Statues with ugly history

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By Eunice Masunungure

WHEN the UK anti-racism protesters toppled the statue of the 17th Century slave trader, Edward Colston, on June 8 2020, another mark was added to the subversive abolition narratives against Western supremacy which manifested variously in slavery and colonialism and are still being maintained through social injustices.

Human slaving and colonising narratives are infuriating  and are known to be changed by assertive agency, which has no clear-cut rule.

Analysts and demonstrators insisted that Colston’s statue was offensive in the way it was erected to hover over a nation built from the riches accrued and built by slavery.

Colston was a board member and Deputy Governor of the  Royal African Company and he was linked to the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84 000 Africans, Oliver Ransford’s The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade records.

Nearly 19 000 of Colston’s slaves died on slave ships in the Middle Passage from Africa going abroad.

The bodies of the dead were thrown into the sea and eaten by sea creatures.

Displaying a person who had direct link to slavery for 125 years in Bristol tends to stir ugly commemoration of history to both African-Americans and those who detest the ugly history surrounding the forced movement of humans from Africa.

Narratives against injustices are being written and thousands of people also want a statue of the 19th Century British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes to be removed from an Oxford University College, UK, as has unfolded as recent as June 9 2020.

Protesters held placards written ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’.

They called for the statue to be removed, chanting:

“Take it down!

Decolonise!” 

They held placards inscribed: ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ beneath the statue at Oriel College, sources say.

One commentator, Sylvanus Leigh (44), said: “The limestone statue of the Rhodes, who founded the De Beers diamond company in what is now Zimbabwe, represented ‘a colonial mindset’.”

Protesters sat with raised fists for nearly nine minutes in tribute to unarmed blackman George Floyd, whose death in US police custody triggered outrage and condemnation worldwide.

Statues and monuments of colonisers and slave masters tend to proclaim white supremacy and the colonial legacy.

They are restrictive versions of the stories of the oppressed  told from Western perspective.

They ‘stir emotions’ when they laud one-sided narratives.

Dealing with narratives provoking sad emotions is not new.

For instance, in Zimbabwe, agency involved removal of two statues of Rhodes; one in Bulawayo and another in Harare.

Physical Energy statue, cast in1959 and associated with the persona of Rhodes, was taken down after the country’s attainment of independence. 

It was associated with racism summed up in the then Federal Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins’ policy of racial partnership.

Said Huggins: “The relationship that exists between whites and blacks is the same that exists between the rider and his horse.”

The Emperor’s Sculptor, as Rhodes wanted them called, were taken down after independence, in August 1980, and stored at the National Museums in Bulawayo and National Archives in Harare.

Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town in 2015 was so imposing and infuriating to any sensible being.

Under the theme ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, there was a move for the defacement of this colonial era monument in Capetown, when the Cape Town University Council unanimously voted for the removal of colonialist Rhodes statue from the Rondebosch University Campus in April 2015.

Protesters also attempted to remove the statute of King George VI at the University of Kwazulu Natal and splashed green paint on the statue of Paul Kruger in Pretoria.         

Statues in the West like London statues from 1700 to 1779, commemorate royaty, including those slave merchants.

For example, in Edinburgh Street, Andrew Square, there are 150-foot high Viscount Melville and Henry Dundas. 

These men worked very hard to bring many slaves to the West and delayed attempts to ending slavery. 

Statues are texts that serve as reminders of the painful history of Africa, speaking from generation to generation. 

Since they serve self-congratulatory political agenda of the West against the African introspective narratives, they must be effaced.

There is no clear formula for agency or fighting social injustices but in these recent times, these are found in anything done to topple images that speak imposingly about human past and present.

In retrospect, slavery abolitionist narratives were included in essays, prose and poetry used as instruments forwarding the cause of ending slavery and promoting racial equity and justice.

Books, newspapers, pamphlets, poetry, published sermons and other forms of literature were used to spread messages and this is time to write.

There were also open encounters in protest against slavery.

Just like Ransford, in his book The Slave Trade: The Story of Trans-Atlantic Slavery, describes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as subverting American opinion about enslavement, the anti-racism campaigns seek to change the status quo.

Writes Ransford:

“It would require a far ruder shock than Garrison’s homilies to polarise American opinion about slavery into two opposing camps which were prepared to settle the issue by force of arms.

That shock came in 1851 with the publication of a  novel written by a  prime middle aged woman. 

The novel was entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its author was Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

The current anti-racism demonstrations are strong statements against the institution that started during slavery.

Statues are texts and there is a problem when they speak to the aspirations of the oppressor and suppress the other because that is maintenance of the idea of social classes. 

Actions and words must resonate when we are talking about equality of humans.

There is no room for a passive stance against racism.

For the community that is so much used to setting the agenda and using other nations as ponies, the West was surely not prepared for what is taking place at the moment.

There are schools that argue monuments of slavery and colonialism ought to be preserved and that history must not be edited for future generations to clearly see through the accounts of their history.

Such schools of thought argue: “The right thing to do is not to erase our history but to benefit from studying it. 

We have to ask ourselves how a campaign like the one to abolish the slave trade ultimately succeeded, despite being opposed by many vested interests, being the source of much wealth and capital, and in the face of widespread apathy. 

Further we should try to understand why it succeeded in Britain, leading a country that was steeped in the guilt of the slave trade to devote immense resources to urge other nations to desist from their own trade and freeing huge numbers of slaves on the high seas.”

They argue for transparency and public knowledge to feed in as ingredients to abolition narratives. 

One must insist, however, that the anti-racism narratives unfolding currently the world over are significant in fighting the de-humanisation of other humans by reason of caste. 

Statues with enslaving connotations must be removed from the public eye.

However, more still needs to be done to completely eradicate the remnants of injustices brought about by racism.

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