In the past week, we have seen the removal of monuments which glorified white supremacy and the days of empire, slavery, and colonialism all across the globe so that in of itself is a good thing; but why the outcry against it?
The problem is within the Western world, particularly in the UK, the majority of people have not been taught of the long-lasting effects of empire, slavery, and colonialism, and how these issues actually have a profound effect on the way the white population views, their non-white counterparts. For instance, the statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts, in Bournemouth, has seen groups coming out and ‘protecting’ it, claiming ‘British History Matters’; but many of whom do not actually know the history of Baden-Powell's statue that they are so willingly ready to fight for. As Baden-Powell aligned his ideology to that of fascists like Mussolini (who he admired) and Hitler. He read Mien Kampf and claimed the book was wonderful and had good ideas (Jeal, Baden-Powell, 1989). In 1937 Baden-Powell even held talks with the Hitler Youth Movement and was even invited to meet Hitler (BBC, 2020). He was also a military man, committing crimes in British Kenya, serving out the atrocities of British imperialism. But yet their stands a statue in his name, which is being protected, surely you can see that this is wrong?
Other statues which have caused outcry (and rightly so) is the one of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. Rhodes was an all-out white supremacist, believing whites to be the best race in the world and that the more land they inhabit the better the planet will be (Rhodes, 1902, p. 58). The ‘architect of apartheid’ as journalist Stephan Castle has referred to him continues to be on the wrong side of history (Castle, The New York Times, 2016); often arguing that the native should be treated as a child and that “If the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position." (Magubane, The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875–1910, 1996, p. 109). Rhodes made his wealth in diamonds and established the infamous De Beers company, stealing his wealth from colonised South Africa. The man became so powerful and influential that Rhodesia was named after him; truly, a through and through British imperialist. Yet, the statue celebrating and commemorating Rhodes remains, planted on one of the countries most prestigious universities.
Nelson’s column (a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson) in central London has also been a monument which many have discussed the removal of, including author and journalist Afua Hirsch (Hirsch, The Guardian, 2017). Nelson was vehemently against the abolition of the slave trade and was close friends with slave owners, who opposed the disruptive William Wilberforce, as they were fearful of their profits being reduced (Petley, History Extra, 2018). The white supremacist, as Hirsch has referred to him, does not deserve to have his statue situated in the centre of one of the most diverse cities in Europe; she also suggests that in Britain people remain defending statues of white supremacists while remaining unconcerned about righting this wrong, only perpetuating the false glory of empire (Hirsch, The Guardian, 2017).
In the removal of these imperialist monuments of the past, you are agreeing to the notion that white supremacy, slavery, and colonialism, is wrong; if you do not, your more than likely a beneficiary of the said system. The problem is in the UK we have not dealt with our imperialist history, far too often the 400 years of colonialism and slavery are whitewashed and glossed over, up to 1833 where we are told of the Abolition of Slavery and how great Britain is for it. We are made to believe that slavery and colonialism were long ago, but it was only in 2015 when the payments to former slave-owning families ended; payments which we all paid towards via our taxes, including those descendants of former slaves (Olusoga, The Guardian, 2018). The problem as the author, activist, poet, and journalist Akala, eloquently states is that “They did not explain that the wealth of Britain, which made the welfare state and other class ameliorations possible, was derived in no small part from the coffee and tobacco, cotton and diamonds, gold and sweat and blood and death of the colonies.” (Akala, Natives, 2018, pp. 6–7).
Churchill is another individual who is idolised and referred to as the ‘British Bulldog’ who saved Britain in WW2 (even though it was the USSR which did most of the work). Yet, his white supremacist views and beliefs, along with his atrocities and crimes against humanity; as is seen in British Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising — putting people in their tens of thousands into concentration camps, which official reports state as violations against the UN Declaration of Human Rights — are never mentioned (Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, 2003, p. 327). But this side of history is not taught, nor known, leaving his crimes unheard of. And whose statue is also a symbol to the non-white population of Britain that these imperialist attitudes are still alive and well.
We are told that we should not judge characters of the past by today's standards, implying its not the fault of racist British imperialists, as everyone was and that no one sought to end nor change it; that is woefully wrong. As there were numerous individuals who opposed colonialism, slavery, and racism, we are just not told of their history nor existence. Take, for example, Bartolomé de las Casas (whose history is complex and differing amongst historians), but in short, he opposed the abuses committed by the colonisers against the Native Americas, gave up his slaves and fought for their rights. He did advocate for African slavery, but later retracted his position coming to the conclusion both were wrong, but he was a coloniser nonetheless (Antony, The Ohio State University). Las Casas was advocating for Native Americans rights in the 16th century, while Churchill proscribed to the ideas of white supremacy throughout the 20th century and we are told not to judge him? I think not. Professors such as Charlotte Riley, also hold this view stating “It is completely appropriate to critique those figures from the past whose morals fall short of our own values”. Riley also suggests that it is inappropriate that imperialist and racist figures are celebrated today, displayed proudly across our university campuses and public spaces, rather than display individuals that questioned, fought against, and critiqued the systems of their times (Riley, History Extra).
These relics of the past in Britain only serve to eternalise and glorify the days of empire, which many within the political establishment so often wish to revive. If Britain is to truly come to terms with its colonial, racist, and imperialist past it must be rid of the idols that continue to promote these beliefs in the modern era. But as author and journalist David Olusoga has suggested ‘the statue wars’ must not distract us from a reckoning with racism and that the “statues are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The real conversation has to be about racism and how we confront it” (Olusoga, The Guardian, 2020).