Posts Tagged ‘Anglo-South African Wars’

When You Pull Down Statues, Make Sure They’re of the Right People

June 10, 2020

Since Colston’s statue was pulled over and lobbed in the docks in Bristol on Sunday, others have called for the removal of similar statues and monuments to those connected to the slave trade. Down in Devon there have been calls for a statue of the Elizabethan explorer Francis Drake to be removed. At Oxford University demands have started up again for the removal of the university’s statue to the 19th century imperialist, Cecil Rhodes. And on Sky News’ The Pledge, Afua Hirsh managed to get LBC’s Nick Ferrari in a right tizzy for suggesting that not only should Rhodes’ statue be taken down, but also Horatio Nelson and Winston Churchill.

I can’t defend Rhodes. He seems to me to be have been a thoroughly ruthless character, who was intent only on grabbing as much land for himself and Britain on any pretext whatsoever. I might be wrong, but I’ve got a horrible suspicion he was one of the people behind the Anglo-South African or Boer War during which tens or hundreds of thousands of Afrikaner women and children died in concentration camps. He was also instrumental in the creation of Rhodesia’s colour bar.

Nelson and Churchill are going to be much more controversial. Most people only know of Nelson for his victory at Trafalgar during the Napoleonic War. This was to stop the French imperial domination of Europe, and Napoleonic forces had also invaded Egypt. I think most Brits will therefore take an attack on Nelson as an attack on a key figure, who kept Britain and Europe free. Yes, he’s a symbol of British imperial strength, but I doubt many people associate him with the oppression of Blacks and Asians. It’s going to look like a spiteful attack on Britain, rather than a gesture of Black liberation.

Ditto Hirsh’s other target, Winston Churchill. I’m absolutely no fan of Churchill myself. He was an authoritarian aristocrat, whose real reason for opposing Hitler was that he saw Nazi Germany as a threat to British interests in the North Sea, not because he was an opponent of Fascism. He sent troops in to shoot striking miners in Wales, and was all for calling them in during the General Strike. Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister at the time, wanted him kept well out of the way to avoid exacerbating the situation. As for Ireland, back in the 1990s there was an interesting little programme on BBC 2, The Living Dead, which was about the way Churchill’s heroic view of British history in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples had influenced subsequent politics. One of the key offenders here was one Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who had been strongly influenced by the great war leader herself, and tried to invoke his memory at nearly every opportunity. The programme interviewed a former member of the Irish republican paramilitary group, the INLA. He said that it was easier to recruit members under Thatcher than under Ted Heath because of Thatcher’s celebration of Churchill. For Irish nationalists, Churchill was the monster, who sent in the Black and Tans. His sequestration of grain from the Bengal peasants during the War resulted in an horrific famine which killed something like 2-4 million people. This is comparable to the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis, and some senior British army officers saw it as exactly that. Churchill, however, declared it was all their fault for ‘pullulating’, or having too many children.

That is not, however, why Churchill is celebrated over here. He’s lauded because he, Roosevelt and Stalin together overthrew the Nazis and their allies. The War swept away Fascist Italy, and the other Fascist or Fascist-aligned regimes in Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania. It liberated Greece and Albania. Stalin was no angel either. He killed at least 30 million Soviet citizens during the purges and deported whole nations and ethnic groups to Siberia. Instead of letting the eastern European countries decide their future for themselves, he imposed a ruthless autocratic Communist dictatorship. I think Churchill would have liked those nations to have been free to decide for themselves. Back in the ’90s there was a radio series on Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, the conference that would decide the post-War European order. It was called The Eagle and the Small Birds, from a quote from Churchill ‘The eagle should let the small birds sing, and care not wherefore they sang’. A Nazi victory would have been the stuff of nightmares, and I don’t know how many millions Hitler would have murdered had he been successful. What the Nazis did to the Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians was horrific enough as it is.

Churchill isn’t the saint or the great molten idol the Tories claim he is by any stretch of the imagination, but he is one of the reasons why Hirsh and Black activists like her are able to make their criticisms of traditional British history and its heroes. If Hitler had won, or his mate Oswald Mosley had seized power in some kind of coup over here, Hirsh and her allies would not have been tolerated. The Nazis’ eugenics programme included not only the murder of the disabled, but also the sterilisation of the mixed race children of White German women and Black American soldiers from the post-First World War army of occupation. Mosley himself would have made Britain an apartheid state, with citizenship granted only to those who conformed to aryan British culture, if not physiology. The War and the horrors of the Nazi and Fascist regimes made eugenics and racism and anti-Semitism far less acceptable than they were before. I am very much aware how institutionally racist Britain is and has been. But it’s much better than what would have existed had Churchill been defeated.

But most of all, I’m concerned that the zeal for smashing statues and monuments may destroy those to abolitionists. Nearly 20 years ago, when I was doing voluntary work in the Empire and Commonwealth Museum here in Bristol, one of the books that found its way into the slavery archive and library was a little bit of local history by the Liverpudlian writer, Fritz Spiegel. Spiegel prides himself on being a ‘Dicky Sam’, the Liverpudlian equivalent of a ‘real Cockney sparrow’. The book was on the fascinating history of the abolition movement in that great city. If I remember rightly, it included not only White abolitionists, but also some of the Black people who also populated the city. It wasn’t just a piece of local history for its own sake, though. In his introduction, Spiegel explained that he moved to right it because, in their zeal to destroy monuments to the city’s slavers, some people had also vandalized those of innocent merchants and abolitionists.

I’m afraid there might be a danger of something similar happening in the current zeal for smashing statues commemorating Black oppression and slavery. There are good reasons for removing monuments like Colston’s. But let’s not confuse those with slavery’s opponents.