War on statues

Tearing down monuments will not change history, but only erase part of humankind’s shared memory

Photo: EPA The beheaded Columbus statue in Boston.

Winston Churchill, Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, King Leopold II, Edward Colston, Indro Montanelli, John Hamilton, Robert Lee? What is the common thread connecting those historical figures, some well-known and others less so? The answer is the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the span of a week, they were all summarily accused of having been inveterate racists and therefore their statues in the US, the UK, Belgium, New Zealand and Italy defaced, violated, painted, set on fire, removed or downright demolished. In this way, the otherwise righteous public outcry caused by police brutality in the US and the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody unquestionably took on a more grotesque form. Because judging the actions of people from the 15th, 18th or 19th century through the prism of 21st-century thinking is at the very least misguided, if not completely wrong.

Yes, black lives definitely matter, as does the life of any human being, irrespective of gender, race, age, education, social status, etc. Any senseless killing as the ones in the cases of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta deserves condemnation. But it should not be used to blot out or completely erase entire episodes in human history.

At the end of the 15th century Europe learned to navigate the seas and set out to explore and conquer the world. In the next couple of centuries, the technologically advanced western civilisation naturally and without any remorse captured lands, peoples and riches in Africa, Asia and the newly discovered America and Australia. To the western men of that time, the exploitation of “the savages” was something completely natural. Such was the culture of the time.

Do no doubt for a second that had, for example, Africa been in Europe’s position in the 15th century that continent would have done exactly the same thing. And then we would have White Lives Matter movement now. But history did not pan out that way. Instead, over an undeniably extended and important period of human evolution, the Europeans and their descendants dictated the course of history on most continents, leaving their mark, for better or for worse, everywhere.

Yes, the Europeans did a lot of things that can be characterised as extremely inhumane, even genocidal, if we apply the modern way of thinking to them. “Thanks to” European conquerors the indigenous population of the island of Tasmania was totally erased from the face of the Earth, the Aboriginal Australians were completely marginalised, as were, to a large extent, the Native Americans. The rich but incomprehensible to the European mind Aztec and Inca empires in what is now Latin America were crushed under the boot of the Spanish conquistadors. King Leopold II of Belgium “civilised” Congo using methods that could only be described as “crimes against humanity”.

From the dawn of civilisation until just a couple of decades ago, human history was governed exclusively by the “strength is king” principle. The big fish ate the small fish. Cannons defeated arrows. Humanism was the privilege of poets, not rulers. But will the beheading of the Christopher Columbus statue in Boston return America to its native people? Will the throwing of the Edward Colston statue into the Bristol harbour waters return to Africa the nearly 80,000 black slaves that his ships transported to the sugar-cane and cotton plantations in America? Will the setting of the King Leopold II statue in Antwerp on fire bring back to life the millions of Congo people who lost their lives under his brutal rule?

History has always been and will continue to be written by the winners. Of course, the losers of a conflict have the right to their own version of events, but in the larger narrative it is most often reduced to a small paragraph or a footnote. Nevertheless, history gives us all the opportunity to learn from the past and make sure that we never repeat the same mistakes again. But for that to happen, we need to remember the past.

And the past is mostly remembered through monuments. Any monument has a story that can be told through at least two points of view.

To the poor Africans kidnapped from their home villages and transported to America against their will, Edward Colston is a scourge, an evil oppressor, a racist, etc. To the citizens of Bristol he is a remarkable benefactor who poured a huge chunk of his wealth into making sure that his hometown developed and prospered. A small but significant detail – neither he nor any of his direct employees personally kidnaped Africans. They simply bought them on the cheap at the busy slave markets operated by the local black rulers in what is modern Western Africa.

To the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, Capt. John Hamilton, who violently squashed the local uprising in the 1860s, is a killer and a monster. From the standpoint of the British Empire he is a hero who dedicated his life to serving his country.

If we step out of the area of interracial relations and look at Europe specifically – examples of clashing views of history when it comes to one figure or another abound. In the eyes of Bulgarians, Russian general Iosif Gurko is one of the heroes of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, which led to the liberation of Bulgaria. To the Polish, he is the man who drowned the January Insurrection of 1863 in blood. Here is an even more obvious example. To the Bulgarians, Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev are icons, apostles of freedom, national heroes. From the standpoint of the Ottoman Empire they are nothing but bandits, or, to use modern terminology, terrorists.

The conclusion is self-evident. There are only a handful of individuals in human history who can be viewed in a positive light by absolutely everyone. Does that mean we should remove all monuments because someone somewhere feels offended or even aggrieved by the sight of, say, the statue of Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, Capt. James Cook, Confucius (who preached the idea of obeying your superiors), Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela?

Every monument captures a moment in time and has its place – some belong on the squares, others in museums or in specialised parks. But not in harbour waters, scrap plants or overgrown backyards. The monuments commemorating real historical figures and events serve to remind people what happened and what should not have happened. Removing and destroying them will not change history, but will only doom the future generations to ignorance and obliviousness. And from there it is only a small step to committing new racially or religiously motivated outrages.

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