The toppling of a slave trader’s statue raises many questions
After protestors in Bristol pulled down a statue of a slave trader last week, the debate about public tributes to morally objectionable figures has been brought into the mainstream in the UK. So much so, that now Oxford is also reconsidering a proposal to remove a controversial statue.
But although the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue during this wave of Black Lives Matter protests was hailed by many people here as a historic moment in addressing racial bias and prejudice in Britain, a great number of people are uncomfortable with both the action and the idea that history and monuments should be edited out of view in such a way. Is such action an example of ‘victors’ justice’ - in that history and public life is edited according to the thinking prevalent at a certain time or is it our moral obligation to do such editing and to remove tyrants and oppressors from their pedestals?
There’s also the question of all the good that such objectionable characters might have done by using the proceeds from their reprehensible earnings. Colston was a well-known philanthropist and his case illustrates clearly the basic dilemma of industry and capitalism, a dilemma that we are still grappling with today: should the source of wealth stop it from being used for positive and progressive purposes?
Colston was a 17th-century slave trader who made a great deal of money through his work for the Royal African Company. He helped oversee the transportation into slavery of around 84,000 Africans. Out of this number almost 20,000 died en route to America on the company’s slave ships (their bodies were thrown into the sea and devoured by sharks). But Colston was an important figure in his hometown of Bristol because he gave a lot of his money to good causes – schools, hospitals, churches and almshouses. The statue in Bristol was erected almost two centuries after Colston’s death – to commemorate his philanthropy and acknowledge the role he had played in the uplift of the city and community.
After the toppling of Colston’s statue London’s mayor swiftly ordered the removal (or rehousing) of all such statues, i.e. statues of businessmen complicit and enriched by the trafficking and enslavement of Africans. And, a group of Oxford City councillors have demanded that the university remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. With this new demand the councilors have basically reiterated what the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been saying since 2015: that Rhodes represented white supremacy and is ‘steeped in colonialism and racism’ and it is, therefore, inappropriate – and offensive— for him to occupy a place of honour at a centre of higher learning and intellectual discourse.
Rhodes was a 19-century mining magnate and imperialist who made a fortune in Africa, he established the gold and diamond mines there and in his lifetime he owned 90 percent of the world’s production of diamonds through the De Beers mines. He entered politics, became the prime minister of the Cape Colony and he founded the southern African colony Rhodesia – which was named after him (Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabawe when it finally gained independence from Britain in 1980). Rhodes held the view that whites were a superior race (Hitler is said to have been an admirer) and he is widely regarded as the architect of apartheid.
But Rhodes donated a lot of his wealth to Oxford University and is the founder of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship. So, we go right back to the question of the colour of the money - should the source be questioned and shunned or should it be used for noble causes like housing, feeding and educating the less well off?
Money is a huge factor here. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign originally targeted (successfully) a statue at the University of Cape Town. Then this cause was taken up by hundreds of Oxford students in 2016. However, at that time Oxford decided that the statue would stay but said they would make some modifications to the text of the plaque in order to “draw attention to this history and the complexity of the debate.” Nothing was done and reportedly the university had been warned by donors that it would lose over 100 million pounds of gifts and donations if it took down the Rhodes statue. Money, money, money….
Just as happened in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, protest, petitioning and polite negotiation also made no headway in the Colston case. Bristol had said it could not remove the Colston statue but was willing to rewrite the plaque to give context to the figure the statue commemorated. However, even that did not happen because there was so much opposition within the council to the proposed rewording of the plaque and the way it described Colston’s role in the slave trade. In 2014 opinion was divided - forty-four percent of Bristol residents were in favour of removing the statue and 56 percent were opposed to it.
Many of the opponents of the proposal were of the view that Colston was a key part of Bristol’s history and a great benefactor of the city. The concert hall there is named after him as are various other venues including schools. One can understand why some people might be reluctant to give up part of their city’s history – for such people it becomes not about the story of Colston but about their own story, their own memories. I, for example, am from Karachi and I still enjoy calling the old Saddar streets by their Raj names – Elphinstone Street and Victoria Street —not because I think Lord Elphinstone or Queen Victoria should be admired but because those street names are part of my own memories, my own life. This is what also makes me reluctant to accept the renaming of known landmarks like Gaddafi Stadium (just because Gaddafi fell from favour with western powers). People find comfort in the names and places that are part of their city’s history and ideological editing definitely needs to be resisted.
But there is an important distinction that needs to be made here: we need to distinguish between a questionable political ideology and an ethical and moral examination of historical personalities. However, this is made difficult mainly by two things. One is the confusion over what can be defined as moral or ethical – and this confusion is due not just to the lack of importance accorded to philosophy and ethics in curriculums but also to the prevalent ‘both sides of the story’ mantra that is so oddly devoid of ethical moorings (after all, Hitler too had a ‘point of view’). The second factor is the power of money. Wealth can buy silence, complicity and oversight. People today tend to argue that money is money and there’s no such thing as dirty money or blood-stained wealth. And the system of capitalism that exists around us favours this obliteration of our collective moral compass. Capitalism is today the story of sweat shops and exploitation, blood minerals and the suppression of workers’ rights. These evils are all ignored because unethical companies simply whitewash their money and their reputations though their ‘corporate social responsibility programmes’, in much the same way that Edward Colston used his wealth to enhance his stature through local philanthropy.
But we need to own our own histories, not just destroy them. Statues like that of Colston should be re-housed in places like a local museum of slavery where they can be viewed in a historical and social context. In the case of the subcontinent, cities should have museums dedicated, for example, to the Raj era (who in Pakistan remembers that immense black statue of a seated Queen Victoria in Lahore? Surely it needs to be viewed and analysed in the context of its time and message…).
People need to know and understand the historical and political context of physical tributes and landmarks and we must be aware of the necessity of constantly revisiting historical lore and long held assumptions.
And this is not so easy, this is something you may understand intellectually but be unwilling to implement practically - Rhodes, for example, was a white supremacist and an imperialist but how many Rhodes Scholars are going to want to give up on that association and cease using that scholastic achievement?