It has been just over two weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, and the beginning of a wave of protests across the world. Whilst neither the first nor the last incidence of police brutality and murder against Black people, this event has acted as a spark in a global movement to demand changes to White supremacist structures and oppressions. An aspect of these protests, particularly in the UK and USA, has been the destruction and on some occasions dismantling of statues honoring the lives of slave merchants and historical White supremacists.
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This has included Robert E Lee, Edward Colston and Winston Churchill. Of the three, Colston has seen the most movement…namely to the bottom of the River Avon. Of the three, Colston has seen the most movement…namely to the bottom of the River Avon.
For many, it was the first time they had heard of Colston and, crucially, his actions in Africa. For numerous others this sparked outrage, especially among the political elite and those who cling to the glorious (glorified) notions of Britain’s colonial past and wars won many years ago. Priti Patel decried the event as “utterly reprehensible”, Kier Starmer declared these actions “totally wrong” and Boris Johnson added that the protests had been “subverted by thuggery”
Some justified the statues presence based on Colston’s historic philanthropy. But there was little question as to where the money came from. This prompts some more pressing questions about Britain and the collective denial, whitewashing or erasure of a history rooted in racism.
Why are people asking why statues are being defaced or torn down instead of asking why those statues are there in the first place? . There is more concern about the statue itself than the fact that this statue represents a man who transported nearly 90 thousand Africans for slavery, killing nearly 20 thousand in the process. There are nearly 20 thousand African bodies (men, women and children) at the bottom of the ocean during that Middle Passage of slavery down to this man and people care more about the statue being gone? How can a stationary monument that stands on the bodies of thousands of Black slaves, receive more adulation and uproar than actual lives lost?
Meanwhile, somebody has defaced Winston Churchill’s statue in London. Whilst it can be argued that defacing statues is distasteful or less useful, the simple fact is that most of the statues in this country honor people that did terrible things. There is no doubt that Winston Churchill played a critical role in fighting against Nazi Germany, his role as Prime Minster was well-known. That he was responsible for polices that led to millions of people in British ruled India starving to death, or he gassed the Kurds before Saddam Hussein is less well known. . when Saddam Hussein’s statue got pulled down in Baghdad many in the world cheered and celebrated it as symbol of liberation and emergence of a new Iraq no longer defaced by the history of Baathist tyranny.
When travelling in Germany there are no statues of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The policy of de-Nazification has meant that Germans are asked to reflect on their attempt to construct a racial-colonial order inside Europe. . And yet the UK celebrates Empire, without reflection Nazi Germany and European colonial empires including the British Empire were based on the same racist logic. The UK blueprinted the concept of concentration camps. The British government were among the first to deploy concentration camps first (Kitchener, to be exact, in the Boer Wars). British forces herded people and shipped them away from their homes, often killing millions during the journey. They were then forced into labor, told it was for their own good and their resources and possessions were stolen. Britain created a narrative that justified the colonial project by demonizing the ‘other’. Sound familiar?
One of these examples is considered amazing and is celebrated as the achievement of ‘Little England’ and the other one is condemned as a terrible event. In one of these examples, descendants of victims are told to ‘just get over it already’…the other example got reparations. There is one key difference between these events and that is the victims. It has been sustained, throughout actions as a country and erasure of those actions, that some victims matter less. This history is not adequately taught in schools, if it is even mentioned. GCSE history on the AQA board (circa 2002-2007) focused on the social and economic history of the North West of England….cotton, mills, Liverpool, Manchester, industry. In the delivery of that curriculum there is no mention of how the cotton was produced, how it arrived, how Britain cultivated that trade. Even now it is demonstrated throughout social media, a distinct unawareness of that history, or even denial.
It is time that Britain cared less about the symbols of oppression that are so proudly mounted all over the country. It is time to care more about those who have been, and still are, oppressed. More people know who Edward Colston is now than before his statue was torn down. If this is what is needed for people to learn and acknowledge the atrocities of Britain’s colonial past, then it is necessary.