Understanding Why Colonial Statues Were Erected Will Help To Understand Why They Don’t Belong In The Public Space In 2020

Columbus Statue Fall In ST. Paul. CGN
The toppling of the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul. Courtesy:CGN

The removal of colonial statues is not new —- it has been a function of activists across the decolonized world, predominantly on the African continent, from as early as the 1960s. Much of it has particularly found expression in newly Independent nations wanting a reversion to pre-colonial societal fabric devoid of these repugnant reminders of the colonial epoch.

The sentiment anchoring this action was that statues honouring “heroes” of colonialism were a contradiction to the new spirit of nationhood. Generations later have seen the growth of radicalism that has led to demands for the toppling of more racist relics. Colonial names didn’t escape notice either: after Independence colonial states Northern and South Rhodesia named for colonizer Cecil Rhodes of #RhodesMustFall and #RhodesScholar reverted to Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively.

African nations are not the only ones to express this representational break with an oppressive past. The fall of the Soviet Union saw not only the reversion to names such as Russia from the USSR, Leningrad making way for St. Peter’s Square, but the toppling of giant statues of Lenin and Stalin.

It was the same sentiment being expressed when the Iraqis toppled the statue of then public enemy number one, Saddam Hussein. The point is that symbols which stand as living reminders of tales of gore are antithetical to change and new beginnings, hence many believe they should make an exit to some museum, hall of shame but definitely not “decorate” the public spaces. They are coming down as they should because their removal is part of the process of decolonization….one that should have taken place long ago.

The issue, of course, is one of those contentious ones that usually see battles lines swiftly drawn. On the one hand, a resolute army of protestors prepared to remove them with their bare hands if necessary. While an equally committed group of supporters on the opposing team who believe that taking them down erases history. So, we are confronted with a number of issues. For example, why are statues erected? Should they come down? Of what social value are they and what effect do they have?

Why Colonizers Erect Statues And Monuments And Put Their Names To Places

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot on an island in what is now the Bahamas. The native Lucayan people called it Guanahani. Columbus renamed it San Salvador. Translation: laid claim — took possession — cemented history — ensured an enduring legacy. Renaming places were among the first step to settlement. It erased the titles of the rightful owners and established as property owners the imperial power. Stamping your authority and culture on the landscape is a critical function of any invading or occupation force…it makes their intention explicitly clear.

Cementing of history in of itself is not a bad thing. Nothing wrong with cementing in the memory the men who gave their lives serving in two world wars….we owe them our freedom. It begins to change trajectory though when statues and monuments become antithetical to the idea of inclusivity, the idea of one nation, one people especially in former colonial empires like Britain, France and a former colony like the United States emerging from a violent past of colonialism, slavery, Civil War, post-Civil War Reconstruction /Jim Crow laws and a tumultuous Civil Rights Era. How do you square having these markers of power and dominance of a past that was abhorrent to the descendants of those who experienced it as it was celebratory for those at the other end of the pole?

How does any country with a colonial past justify a landscape and institutional names that glorify colonialism and white supremacy alongside a section of the population that was not a part of a glorious imperial past but even worse…were sufferers? It is really a huge slap in the face the flagrant thumping of these monuments of oppression.

Students cheer as a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes is removed from the Cape Town University campus in South Africa in April 2015. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

Colonial statues and monuments tell a story — they are not accent pieces used to fill a space. More than that they make a statement. And more than that not just any ordinary statement but one that says that the subject did some meritorious act to earn his immortalization. A statue of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley suggests that he was a unifier, a peacemaker, a tireless servant and advocate in the cause of peace and love between the races….that’s how he earned his stripes. In the same breath, one of Nelson Mandela would carry the same subliminal narrative: A hero, role model and inspiration for the world in how to forgive your enemies.

And the subliminal message is what is at the heart of this conversation to remove these statues. Because if the message is subliminal then what kind of energy would a sculptor of Cecil Rhodes, Christopher Columbus, King Leopold II and the cohorts of colonial “heroes” radiate?

Class in secession! Roll call! Cecil Rhodes: politician, businessman, an aggressive advocate of settler colonialism, a subscriber to the doctrine of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race as declared a letter of 1877. For Rhodes white people were “the first race in the world” and by that logic as a white man he felt that “the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”.

What about King Leopold II? Oh, really not a lot. Only that he presided over the genocide of ten million Congolese people, but clearly nothing that would disqualify him from earning numerous markers across Belgium and the Congo. So, here is where statues become problematic. Because if a man like Leopold II can commit genocide and still be immortalized in stone or metal how does that reconcile with our normative and aspirational notions of humanity? Question: how does one get their own eternal presence on a landscape after committing acts so revolting to the human senses?

Statues Don’t Happen By Accident

A lot of persistence and even more economics go into the making of these monuments according to Jonathon Beecher Field (Some Statues Are Like Barb Wire, Jonathon Beecher Field, Boston Review, June !2, 2020). That would probably explain how statues of some history's most notorious like Rhodes, Colston and Milligan, which have now made their long-overdue departure, came into being, suggesting that a lot of self-profiting was behind these landscape fixtures. And if we are to add to that Beecher Field’s assertion that: “Historically, a statue, by the mere fact of its existence, identifies its subject as a hero”, then the more complex question is why have these monuments of shame endured on our landscape when not only are they repelling to the sense and sensibilities, but more importantly in a post-World War II modern, post-modern world becoming acutely sensitized to the violent role that ideology plays in maintaining political and economic hegemony?

