Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article published in the Business Day on 15 June 2020.
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 – 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.
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. This is also one of Britain’s most unequal cities, inhabited by 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.” A statue of the slaver, Robert Milligan, was recently removed from London’s docklands. In reaction to persistent protests, many American cities – San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Montgomery – have started removing monuments of slavery-supporting Confederate leaders, while protestors have also toppled some of these statues.
European colonialism was a continuation of slavery by other means. Anti-colonial protests have recently been staged in Oxford University, demanding that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from Oriel College. 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. In France, police continue to brutalise marginalised Arab and African youths who were prominent in recent protests. In Belgium, a statue of King Léopold II – whose reign of terror in Congo resulted in 10 million deaths – was desecrated, and another removed.
It is hoped that these events will trigger a long overdue debate about Europe’s imperial past. The British establishment often remains smug about American racism, while failing to acknowledge the deep prejudices within its own society in schooling, housing, and policing. 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.
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?
The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.