Statues – to topple or not to topple?

by Don Franks

Removing statues of discredited historical figures is understandable, it will keep happening because of people’s strong feelings. It does not change the past though and we should remember the past as it was. In some cases, it might be better to place a very visible plaque beside a statue which has fallen from favour, listing the discredited person’s crimes.

There’s also the matter of opinion – to some the statue of Gandhi* in front of the Wellington railway station represents a saintly figure. Others see the man as a misrepresented reactionary. Or, what to do with Holyoake’s robed figure across the road? Was Kiwi Keith’s record so bad that he should now be confiscated from the pigeons?

Easier to decide on I think, is the attractively-sited memorial to William Massey, 19th prime minister of New Zealand.

Memorial to William Massey

A lifelong supporter of British imperialism, sender of troops to WW1, brutal suppressor of workers’ strikes with armed thugs. Responding to the Russian revolution, Massey’s government passed the War Regulations Continuance Act, which continued wartime emergency regulations including censorship.

This included a ban on socialist literature, which continued to 1935. In the field of race relations, Massey’s Immigration Restriction Amendment Act of 1920 aimed to further limit Asian immigration into New Zealand by requiring all potential immigrants not of British or Irish parentage to apply in writing. Massey claimed his act was “the result of a deep-seated sentiment on the part of a huge majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a ‘white’ New Zealand.” So, reasonably well qualified to have his memorial removed, should we pop up and do that? We could, but removal of an edifice doesn’t materially help the disadvantaged, who, in many cases would not even be aware of the offending item’s existence.

If I was in charge I’d be inclined to get a costing on Massey memorial removal and spend the amount on lower decile education. Keeping back just enough to pay for an etched square of copper reading “The bloke buried here was an absolute bastard”.

Then, let wind rain and lichen deal to the memorial in their own time, until it crumbles into oblivion, as shall we all.


*While widely held up as the key figure responsible for the independence of India and a pacifist icon, the story of Gandhi and Indian independence is much more complex.  Whether his pacifism really worked is highly debatable. See our two critical appraisals here:

Creepy old Gandhi: demystifying the Mahatma

How successful was/is Gandhian peaceful civil disobedience? 


  1. I am for toppling, trampling, and smashing to smithereens every statue of a Confederate officer everywhere. These statues glorify the system of slavery and, by their very existence, imply not only that there was nothing wrong with slavery, but that it was preferable to equality for Black Americans. And such statues give off the message that their worshippers wish the South could return to a state of Black enslavement. I have no objection to putting up historical markers that state something like, “Here stood a statue of slaver XXXX, who enchained, tortured, and drove to an early death three thousand human beings, selling their children and separating families, stealing every penny of the wealth they created. His statue has been replaced by one of Nat Turner, who led a rebellion against slavery.”

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