Down with evil men – Part 1

Down with evil men – Part 1

THIS week and next I want to talk about something historically important that is going down right now. I’m referring to the toppling of statues of evil men — in the UK, USA, Belgium and elsewhere — as an immediate reaction to the murder of the African-American George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman and, in a wider sense, as a contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement.

I’m afraid I shall have nothing to say about statues and other monuments in Lesotho. The most notable of these, perhaps, is the monument at the top of Lancers’ Gap and that has nothing to do with the kind of historical atrocity I’m talking about — rather, it demonstrates a great generosity of spirit on the part of Moshoeshoe.

When it comes to the toppling of statues, because it’s a professional interest of mine (under the umbrella “rhetoric studies”) I also want to discuss the verbal backlash to the protests from the political right wing, because the way people discuss what is happening is an integral part of what is happening. When Maurice, a character in E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, argues “deeds are more important than words” another character, Viscount Risley, protests: “but words are deeds!”

The subject of statues is not one I’ve given any thought to before, though I do remember being shocked on my one and only visit to Brussels to see a statue still standing of the former King Leopold II, who, when presiding over the Belgian Congo (present-day DRC) — in fact he declared the country to be his personal property! — had his troops pose for photos in front of pyramids of human hands, severed from captured escapees from the plantations.

(For the bookish ones amongst you a great expose of the atrocities written at the time is Edward Morel’s Red Rubber. Of course the horrors are also part of the background for Joseph Conrad’s admittedly problematic novel Heart of Darkness). A rallying cry in the UK when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 was “Poor little Belgium!” More appropriate, then and for years before, would have been “poor Congolese!”

One of the demonstrations prompted by the murder of George Floyd took place in Bristol, England, where a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, was knocked down and thrown into the harbour.

The statue’s maritime demise had symbolic resonance. It recalled the way in which when slave ships were crossing the Atlantic, if the human cargo was too heavy and thus slowed the ship down and endangered profit, women and children were thrown overboard to drown, freeze to death or be eaten alive by sharks. Notice the emphasis I place on the word profit, drawing attention not just to the deeds of a vile man such as Colston but to a systemic evil which we have come to call capitalism.

Just to stay a moment with that term “systemic”, writing in the UK newspaper The Observer, Kenan Malik has offered this warning: “The ‘cultural turn’ of recent years has encouraged people to repose political problems as issues of culture. Rather than ask ‘What are the social roots of racism and what structural changes are required to combat it?’, we look to blame the Other.”

I’ve just had sent to me by Professor Alison Love a fine poem on the Colston incident by Bristol poet Vanessa Kisuule and titled “Hollow.” It is a mark of real creativity to be able to compose first-class poetry on the spur of the moment, so to speak, in response to an event; of course, many of the great Sesotho praise-poems started out in the same way.   I’ll quote just a few lines (I’m sure readers can access the whole poem on the internet):
I think of you lying in the harbour
 With the horrors you hosted.
 

There is no poem more succinct than that.
 ……….. As you landed, a piece of you fell off, broke away.
 And inside, nothing but air.
 This whole time you were hollow.”

The UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful”, but no, the real disgrace was Patel. The distinguished British historian and broadcaster David Olusoga was entirely on the ball when he commented that this is the first time since 1895, when the statue was erected, that “the effigy of a mass murderer does not cast its shadow over Bristol’s city centre” and added “An attack on history? No, the fall of Colston is history itself.” Exciting and inspiring, to imagine we might be at a progressive historical turning-point, and maybe even on the brink of steps towards a new world order.

What to do with the spaces left by the toppled statues? The best suggestion I’ve come across was in a reader’s letter to the Guardian newspaper: “I suggest Bristol replaces Edward Colston with a different statue every day to honour an individual slave whom Colston ‘shipped.’ It would be 233 years before the plinth became empty again. That is the enormity of the man’s inhumanity.” (Come on, readers, grab your calculators and multiply 233 by 365 — that is the number of Africans enslaved by Colston. Please make a fist with your left hand and raise your arm while you’re doing it.)

Just as I write this column there have been protests demanding the removal of another statue. This is of Lord Baden-Powell, on the Quay in Poole, England (the town in which I was brought up, right next to the town in which I now live, so I feel a personal emotional investment in this). Baden-Powell was the founder of the Boy Scouts movement; the first Scout camp was held on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour; hence the presence of the statue in the town.

Baden-Powell was also a racist and there is some evidence to suggest that towards the end of his life he was an admirer of Hitler. I want, however, to focus on his appalling behaviour during the Second Anglo-Boer War.
To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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