Rhodes, statues and the legacy of British slave trade and colonialism

I would like to shed some light into what’s happening around the UK and the world. On the 7thof June, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled by protesters from Black Lives Matter movement.

Colston was a big slave merchant, who transported more than 100 thousando enslaved Africans to the Americas, and 20 thousand of those perished at sea. He was also a philanthropist and used his wealth to help the poor during his time. The Victorians memorialised him with a statue in a prominent place in Bristol city centre and his name is all over Bristol naming streets, avenues, institutions, schools and so on.

To understand better what happened with Colston, we need to speak about Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes was a British diamond magnate, imperialist and the first Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, current South Africa, from 1890 to 1896, and responsible for creating and implementing racial segregation legislation amongst the autochthonous peoples and the European colonisers.

In 2015 the University of Cape Town, after strong pressure from the student movement called “Rhodes Must Fall” decided to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its main building entrance hall.

rhodes statue

During his life, Rhodes also created a postgraduate scholarship programme for the University of Oxford, Oriel College, with the aim “to keep the British Empire united” sending white students from the colonies to study in the metropolis and after graduated to become part of the colonial bureaucratic machine. A trust was created after his death in 1902 to manage the scholarship and until this day it keeps awarding scholarships for students from all over the world.

A Rhode scholar from the University of Cape Town called Ntokozo Qwabe, brought with him the ideas that fomented the created the same movement that started off in his alma mater to challenge Rhodes’s legacy at Oxford University, including its controversial statue at prominence above Oriel College’s main entrance door.

According to their website,  Rhodes Must Fall Oxford is “a movement determined to decolonise the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford”. Since 2015 the movement has widened the discussion about British institutions’colonial past and its links to slavery.

 In 2016 Oxford University denied the request to remove Rhodes statue from Oriel College alleging that it would be like trying to rewrite history and even that they understand Rhodes was a controversial figure they would keep their long held position to keep the statue where it was.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery across all the dominions of the British Empire and the British government at that time paid reparations to the slave owners rather than the enslaved people, total sum the equivalent of £60bi. It was recently found out that taxpayers only finished paying for this debt in 2015. This money helped finance a lot of British institutions like universities, museums and also private companies who still are operating to this day.

According to research from the University College London’s Centre for the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership there were still 2 statues from slave owners standing in London: Robert Milligan’s in front of Museum of London Docklands and Alderman William Beckford’s inside City of London Guidhall.

On 9th of June the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced an enquiry about the colonial and slavery legacy from all monuments in London. On the same day, Milligan’s statue was safely removed by the Tower Hamlets Council from Docklands.

There have been protests in front of Oriel College in Oxford where Rhodes statue is situated.  

In Glasgow, protesters renamed streets linked to slavery reminding Scottish people of the country’s legacy during the Transatlantic slave trade:

glasgow street black lives matter 

In Antwerp, Belgium – across the Channel – the statue of King Leopold II, who had the Congo as his personal feud and killed more than 10 million people during the 19th century, was removed from a public park after being burnt down during protests.

The British Empire legacy, the discussion in the country and one way to move forward

YouGov poll from 2016 found that 44% of UK population were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism and that the British Empire was a good thing. History lessons at school don’t really talk a lot about the British Empire and they try to focus on elements that are perceived as positive by the population – like rule of law or the railway network in Africa or the Indian subcontinent.

What’s happening is very significant. “The toppling of Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history” says historian David Olusoga, who lives in Bristol and studies the transatlantic slave trade. Suddenly throughout throughout the country city councils saw themselves having to revisit their monuments trying to grasp how to better act.

Tate Modern’s 2019 Hyundai Commission was given to Kara Walker, American artist that works with themes around race, decoloniality and the legacy of the transatlantic slavery. Kara works talk about power struggles, history and mithologies that guide us in a way to see ourselves and others, with focus on race and gender.

 kara walker fons americanusvictoria memorial

Fons Americanus was inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, London. The memorial was designed in 1901 and unveiled in 1911 to honour Queen Victoria’s achievements through her queenship. Instead of celebrating the British Empire, Kara’s fountain inverts the commum purpose of a memorial and questions power narratives. Kara Walker explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe. She uses water as the key conduit, referring to the transatlantic slave trade and its ambitions and tragedies from the peoples of those 3 continents. Juxtaposing fact, fantasy and fiction, Fons Americanus stands as a representation of this narrative as an allegory or fable.

When I went to visit Fons Americanus I was reading a new book from Laurentino Gomes, a famous Brazilian historian about slavery (Escravidão vol I). What impressed and shocked me the most was how immense the monument is and its sharks – who changed their million years usual routes to follow the slave ships since slaves commonly died during the journey and were thrown to the sea.

Kara’s objective through this and other of her works is very accurate and must be taken into consideration when we discuss other narratives and discourses to replace other monuments memorialising our tainted past. We need to decolonise and resignify spaces to include those other stories, taking into account the wounds from this dishumane system are still not completely healed.

Watch the video produced by Tate Modern below about the artwork:

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