A bonfire of the monuments men?
Statues of dead white men continue to be toppled across the Western world by a multi-racial carnival of determined activists. This follows “Black Lives Matter”-led global protests against the gruesome “lynching” of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis. This bonfire of the “monuments men” signifies the destruction of memorials to slavery and colonialism that have, for centuries, constituted a violent and persistent assault on the sensibilities of black and brown minorities living in Britain, France, Belgium, the United States (US), Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another former “white dominion” – South Africa – now ruled by a black majority, still has a statue of a white military conqueror on horseback in front of its Cape Town Parliament. But, South African students played a crucial role in igniting the global “Fallist” movement, with the removal of the statue of arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, from the University of Cape Town campus in 2015.
The Transatlantic slave trade saw 12-15 million Africans exported to the Americas between 1450 and 1888 to work on sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton plantations. This sordid commerce involved slavers, merchants, and plantation owners from Britain, Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. The US, which had been born out of the European genocide of native Indians, was also deeply involved in the trade, having inherited plantations from former British overlords in 1776.
Britain’s Royal African Company was created in 1672, and granted a monopoly over the African slave trade. This monopoly ended 26 years later under pressure from the British “plantocracy” of merchants and planters in the Americas, who pushed for free trade in slaves. Slave traders in Bristol, London, Liverpool, and Glasgow eventually took over this commerce, which was strongly supported by the monarchy and the general public. The Church also lent strong support, with God and the Devil marching in lockstep. Between 1680 and 1786, over 2 million African slaves were shipped to British colonies in the Caribbean. This trade laid the foundations of contemporary British industry and banking, and its members included British parliamentarians, the Barclay and Baring banking families, and several prominent American families. Britain’s rivalry with France in the Caribbean largely revolved around the slave trade. Western industrialisation was thus literally built on the back of slavery and colonialism. This is the historical context in which to understand the recent toppling of the 125-year old bronze statue of the 17th-century slaver, Edward Colston, in Bristol. He helped support the transportation of about 84,000 African slaves to the Americas, of which 19,000 perished at sea. Not only was a statue erected in his image, but Colston Hall also remains Bristol’s largest music venue. This is also one of Britain’s most divided and unequal cities, inhabited by Bristolian descendants of Colston’s slave trade. The statue was kicked and rolled into Bristol harbour, symbolically replicating the throwing of millions of African slaves to their deaths during the “Middle Passage.”
Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, refused to condemn or condone the removal of the statue, arguing that it represented “an affront to me and people like me.” In contrast, Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary of Ugandan-Indian descent, called the toppling of Colston’s statue “utterly disgraceful,” and has consistently portrayed protesters as a deranged mob of vandals and thugs. Patel’s unreflective view represents the reactionary perspective of descendants of recent immigrants so desperate to fit into a new society, that they become more nativist than the original natives. A statue of the slaver, Robert Milligan, was also recently removed from London’s docklands.
In reaction to persistent protests, many American cities – San Francisco, Philadelphia, Montgomery, Alexandria and Richmond – have started removing monuments of slavery-supporting Confederate leaders that were deliberately erected as symbols to oppress African-Americans in the post-bellum South. Protestors have also toppled some of these statues. European colonialism of Africa was the continuation of slavery by other means. Both systems involved profit-driven exploitation – cloaked under the perverse justifications of a mission civilisatrice – with the project legitimised by Western leaders, capitalists, churches and scientists. Anti-colonial protests have recently been staged in Oxford University, demanding that the statue of the greatest symbol of Victorian imperialism – Cecil Rhodes – be removed from Oriel College, due to his white supremacist ideology. Typical of an entrenched establishment, Oxford continues to have a tin ear, fatuously calling for a debate it clearly does not wish to have about the blood money of one of its greatest benefactors. A million Algerians died during France’s savage colonial war (1954-1962) in a desperate bid to hang on to a territory that clearly did not belong to it. The current anti-colonial rage has also spread across the Channel: Gallic police continue to brutalise marginalised Arab and African youths who were prominent in recent protests. In Belgium, a statue of King Léopold II was desecrated in Brussels – by protesters also challenging police brutality against Africans – and another removed in Antwerp. Léopold’s reign of terror in the Congo resulted in 10 million African deaths – half of the population – in a rapacious system of slave labour and torture on rubber plantations.
It is hoped that these events will trigger a long-overdue debate about Europe’s imperial past. While I was in a secondary school in England in the 1980s, we were fed with a staple diet of the history of the Stuarts, Tudors, Nelson, and Gladstone, but not once were we taught about Britain’s sordid colonial past. Four decades later, this still remains the case. Germany, in contrast, has largely learned from its Holocaust past to create new citizens who continue to be reminded about their age of Nazism, though less so about the Holocaust against the Herero in Namibia. All Labour Party councils across England and Wales have sensibly agreed to review all statues with links to slavery. The British establishment often remains smug about American racism, while failing to acknowledge the deep prejudices within its own society that have marginalised minorities and discriminated against them in schooling, housing, health, prisons, and policing for decades. The clock may finally have struck midnight in Cloud Cuckooland, and Britain is being forced to wake up from its delusional fantasy of racial harmony amidst a continuing nostalgia for Empire represented by prejudiced scholars like Niaill Ferguson.
The populist leaders of Britain and the US, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – the respective apostles of Brexit and “Making America Great Again” – have predictably responded to civic protests by invoking the insensitive machoism of “Law and Order” caudillos. But as has often been noted, without justice, there will be no peace. The hard work of correcting historical wrongs can not be indefinitely postponed through the chest-thumping bluster of two leaders whose incompetence has been embarrassingly laid bare by their bungling response to the COVID/19 pandemic. These monstrous monuments that continue to litter Western cities need not be destroyed. They can be put in museums or – as in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism – theme parks, where their historical significance can be contextualised and explained to the public in order to learn lessons from the past and avoid mistakes in the future. Is it not time to light a bonfire of the vanities under these oppressively albinocratic monument’s men whose images continue to blight the landscapes of Western cities and post-apartheid South Africa?
Professor Adebajo is Director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.