Battle over memorials and statues and what they represent

Dealing with a problematic colonial or racial past requires a nuanced approach rather than an attempt to “correct” historical wrongs by tearing down old statues and erecting new ones.

Published : Mar 19, 2022 06:00 IST

Nicholas Brown Jr (1769-1841), painted by Chester Harding. Brown’s father, who was a slave trader, was a co-founder of Brown University. Some institutions such as Brown University have acknowledged their colonial and racial past.

Nicholas Brown Jr (1769-1841), painted by Chester Harding. Brown’s father, who was a slave trader, was a co-founder of Brown University. Some institutions such as Brown University have acknowledged their colonial and racial past.

HOW should we deal with the symbols of our colonial past? Should they be erased altogether as many people suggest? Are there alternative ways of dealing with our troubled memories and monuments that go beyond battling over statues and memorials? How do we go beyond triumphalism?

This essay will argue against some of the current dominant approaches; it will underline the need for more nuanced ways of dealing with our troubled past as represented by monuments. The new vision is characteristic of mature democracies and a progressive educational order.

From the Holocaust memorials of the Second World War (1939-45) to the statue of the colonial entrepreneur Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) at Oxford University, from the monuments of the Southern generals of the American Civil War (1861-65) to war memorials the world over, nation states in modern times have been caught in the crossfire between history and public opinion. Rhodes amassed a fortune in his colonial empire in South Africa. Southern generals fought against the emancipation of blacks in the United States, and the concentration camps in Poland and Germany, still standing, were where Jews, and others, were exterminated during the Third Reich.

The premier Brown University in the U.S. was founded through the philanthropy of white colonialists who made their fortune in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and finally, Indians had no real choice when it came to their participation in the Great War during the Raj.

In many parts of the world, including in lands that were host to great civilisations, groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State in the Levant have caused the destruction of the ancient past. The wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan or priceless monuments in the former Greco-Roman Civilisation in the Near and Middle East caused a profound sense of dismay in the civilised world.

Many such monuments were protected under the World Heritage Sites Act of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation; their loss to the world is incalculable. Diversity in language, literature, art work, artefacts, calligraphy, coins, pottery, sculpture and architecture, it must be remembered, is central to the making and preservation of civilisations; its loss gravely endangers the cultural life of future generations. While the destruction of heritage by atavistic and regressive forces has been noted; in more recent times, in parts of the first world and in postcolonial nation states, there have been campaigns calling for the toppling of old statues and the erection of new monuments as a way of “correcting” historical wrongs.

Postcolonial thinkers

Viewed as an affront to those who were subjugated by regimes of tyranny based on racial, cultural and political supremacy, colonial symbols have been pulled down in many parts of the world. Postcolonial thinkers such as Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and Homi Bhabha argued that the political independence of colonies was not followed by cultural emancipation. Indeed, there has been a resurgence of counter-revolutions and cultural imperialism based on the hegemony of erstwhile colonial powers. The politics over statues and monuments has continued unabated in recent times. The tragic murder of black men/boys, George Floyd, for instance, at the hands of the police, which tends to occur with disturbing regularity in the U.S., has given rise to the rapid spread of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in many parts of the world. Such movements have their genesis in the racial past and the trajectory the modern West has followed for a long time.

Further, East-West binaries such as orality-literacy, savage-civilised and primitive-modern, long held to be axiomatic, have led to what the critic Partha Chatterjee calls a “derivative discourse”. In this lop-sided thinking, Europe and the West are seen as the vanguard that set the agenda; the rest must follow, or perish.

Also read: Politics of history

Many reasons may help explain movements such as Black Lives Matter, however, there seem to be two overriding principal factors: First, developments in radical Marxist/postcolonial theory in the academia that led to a greater awareness of issues like social justice and equality; second, the change in the demography of the student population due to a policy of diversity and inclusiveness in higher education. There is greater awareness today in the media and popular culture regarding issues of racism. Social media was not only responsible for the Arab Spring in West Asia and North Africa but also propelled the “remove the statue” movements in the metropolises of the world.

Education and the imperial mission

There are other reasons that may explain why the modern university has become a battleground in recent times over statues and monuments. One of the important issues unveiled in postcolonial history is the underlying nexus between colonial education and the imperial mission. In her notable book Masks of Conquest : Literary Studyand British Rule in India (Columbia University Press, 1989), the critic Gauri Viswanathan unveiled the nexus between English education in India and the mission of the British Raj. Indeed, British educators carried out codification of disciplines such as language, literature, translation, jurisprudence, art and architecture to advance the European colonial agenda in India. A consequence of such activities was the internalisation of a secondary status among the colonised natives.

Colonial entrepreneurs such as Rhodes had a field day and made a fortune in this era. Later, they appeared as benevolent masters who promoted the cause of education and culture in the home country and the colonies.

Through generous endowments, grants, fellowships and foundations, their legacy has continued to this day in the leading centres of education in the advanced West. Turning the spotlight upon them is both necessary and urgent as is critiquing their legacy. We would do well, however, to undertake a deeper enquiry and seek lasting answers. I shall attempt to provide some directions in this context.

Memorials for atonement

Nazi Germany’s ideology of racial supremacy led to the extermination of nearly six million Jews in the Holocaust. How has modern Germany dealt with this past? What kinds of monuments has it chosen to build? What forms of public remorse and atonement does it seek through its education, both institutional and civic? How does the nation make sure that such aberrations do not occur in the future? The critic Kelly Grovier provides one insightful answer: “Rather than polluting the municipal air with monuments to the perpetrators of pain, however, efforts have been made to preserve instead memorials that honour the fortitude of Hitler’s victims. Perhaps we should think of the statues the way we think of trees. When one is found to be disfigured by disease we should resolve to plant a fresh copse, one that cleanses the atmosphere and does not choke our breath!”

And thus, modern Germany makes atonements through monuments that are dedicated to the innumerable victims of the Holocaust. Such monuments, like the bleak concentration camps and others in the cityscape, pay homage to the unnamed and unidentified victims. They capture the chilling sombreness of a vast graveyard and evoke the merciless and diabolical killing machine, a blot forever on the nation’s conscience.

South Africa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa is another nation that suffered for a long time, in this case because of the racial regime of apartheid. Through the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and deeply influenced by the gospel of Mahatma Gandhi, which was based on peace, forgiveness and non-violence, South Africa’s leadership embarked not on a path of bloodshed, revenge and reprisal but on a path of remorse, reparation and accountability through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC was set up in 1995 to heal by uncovering the truth about human rights violations during apartheid by gathering evidence and uncovering information from both victims and perpetrators. It did not envisage bringing offenders to justice as happened in the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of the Second World War, which led to the prosecution of Nazis for war crimes. The TRC tried to bring about the reconciliation of a deeply divided community. The change in the regime from apartheid to democracy was partly mandated by a built-in amnesty to many who had served in the internal security and policing apparatus of South Africa.

The first five volumes of the TRC were released on October 29, 1998, and the remaining ones on March 21, 2003. While critics maintain that the TRC did not go far enough in the direction of accountability for apartheid, it did manage to avoid a prolonged and protracted conflict. It ensured an orderly change of regime with an appalling track record of human rights violations.

Colonial entrepreneur: Cecil Rhodes

While South Africa had a measure of success, the same cannot be said about the statue of the British coloniser-philanthropist Rhodes, who helped establish an international fellowship programme called the Rhodes Scholarship in 1902 through an endowment at Oxford University. The beneficiaries of this fellowship have included celebrities such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who pursued higher studies at Oriel College, Oxford University.

Rhodes represents a classic instance of a coloniser-philanthropist who went to South Africa at the age of 17. A dynamic entrepreneur, he rose rapidly in business, bought diamond mines and had control of the diamond business in the entire region. He owned the British South Africa Company, founded Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), named after him, and was Prime Minister of Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. He founded the diamond company De Beers and established the British South African Police.

At one time, Rhodes desired to have the entire stretch from Cairo to Cape Town under the British rule; he was featured in the magazine Punch for this ambitious plan. A staunch believer in British racial supremacy, Rhodes wanted the return of America to the British Empire. Indeed, while a student at Oxford in 1877, he had declared: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race. I contend that every inch added to our territory means the birth of more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence.”

The legacy of Rhodes is mired in controversy. Critics demanded the removal of the statue in front of Oriel College. Similarly, Uncomfortable Oxford , a tour guide, records his legacy as part of “British Imperial History”. The critic Philip Godwin, while conceding Rhodes’ “despicable’ colonial behaviour”, maintained that Rhodes was “no 19th century Hitler: He wasn’t so much a freak as a man of his time.... Rhodes ... was no worse than the white settlers in North America, South America and Australia.”

Also read: Distorting history

It is ironic that the aim of the Rhodes Scholarship is to “promote public spirit, and good character and to render war impossible”, traits that are contrary to Rhodes’ tainted reputation and track record. Clearly, the Rhodes Scholarship mandate appears to be an afterthought of Rhodes at the fag end of his career when the consequences of his actions were beginning to be seen for what they were.

The controversy over statues of him has raged for a considerable time and covered a wide spectrum of opinion: “It enables us to acknowledge and address the legacy of our past with openness and honesty,” declared Doug Barrow, who was the Chair of the subcommittee Oxford University constituted to consider the removal of statues of Rhodes as well as those of William Beckford and John Cass. The subcommittee’s verdict was as follows: “Not to try and erase history but to place it in its context.” This was in sharp contrast to the more militant sections that wished to remove the statue altogether. Others advocated “the contextualisation of the college’s relationship with Rhodes, as well as improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst student cohort and academic community”.

Woodrow Wilson

Similar controversies arose in the U.S. as well and have led to the removal of the statues of Woodrow Wilson, who was the President between 1913 and 1921. While Wilson led the U.S. to victory in the First World War (1914-18) and helped establish the League of Nations in its aftermath, he was also accused of promoting a policy of segregation and racial injustice. As the one-time president of Princeton University, he spoke approvingly of the fanatical Ku Klux Klan and allowed the exhibition of D.W. Griffiths’ racist film Birth of a Nation in the Whitehouse. Prolonged campaigns led to the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs being changed to Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Robert Lee

Likewise, the Robert Lee monument, which was erected in 1890 in Richmond, Virginia, is a symbol of the legacy of the Confederate General Robert Lee during the American Civil War. In recent times, it was covered with graffiti of the Black Lives Matter movement. The statue was pulled down on September 8, 2021. Other statues that were deemed racial in character were removed from the Capitol, Washington, D.C. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “They are an affront to the highest ideals of America. They pay homage to hate, not heritage, they must be removed.”

Some institutions that are progressive in character such as Brown University have acknowledged their colonial and racial past. The report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, 2006, outlined the “University’s complex history with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its legacies of anti-Black racism, racial domination and injustice”.

The way ahead

The politics over statues and monuments will not die down any time soon. Racism and colonialism are caught in the crossfire between history and contemporary opinion. Perhaps, we need to reflect more deeply about means and ends even as we might feel justified in removing statues and changing names/narratives. It may be worthwhile, in this context, to pursue the virtue of contextual reading and exposure to multiple perspectives and points of view for a better understanding of history and historical monuments.

The truth is a complex affair, and historical truths cannot be pigeonholed into a single unit or capsule valid for all times. Perhaps, we need to learn from the wise words of the literary critic Gerald Graff, who tells us in Beyond the Culture Wars : How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education that the classroom can become the pivotal space for learning multiple perspectives. We need to teach conflicts, he says. Conflicts could be used creatively in the classroom, through “staging debates” in a dialogic manner, to unveil truths, historical or otherwise. What Graff says of literature is equally true of our views of the past.

Final thoughts

We cannot solve the problem of monuments through acts that erase the past. We must face our troubled memories, howsoever painful and agonising they may be. In the deepest sense, monuments help us engage with our complex past that inevitably comes with fear and foreboding, along with hope and optimism. They help us fathom the hidden depths of our being, at once fearful and alluring. Only acts of courage can take us through this rite depassage , beyond the stereotypical boundaries of victor and victim, to zones of understanding and forgiveness. All memorials then could coexist in mutual harmony with our shared past and a common future.

Sachidananda Mohanty is a former professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He has published extensively in the field of British, American, gender, translation and postcolonial studies. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

The author gratefully acknowledges the help he received from the Tasmai Centre for Art and Culture, Puducherry.

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