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.

Discovering my US Cavalry ancestor on Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com allowed me to discover that an ancestor of mine – falsely identified as a police officer in the NYPD – was actually a US Cavalry lieutenant who fought in the Spanish American war.

In a pile of old photos from the Irish side of my family (Dad is from the Emerald Isle), there’s always been a couple of photos that confused us. A moustachioed gentleman in some kind of uniform in the early 20th century. Who was he? What was the uniform?

Ancestry.com identifies Lieutenant Francis McEnhill

Well, the mystery has been solved thanks to doing some work on Ancestry.com – which I’ve become horribly addicted to. It has given us a very full picture of an interesting guy.

Some of my relatives talked about an Uncle Francis who emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone, in what’s now Northern Ireland. They speculated that he might have become a police officer in the NYPD because of the uniform in the photo.

If he had been aware of their musings, Francis might have been deeply offended.

Because Uncle Francis, it transpires, was in the US Cavalry! An immigrant to the US, he married the daughter of a senior New York military officer James Joseph Butler (1832-1910) who had fought alongside a future US president, Chester Arthur, in the American civil war – with the Union, not the Confederacy. This familial connection seems to have smoothed the path for Irish-born Francis to join the US cavalry.

War record revealed on Ancestry.com

And what a time to have joined! Lt Francis McEnhill (born 1872) was very soon in Cuba and then the Philippines fighting with American forces against Spain – the colonial ruler of these two countries. From 1898, President William McKinley used various pretexts and a fevered press campaign to justify attacking what was then Spanish colonial territory.

This heralded America’s arrival on the world stage. Spain was a declining imperial power and these countries were sad remnants of a once huge empire that covered all of central and Latin America. The war, begun by McKinley and continued by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the US annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

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Ancestry.com reveals the sad death of Francis McEnhill

Francis enjoyed the military life. But he seems to have picked up some bug in the Philippines that destroyed his health. Tropical disease was rife and did impact the cavalry. Whatever he contracted led to encephalitis. This was a death sentence back in those days.

Poor Francis ended up in a hospital in Philadelphia where he died in 1909. Thanks to Ancestry I’ve even found the bill sent to his widow for the coffin, transfer of the body back to New York state and things like the silk Stars and Stripes to be draped over his casket. Also through Ancestry, I now know that he’s buried at Sacket’s Harbour – which was once a major military base.

It’s a quirk of the digital age that I know more about Uncle Francis than my Irish granny, who was his niece, did in the 1970s. She only had sketchy details about him to share. But through the power of the internet and Ancestry.com, I have a surprisingly detailed picture of my dashing ancestor.

As a postscript, I discovered his military chest on Craigslist where a young man had bought it in a house sale. The name Francis McEnhill was on the side of the large wooden crate and documents relating to the widow’s pension were found inside with the gold cavalry insignia you can see on his uniform in the photo.

I offered this young man a very generous price but he chose to give it to a local military museum. I guess it’s gone to a good enough home!

Lieutenant Francis McEnhill – Born 10 June, 1872 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Died 3 June, 1909 in Philadelphia, buried in Sacket’s Harbor