its inhabitants is the Inquisition. Otherwise known as the Holy Office, this arm of the Catholic church sets out to identify Protestants and to eliminate them.

Our hero, Mateo, has fallen foul of the heretic hunters but is given a chance to save his life if he can find out who is behind a series of grisly killings in Seville. He is accompanied in his investigations by the illegitimate son of a dead friend he swore to protect. But this street urchin, Valerio, has grown up in the truly ghastly slums of Seville and is a ruthless, emotionally stunted individual.

Spain at the time it was colonising the world

What I loved about La Peste was the way it conveyed the filth and degradation of Seville at a time when the Spanish empire encompassed much of Latin America, Europe and even had a foothold in Asia – the Philippines. The wealth of empire trickled upwards leaving most Spaniards living in bestial conditions.

La Peste uses CGI intelligently and effectively. We see some familiar landmarks that still exist today in Seville but set among shanty towns, shabby markets and tiny dwellings. The last episode ends with an auto-da-fe – a public burning of heretics. I’ll admit it was one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve seen on TV for a long time but, very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the series.

I recommend! The YouTube video below shows the making of the last episode of La Peste – spoiler alert and some of you may find the scenes of the Inquisition punishing heretics upsetting.