Monuments and statues are part of that ideology. What is it that informs the decision to maintain the presence of Columbus and Leopold II, both of whom have committed genocide? Is it that there are gradations of genocidal behavioural tendencies — some can ease through the crack and matriculate while others possibly cannot? What is the rule of thumb? And if statues carry hidden messages then what kind of determinations would that of a mass murder leave on the senses? What of the psychology behind the preservation of these statues?

A disembodied statue of Joseph Stalin’s head on the streets of Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution, 1956

Psychology, Empire And The Weaponization Of art

Statues are works of art! Art is more than pleasing images of colour, technique, media. Broadly speaking it is communicative. Broadly speaking art has emotional power. Rebecca Senior (“Britain’s monument culture obscures a violent history of white supremacy and colonial violence”. theconversation.com) weighing in on the debate as it relates to Britain says:

“Monuments demonstrate how visual and material culture can be weaponised to obscure the violence that characterised British colonial expansion. From single statues to elaborate multi-figure designs, monuments represent a visual culture that has been mobilised as a means to celebrate and justify white supremacy throughout history. To this end, they did not solely rely on sculptural statues of colonial “heroes” such as Colston, but also other types of visual communication to misrepresent empire as a noble and heroic pursuit”.

Monuments and statues it seems is a way of sanitizing history — propaganda tools ostensibly used o celebrate a figure but craftily to embed for posterity the meritocracy of colonialism and white supremacy.

They are weapons of mind control, state oppression and violence agrees Beecher Field via philosopher Reviel Netz’s analogical placing of barb wire alongside expressions of muted state violence (Barb Wire: An Ecology of Modernity). Barb wires for Reviel was a symbol of “static violence”, a painful way of protecting territory without the need for human input.

By coupling Netz with literary theorists Gayatri Spivak’s (Can The Subaltern Speak)theory of “epistemic violence “, a working function of the Imperialist need to deconstruct the colonial subject into an “Other”, Beecher Field concludes that statues are a form of “static epistemic violence”. They are objects of state propaganda and oppression in a subtle, deliberate programme to make-over and dilute an oppressive, violent past. Rebecca Senior categorizes them as “state-sponsored attempts to transform slavery and genocide into palatable subjects for public consumption…” They transform villains like Leopold II and George Washington into heroes and acts of inhumanity into normative and aspirational notions of humanity. How then would you cheer on the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s larger than life statue yet find common ground with commemorative memorials to racists, thieves and mass murderers?

The statue of British Admiral George Rodney stands, ironically, in Emancipation Square, Spanish Town, Jamaica Ian Allen/ Photographer, Daily Gleaner

Statues As Causative Agents And The Erasing Of History

Perhaps the most reliable criteria for an exit strategy would be the effect that these statues have on the people who suffer the greatest pain because of their continued public display. If they cause so much pain then rightly so they should be removed. Yet, some people argue that they should remain as lasting reminders of a “never let history repeat itself” inspiration. That we should contextualize, acknowledge the disparities between social behaviour then and now and let these monuments stand as testimony to morally evolved world…a sort of “back in the day” theorem. Back in the days of big hair and legwarmers sort of thing.

But would it be fair to do that? Especially in a world that despite having made extraordinary moral progress is yet to be free of comparable acts of violence and exploitation that historically have been the characteristic trademark human behaviour?

The politics behind these statues and the utilitarian use of art and visual culture to whitewash history should be what inform the decision to topple them. In that event — they should go. An understanding of the etymology of statues is what Rebecca Senior, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Nottingham believes will give assurances :

“…that destroying or removing monuments from public view does not erase history. Instead, monuments were designed to do just that by obfuscating state oppression and white supremacy through a thin veil of sculptural order”.

That is so important it needs to be reinforced: monuments represent a covert operation to re-invent and offer up a fictionalised narrative of colonial oppression of the highest order. The continued celebration of statues is testimony to the persistence of the hegemony of the white supremacy. Removing them will be a small but significant step in redesigning the landscape to define what nationhood really means.

As we face the challenges of a pandemic that has crystallized a reality that sometimes knows no borders, race or creed; that is as indiscriminative as they come, it is a fortuitous time for us to reset race relations by putting to bed the discrimination that has long divided us and made many feel like they are perpetually on the outside looking in.

In the words of Kenyan Samuel Obiero witnessing the removal of a statue of Queen Victoria in 2015 in Nairobi:

“This statue reminds me of the suffering our forefathers went through in the hands of colonialists, and whenever we see them, the memories are fresh,” said Obiero. “We need to get rid of them. All over the world, they must be brought down and all people who suffered due to colonialism need to also be saved from all these kinds of memories.” (Africa has pulled down statues of racists for years — Los Angeles Times)

If this is the reaction, if they cause great emotional pain and distress then shouldn’t they be preserved in another dimension and not the public domain? If we talk about “safe spaces” how incongruous are these subtle immortalizations of violence for many to that notion?

History/Politics degree/taught for a while/ once copywriter. On a journey of reclamation of African identity to the full restoration of African humanity.