A time of reckoning for monuments to racism and genocide

With so many ongoing crises arguments about history may seem esoteric, but only by honestly redressing the sins of the past can we find ways to make a better future. Toppling monuments is just a start.

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Beginning on May 26th, shortly after the police murder of George Floyd, thousands mobilized in support of Black Lives Matter protests that began in Minneapolis, quickly spread across the United States and then throughout the world. Adjacent actions involving the toppling of monuments dedicated to supporters of slavery, participants in the genocide of indigenous peoples, racism and imperialism soon followed and continue in many places.

One such event occurred on June 7th, when protesters in the English city of Bristol in the southwest of the U.K. toppled a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721), who made his fortune as a slave trader. The crowd then threw the offending monument into what is called the Floating Harbor, setting off a firestorm of debate among television talking heads and in the British press.

For much of the internationalist left, the toppling of the statue was seen as the proper response to what isn’t debatable: a slave trader, regardless of his later philanthropy (mainly after his death), shouldn’t be celebrated by a society that proudly touts the fact that it was one of the first major European powers to abolish the traffic in people (in 1833), long after men like Colston built vast fortunes profiting from the trade over centuries.

Interestingly, Colston, who was also a Conservative politician representing the city from 1710 to 1713, is known to have conditioned his philanthropy on helping only those who agreed with his reactionary political views.

In his role as Deputy Governor of the Royal Africa Company, Colston participated in the enslavement of over 80,000 Africans, with almost 20,000 of them dying on the trip to plantations in what was then thought of as the ‘New World’. The cruelty of this early corporate entity was so excessive that they would brand their initials into the flesh of those whose lives and labor they stole.

It should really be more controversial that a slaver’s name is still displayed widely across Bristol, including on buildings like Colston Hall, which are only now being changed, and a that a monument to him remained in place for well over a century, than the fact that righteously indignant protesters toppled it after years of petitions for its removal were ignored.

There are many figures roughly contemporary to Colston who are more worthy of remembrance. One such person I only recently learned about while doing research for this story was a Quaker named Benjamin Lay (1682- 1759), who made his feelings about slavery known at meeting after meeting in and around Philadelphia for some 25 years, excoriating in no uncertain terms those of his contemporaries profiting off of the trade.

One story that is told about his way of protest has it that he once stood with his uncovered leg and foot in the snow for hours and when his neighbors admonished him that he would make himself sick is said to have replied, “You pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half-clad.”

Perhaps it was experiences he had due to his small stature (he was just 4 feet tall) or his time as a sailor working with many different kinds of people, which made him rail against injustice not only in terms of slavery and racism but also the subjugation of women. Although well known in his community at the time, Lay was not wealthy enough to have buildings named after him or statues erected in his memory.

Even more controversial than the protesters’ toppling of Colston’s statue were calls from some on the left and in various anti-racism movements for the removal of a monument to Winston Churchill in Westminster, which had already received a graffiti makeover with the words ‘was a racist’ under his name on the statues’ base during some of the earliest protests held in London in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Closer to us in terms of time, Churchill is revered by many in the U.K. (and most other English speaking countries, including here in Canada) from the center to the far right of the political spectrum, as a great wartime leader who saved his country from Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Missing from the mostly heroic assessments of his life are inconvenient facts about his early enthusiasm for imperialism and fascism and even more seriously, the atrocities he oversaw in India, Ireland and Iraq to name just three places he bloodied his hands.

In one harrowing example from 1943, he earned a place among the greatest monsters of the last century when he insisted on exporting food from what is now Bangladesh during a widespread famine. In the end, this decision cost at least 4 million lives.

He was quoted as saying of people from the subcontinent generally in the article cited above, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Last Saturday, large numbers far right protesters showed up on Parliament Square to defend his statue, which the mayor of London had already placed in a large wooden box to secure it. These ‘counter-protesters’ were denied the fight many of them seemed to want when the protesters they expected didn’t take the bait. Instead, some fought mostly losing battles against police.

Thankfully for authorities, unlike in the United States, where a protester was shot trying to topple a statue of a Spanish colonial governor, Juan de Oñate, who massacred 800 Acoma people and had the feet cut off many more during his reign, these hooligans were not armed.

Despite there being no real threat to Churchill’s covered statue, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, showing typical bravado, vowed the next day to defend it, “With every breath in my body.”

In a sense, this lack of any but the most cynical nuance about history, displayed by Johnson is a long running conservative tactic familiar to most from the ongoing fight over statues and other memorials to the traitorous leaders of the Confederacy in the American south, most of them erected long after the American Civil War ended. The moment one makes an argument about the legacy of slavery or colonialism, it’s dismissed as ancient history, something to be gotten over, but when marginalized groups demand that monuments to their historical oppressors be removed, arguments against ignoring history are quickly brought forward by these same voices.

These obfuscations probably contribute what was discovered by a recent study, “…[which] found that only 8 percent of [American] high school seniors knew that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.” Noelle Hurd Uvirginia

In the U.K. context, even some liberals still insist on defending the British Empire as a ‘civilizing’ influence on the countries they looted for centuries. This attitude is especially galling in terms of India, which had an advanced civilization when Europeans were still living in caves or hiding in what were then vast forests that their ancestors would go on to destroy.

While people like to claim that men like Colston, like Churchill, like those who owned slaves throughout the Americas, were simply products of their times, usually left unsaid is that there were those, like the Quaker Lay, who, based on faith or ideology, could see the truth beyond the lies of the pseudo sciences created to mainstream myths about ‘race’.

With so many ongoing crises arguments about history may seem esoteric, but only by honestly redressing the sins of the past can we find ways to make a better future. Toppling monuments is just a start.

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