Few people can fail to be impressed when standing on St George’s Plateau in Liverpool and gazing across at one of the gems of the city’s architectural treasures. St George’s Hall is a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture. But in the grounds you will find something more distasteful.
The statue of Major-General Earle
Standing on St George’s Plateau with your back to Liverpool’s Cenotaph, a huge rectangular block of stone with bronze reliefs depicting soldiers and mourners, a cursory glance to the left reveals a statue of Major-General William Earle.
Earle was a British Army officer and son of Liverpool. Born in 1833 and grandson to the slave trader Thomas Earle, William fought in the Crimean War before meeting his end at the Battle of Kirbekan in Sudan in 1885, part of a campaign undertaken by the British to protect their imperial interests in the region.
Cast in bronze in 1887 but now green with age, Earle’s statue cuts a dashing and heroic figure. He is depicted striding forwards. In his lowered right hand is an unsheathed sword, while his left arm is raised with the hand outstretched as if leading his men forwards into the fight. A suitably resolute expression adorns his face. Clad in the uniform of the period, with a pith helmet atop his head, gauntleted hands, and spurs on his heels, Earle would not look out of place alongside Michael Caine and his comrades in the 1964 film Zulu.
‘African warrior’s shield’
Yet there is something else. Between Earle’s striding feet, lying on the sculpted ground, there is a large oval-shaped object. Closer inspection reveals that it is what Terry Cavanagh has described as an ‘African warrior’s shield’. The message is clear: the British Empire heroically and majestically tramples all before it.
The presence of the shield is offensive. While contemporary observers might have regarded it as symbolic of Britain’s supposed superiority over foreign peoples, today it represents nought but the oppression and subjugation that the British Empire brought to countless numbers of people around the world in its desire for global power.
Confronting the past of slave trading
In terms of the darker aspects of Liverpool’s history it is street names – not statues – that have been the centre of recent debate. In January 2020, Liverpool City Council decreed that plaques would be placed in several streets whose names have direct links to the city’s slave trading history. These included central thoroughfares such as Bold Street and Hardman Street.
The people of the city, however, do also have some history of challenging statues. A depiction of William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool in 1823 and opponent of the abolition of slavery, resided on Princes Avenue in Toxteth until it was torn down by locals in 1982. Just a year after race riots had erupted in that area of the city, Huskisson’s presence could be tolerated no longer. Rescued by the authorities, the statue now resides at Dukes Terrace in the heart of the city.
Anachronism of a shameful past
It is not surprising given Liverpool’s history as a key trading port and its reputation as the ‘second city of empire’ that Earle (and the empire he represented) should be depicted as they are.
Such pieces were designed to create a mythology of the empire, one which would encourage citizens to revere, glorify, and perpetuate the imperial power of Great Britain. Moreover, Earle is not the only symbol of empire to be found in the city, but their prominence should not mean that we become indifferent to them.
The depiction of Earle, the white British man of empire stomping on the ‘African warrior’s shield’ as a symbol of colonial might is completely at odds with the diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city that Liverpool claims to be.
Statues such as this belong in museums, where the narratives that they promote can be examined, challenged with historical evidence and revealed for what they truly are: anachronisms from a shameful past.
Harry Doyle, Liverpool City Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture and the Visitor Economy, has been approached for comment but has not yet responded.
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