Historical facts, without intrinsically changing, are made and re-made according to the times, the issues at stake, and the evolution of consciousness.
The globalization of the anti-racist movement inspired the same symbolic and polemical gestures in the United States, England, Belgium, France. Statues and monuments are shot down or tagged, signs of a memory that remains conflictual and of a non-consensual historical narrative.
Anti-racism demonstrations have found an echo outside of the United States; in Europe and the West Indies, in particular, where the memory of slavery and colonization still resonates with today’s discrimination. Among the images that circulate, one means of action strikes people’s minds: The unbolting of statues that embody this past.
In several countries, protests are rising against the representation in public spaces of former figures linked to slavery or colonization—in the United States with the Confederate monuments, in England with the statue of a slave merchant thrown into the water in Bristol, in Belgium with the removal of the bust of Leopold II, or in France with the toppling of Colbert and Victor Schoelcher statues.
America: The memory of slavery, pain, and racism
The US South is still very much marked with symbols of the Civil War (1861-1865), 155 years after the end of the conflict that claimed 600,000 lives—more than all American deaths in the First and Second World Wars. Across the Southern states that had left the union to form their own country and maintain slavery, there are still many monuments and statues paying tribute to figures of that era: Generals, political leaders… Some schools even continue to bear their names.
The Confederate flag also remains a symbol for some to express pride in their Southern identity, with the pattern pasted on roadsides, as stickers on the back of cars, or even waving alongside the current state flags. By 2015, the Washington Post had counted seven states that continue to use this emblem on their official banners: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
But these symbols are now arousing ever more indignation, especially since they have become rallying signs for the racist extreme right.
Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the attack on a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, had taken a photo in front of this flag shortly before murdering nine worshippers.
In 2017, the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia intended to denounce the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armies during the Civil War. This rally brought together white supremacists, members of the “alt-right” and even neo-Nazis.
The weekend was marked by clashes and ended with the death of a counter-demonstrator killed by the battering ram car of a white supremacist.
In 2020, the issue is still sensitive and returns to the forefront with the death of George Floyd. Several statues have been taken down, vandalized, or dismantled in Virginia and Alabama, but the gesture that caught the most attention was the removal of a General Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederate States.
Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on June 4 the removal of the equestrian statue, welcoming the support of the general’s descendants, the Reverend Robert W. Lee, who sees the statue as “a symbol of oppression.”
Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, also called for the removal of Confederate statues from Capitol Hill.
“The statues which fill the halls of Congress should reflect our highest ideals as Americans. Today, I am once again calling for the removal from the U.S. Capitol of the 11 statues representing Confederate soldiers and officials. These statues pay homage to hate, not heritage,” she wrote on Twitter.
Most of these monuments were indeed erected at the end of the 19th century when these American states were implementing a policy of racial segregation. For the governor of Virginia, they also helped to spread a falsified reading of history, according to which the Confederates had fought above all for the right of the states in the face of aggression from the North, a vision that denies or diminishes the importance of slavery in the entry into the war.
“In 2020, we can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of human beings,” explained Governor Northam.
“The question today is how to build a memory of the South that is meaningful for its inhabitants, but also reconciliatory, around common symbols. Because the majority of black Americans live in the southern states, which were once slavery and segregationist,” explains historian Francois Durpaire, a specialist on the United States and professor at the University of Cergy and co-founder of the Bonheururs laboratory.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an association that fights discrimination, 114 Confederate monuments have been removed since 2015 but the racial and political divide remains. The removals take place mainly in places where there are large Black populations with active associations and a majority of Democratic voters.
England: The memory of colonization and dehumanization
Other countries are not spared by this inventory of figures from the past. In England, the video of the unbolting of the statue of Edward Colston made the rounds of social networks on June 7.
This monument was erected in 1895 in Bristol in homage to the Member of Parliament and merchant who financed many of the city’s institutions—but it turned out that he owed his fortune to the slave trade.
The maintenance of this statue had been the subject of debate for years and its toppling was ultimately decided by a crowd of demonstrators. In a statement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that George Floyd’s death had “aroused anger and an undeniable sense of injustice” but condemned those who “break the law, attack the police and vandalize public monuments.”
While regretting the manner in which the statue was demolished, Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer said it “should have been removed years ago …. You can’t have a statue of a slave trader in Britain in the 21st century.” According to the mayor of Bristol, it should end up in a museum.
But other statues are in the sights of activists, such as Cecil Rhodes on the Oxford campus. The businessman, born in 1853, was the prime minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa, convinced of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxons, one of the great architects of British imperialism and colonialism.
Much more sensitive, the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also targeted in front of the Parliament in London with the inscription “was a racist” added to the base.
The memory of slavery in Europe and Martinique
In Belgium, the equestrian statue of King Leopold II was removed from a square in Antwerp on June 9 after it had been defaced. It is now stored in the reserves of a local museum, the city council announced. Leopold II was the second King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909, promoter of Belgium’s “civilizing mission” to the Congo, where he established a brutal regime based on forced labor.
France’s figures of Jules Ferry or Colbert were not spared. The former gave his name to countless streets and schools and is immortalized with several statues for having established secular, free, and compulsory education for all. But Jules Ferry was also a convinced supporter of colonialism, especially in Indochina.
As for Colbert, this minister of Louis XIV was the author of the “code noir” which legislated slavery in the French colonies. On June 6, demonstrators, belonging in particular to the Black African Defence League, called for his statue in front of the National Assembly to be unblocked.
In any case, the historical inventory of public places related to racism is not finished. In 2019, the city of Bordeaux — which prospered like Nantes and other cities thanks to the slave trade — decided to put up plaques mentioning the slave-owning past of people who gave their names to streets. On June 8, the association Memoire et Partages also wrote an open letter to the President of the Republic calling for further changes in Biarritz, La Rochelle, Le Havre, and Marseille.
However, in overseas French territories, Martinique has indeed long done a job of remembrance, in particular thanks to Aime Cesaire, deputy of the island from 1945 to 1993 and mayor of Fort-de-France from 1945 to 2001. He was a staunch anti-colonialist and he reflected that position in the Martinican public agenda.
A militant group decapitated the statue of Josephine de Beauharnais in the 1970s. She was the wife of Napoleon, who re-established slavery after his first abolition during the Revolution. She was Martiniquean and belonged to the clan of slave settlers. But Cesaire had the great intelligence to leave the headless statue and cover it with red paint, symbolizing the blood of slaves, to offer it as a narrative of the history of Martinique.
Reconciling a painful past with a hopeful future
The events we have seen in recent days are not new. Both ancient and recent history has often witnessed acts of vandalism and even destruction of memorial objects, generally for reasons of denial of their legitimacy by a section of the population. This is even more evident when these objects of a symbolic nature are placed in public view.
Faced with certain sensitive subjects such as slavery, the political authorities sometimes take the lead in rewriting history. As such, the city of Bordeaux has been encouraged to look into its slave past by installing explanatory plaques in certain streets bearing the names of slavers as well as a sculpture in the gardens of the city hall in order to pursue a work of remembrance.
In this way, historical facts, without intrinsically changing, are made and re-made according to the times, the issues at stake, and the evolution of consciousness. Since it is men who make history, sometimes under conditions that they themselves have chosen, we should read the sequence of real historical events against the yardstick of a reasonable ideal.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu