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Rewriting history: the problem with toppling our monuments

If we’re pulling down a monument with one hand and swigging a Starbucks coffee made from beans harvested by slave labour, then we’re simply hypocrites.

Submitted by InfoBrics, authored by Johanna Ross, journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland…

On Sunday a statue to the 19th century English merchant Edward Colston was seized from its pedestal and violently hurled into Bristol harbour by a group of protestors demonstrating as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The incident has become the subject of fierce debate ever since. Edward Colston, like many wealthy Europeans of his time, was a slave trader, and the monument has become, for many, a symbol of racism of the type we must eradicate from our society for good.

The slave trade, which saw at least 12 million Africans shipped to North America over a period of 400 years, was a brutal, debased industry founded on the principle of putting profit before human rights. The money amassed from it went towards developing many of our renowned universities and institutions and the construction of towns and cities across the UK. But it was not only the Atlantic slave trade that contributed to our nation’s wealth. You cannot walk the streets of Britain today without noticing the hallmarks of our imperialist past.  The British Empire exploited people from India to Barbados and the evidence of it is laid bare in the bricks and mortar of our urban architecture and street names. Our country is literally a museum to its imperialist past.

So, what are we to do, start tearing down our town halls, art galleries, and university buildings? How far are we to take the destruction of our material world in order to meet our contemporary standards? We have seen the attempt to rewrite history in recent years in Ukraine, for example, where Lenin statues have been toppled in a bid to wipe the Soviet leader and his Communist dogma, from the pages of history. Or in the Baltic states, where several monuments to the Red Army have been removed as a way of denouncing Soviet rule, despite their purpose being to celebrate victory over Nazism. The past, whether we like it or not, happened. It cannot be erased. There will always be statues that were on the wrong side of history; there will always be some who do not agree with the glorification of a particular figure.

In fact, it could be argued that we should retain controversial monuments as a constant reminder of past injustices. Better still, a more constructive approach would be to start building monuments, instead of removing them, to, for example, progressive 19th century thinkers who did stand up against slavery. Take the Scot, Zachery Macauley, governor of Sierra Leone and anti-slavery activist. Having initially been involved in the British sugar plantations in Jamaica at the age of 16, he devoted his life to fighting for the abolition of slavery, paving the way for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.  There is a bust to him in Westminster Abbey but no statue as such. Surely a monument is long overdue.

Furthermore, it is vital that children are taught not only about the Atlantic slave trade, but all the sordid aspects of the western imperialist past.  I say western, because it’s no secret that the whole of Europe was at it. The Dutch were exploiting Indonesia, the French were ransacking Africa and the Spanish pillaging South America. These were people of a different era, with a different way of thinking – call it primitive, or immoral or just plain wrong. Those that did follow a strong moral code were for the most part fervently religious and desperately trying to ‘convert’ conquered peoples to Christianity as they deemed them ‘savages’. Can we change these facts? No. The main thing is that we leave such attitudes in the past, where they belong.

Racism obviously remains a deep-rooted issue in the US which may take generations to eradicate. It is systemic and very much tied up with the country’s history, from the days when Europeans invaded the lands belonging to Native Americans.  Unfortunately it is a nation founded on injustice and built on the blood, sweat and tears of exploitation. Although this should never be forgotten, what is even more important is learning from these mistakes. And so far, there is little evidence of this happening. For although the British empire has long been disbanded, Britain continues to support US imperialism and expansionism which wreaks havoc across the globe, from the wars waged in Iraq, Libya and Syria, to the multinational firms exploiting impoverished workers in Bangladesh and China.

Indeed, we may have come to terms with our role in the 19th century Atlantic slave trade in recent years, but we have a long way to go in recognizing our role in supporting the modern slave trade, which it is estimated involves a staggering 40.3 million people. That means 1 in 200 people worldwide is a slave. Whether we are talking about women and girls working in the sex trade in Asia or workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 Qatar world cup, slavery is far from being a thing of the past, it is part of the globalised world we live in. The clothing we wear, and the mobile phones we use, have more often than not been manufactured by people working in slavery or exploitation.

