The Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue

I have regularly written about monuments and statues having an on-going and open-ended ‘life history’: how the Wellington Monument in Glasgow has arguably received a new lease of life through its popular embellishment with traffic cones that are tacitly accepted by the authorities (blog from November 2013). I also talked about a similar ‘playful’ engagement with the General Buller statue in Exeter, back in November 2014. More recently, (April 2015) I wrote a blog about the high profile politics surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town University. After becoming a focus of protest, alongside a good deal of social media pressure, the Cape Town University authorities removed the statue. In my blog on the issue, I related the case to that of the Jan-Peter Coen statue, in the Dutch town of Hoorn (reported in an excellent academic paper by Lisa Johnson) where the emergent biography of JP Coen’s statue was closely tied to an on-going (post)colonial political debate.

What I said in my blogs was that the ‘life histories’ or ‘biographical stories’ of such statues need to be uncovered in a critical light. Well, I was recently walking past the General Buller statue in Exeter and noticed that these various strands of thinking seemed to come together in General Buller’s latest iteration:

Buller with added notes1

In my blog on the Buller statue last year (November 2014), I had indicated a potential for this site to become a more potent and explicit site of contestation, and I feel somewhat vindicated that this has now come to pass!

Buller with added notes2

While much of the longstanding ‘public engagement’ with General Buller’s equestrian statue has always tended to operate in the playful mode of embellishing the statue with traffic cones (or, back in May, with a fetching boa-style ruff), these most recent embellishments have striven to make a more overt political statement. As I noted in my Buller blog, this was always a likely site for such politicised ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ activity, with a strong potential for a more radical message.

As I said in my blog last year, while the playful engagement with the Buller statue might act to subvert the authoritative overtones of such imperial statuary, it might also tame the potential for a more critical story. Whether the perpetrators of this most recent manifestation of political messaging read my blog is probably doubtful; more likely, they were inspired by the widely circulated protests and debates over other statues, such as that of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town! Either way, someone has taken it on to themselves to make a critical statement about the meaning of the Buller statue in Exeter.

As I said in my previous blog on Buller, General Sir Redvers Buller was a key developer of war tactics that have dominated many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conflicts, and arguably played an inadvertent role paving the way for trench warfare, concentration camps and gulags. As a master tactician of counter-insurgency operations, perhaps the use of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics for General Buller is really quite an appropriate gesture. And considering his role in British imperial endeavours of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, it is perhaps fitting that his statue has become a site of protest.

Crucially, however, rather than simply acting as a touchstone through which to talk about conflicts that are long gone, I would argue that the Buller statue can serve as a site of a more open-ended and contemporary debate. I think it is the reference to Buller’s alleged ‘war crimes’ that is perhaps most provocative in these latest additions: Firstly, it is suggestive of Lisa Johnson’s work on JP Coen in Holland – that on-going postcolonial issues can be meaningfully engaged with through a critical process of reflection. Maybe, as with JP Coen in the Dutch town of Hoorn, the Buller statue can be ‘put on trial’ and an open public debate can ensue. Secondly, and a related issue however, the mention of ‘war crimes’, I think, makes a knowing reference to another Dutch city; that of the Hague, where perpetrators of crimes during military conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere have been tried under International Law. What this link does, I feel, is bring home the present-centred and future-orientated axes of meaning that this dusty old statue can have. The home made cardboard adornments hanging from the Buller statue, giving notice of past conflicts are, therefore, strongly resonant of a heritage that is both an on-going process, but also something that has traction – it can ‘engage’ as well as being ‘engaged with’.