Updated: June 30, 2020 9:19:34 am
A few days ago, two 30-year-olds (a man and a woman) climbed to the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and put a mask over Nelson’s face. They were members of Greenpeace, taking advantage of the chaos around them to garner free publicity for their anti-pollution campaign. The upheaval all around was caused by the frenzy of the Topple the Racists brigade, which took off in London from the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. In its seven years of existence, BLM has also demanded the removal of statues but without the hooliganism seen in London.
The recent outpouring of anger in the US has been caused by George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, but racism in that country’s judicial system and police department has been rampant for years and seems to have been institutionalised. Minneapolis, Minnesota — where Floyd was killed — is notoriously bad with its police force getting “warrior style” training. Just one set of figures tells the whole story: African-Americans comprise 13 per cent of the US adult population but make up 33 per cent of the imprisoned population. There are obviously other factors responsible for this imbalance, but racism is the primary one. That also shows up in the startlingly different rates of convictions and acquittals for whites and blacks. It goes back to the US Constitution of 1789, which defined a citizen as “a free white man”. There were even lynching laws, which regulated how lynchings could or could not be carried out.
The statues that the Black Lives Matter movement have been agitating to remove are mainly of Robert E Lee, the Confederacy’s most honoured general and other Civil War heroes of the deep South. Wouldn’t their removal be considered an attempt to erase history? In normal circumstances, yes. However, the important point is that a great number of these statues were erected in the late 19th century, at the start of the 20th century and in the 1950s when civil rights movements were gaining strength. The timing is important: These weren’t commemorative statues; they were put up to intimidate the black population by reminding it of its past.
The London protest had no immediate provocation. Topple the Racists is a good slogan but it ignores the first lesson of history, that of presentism — interpreting past events in terms of modern values and concepts. Most of the targets of the topplers have some connection with slavery. But however abhorrent slavery is to us now, it was an accepted practice from the earliest known records in Sumer to the time of ancient Rome and Greece and for Incas and Aztecs. There was debt slavery, slavery as punishment for crime, and enslavement of prisoners of war. As for the truly inhuman slave trade, we know about the Atlantic slave trade in the west because it has been well documented, but there was a flourishing trade the other way too with the Ottoman and Arab slave trades. Many African slaves were brought to India generally to be inducted into the militia. Slavery in the west was abolished as recently as 1833 in England and 1865 in the US — in human history, that’s only a short time ago.
Admiral Nelson died in 1805 after his inspired leadership and unconventional tactics defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets. Nelson’s column, erected in 1840, celebrates that triumph. Without that decisive victory, the history of England may have been entirely different. Do the agitators think about that, or do they only think of Nelson’s anti-abolitionist attitude? Similar short-sightedness prevails for most of the 78 statues that are the targets of the Topple the Racists campaign: The statue of Thomas Guy (1644–1724) stands outside Guy’s hospital, which he founded. He made his fortune from a company that sold slaves, but his hospital saved lives. The statue of Robert Milligan (1746-1809) was quietly removed to foil agitators; it had been placed outside the West India Docks because he was responsible for the dock’s construction. The statue of Edward Colston (1636-1731) was thrown by protestors into the Avon river; they didn’t see that he had been a philanthropist and a major benefactor of Bristol city. They only saw him and Milligan as slave owners, but they were hardly unique in that respect during those times.
Other targets include imperialists like Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) and Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Imperialism isn’t dead yet, but at one point no great power could resist the temptation to colonise. So, why is Rhodes a villain? The Rhodes statue commemorates the scholarship he set up at Oxford University. As for Churchill, he’s a national hero, the man who saved Britain from Hitler.
The topplers have others on their list including Christopher Columbus (for “colonising” America), Lord Mountbatten (for Partition) and even Mahatma Gandhi (attitude to Africans). While we are on this new shaming spree, why not add some more revered names? Like Aristotle (theory of natural slavery), Homer (slavery as an inevitable consequence of war) and Plato (slaves have a deficiency of reason). All this will lead to completely vapid political correctness, shut out debate and stop us from looking objectively at our shared history.
No one now can possibly say that imperialism was good and ethical, but we can’t avoid the fact that it was there and is a part of human history. So is slavery and the horrors attached to it. It’s pointless to fight the past. It’s the evils of today which have to be battled into the ground.
Dharker is a writer and columnist