So while it may be easier to focus on monuments of the past which don’t comply with our moral standards, not only are we likely to be left with none at all, but we are at risk of deflecting attention from the real inequalities which plague our society. If we are indeed a more enlightened people than our forefathers, we need to look beyond the monuments on our streets, to the very food we put on our plates, how it got there, and who has been exploited for our benefit. Otherwise, if we’re pulling down a monument with one hand and swigging a Starbucks coffee (made from beans harvested by slave labour) with the other, then we’re simply hypocrites.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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cudwieser
cudwieser
June 10, 2020

The spectre of Woodrow Wilson cometh. TBH History is a topic rarely explored and almost never learned. I really must be a mandate to teach it beyond ciriculum and adopted as an extra ciricular study at home. Even as a sideline to actual points of interest it is essential that we know how we got here and where we should go. Add to that critical thinking and we may have a chance. Finally to get to the past you must command the present as we are the gatekeepers of history.

Smoking Eagle
Smoking Eagle
Reply to  cudwieser
June 10, 2020

If you don’t have the history to show where you have come from, how can you possibly judge where you are today or steer a course for who you want to be or where you want to go in the future?   We should keep the past in view as a learning tool and not demolish it.   I remember when people wanted the “N” word changed in the title of Joseph Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus (1897). Shouldn’t we remember that it was okay to use “nigger” (a corruption of Negro) 123 years ago and think of how things… Read more »

cudwieser
cudwieser
Reply to  Smoking Eagle
June 11, 2020

Hi Eagle, It’s been a while 🙂 If only it was so petty. As you rightly said nigger is a batardisation and a vulgarity, muck like fuck, shit, piss. It’s impolite and not inducive of good conversation, but ultimately it’s just a word. While I can appreciate the want of controlling the word and empowering it against racists, the simple reality is that such a naive notion doesn’t work. Language only has the power you give it in response. It only has the power to offend if you let it offend, otherwise, like calling an Irish man Mick or Paddy… Read more »

Smoking Eagle
Smoking Eagle
Reply to  cudwieser
June 11, 2020

Agreed. Some of the words and terms we used to use without ruffling any feathers have been politicized and imbued with meanings and intentions they never had a few decades ago. In the 1960s in the UK, the colour brown was very fashionable for a couple of years and clothing, knitting yarn, fabric, sewing thread, etc., was actually labelled “nigger brown”. I never once, not for a single second, associated this with an African or any dark-skinned person. I had a golliwog when I was growing up, as did the majority of children in England. I loved him so much… Read more »

cudwieser
cudwieser
Reply to  Smoking Eagle
June 11, 2020

True, but. As you’ve said a lot of terms were merely descriptive and used that way. It was context that was important. In the same way walking up to a stranger and calling them buddy. It might seem to some nice a friendly, but what is your first thought… You still be polite even if the ‘familiarity’ of remark can be quite contemptable. Using nigger really should be avoided as a matter of manners and until you actually know the person you’re speaking to. No word is a bad word, just a word used badly. Same with jokes. Most people… Read more »

Forey Ratliff
Forey Ratliff
June 10, 2020

Let’s look at the distribution of slaves acquired from where? Africa? From whom? The U.S. seems to be the epicentre of the controversies concerning the “peculiar institution” but many more countries have had a greater role in the institution and perpetuation of the involuntary servitude of enslaved peoples. When speaking of responsibility, culpability, and restitution/reparations, why are these countries excused from the discussion? Why aren’t other countries that were the recipients of a much larger proportion of the human chattel included? Toppling statues might have an even broader appeal were ALL peoples involved. Removing a statue is a one-time expression… Read more »

penrose
penrose
June 10, 2020

You can try to destroy all of the historical evidence of everything that makes you feel bad, but at the end you will still have the same DNA.
 
And DNA matters.

pilot@gmail.com
June 11, 2020

Slavery existed in parallel with serfdom, implying the same slavery under a different name, all over the Europe. The serfdom was as brutal as slavery. Abolition of slavery occurred at the same years as abolition of serfdom. All European nobles had serfs.

Duran-Duran
Duran-Duran
June 12, 2020

Here’s a German perspective on the issue of old monuments and their meaning today: https://www.moonofalabama.org/2020/06/how-to-change-the-meaning-of-monuments-without-removing-them.html

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