Freeing the minds of idea of slavery

One man’s hero is another’s villain


July 23, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

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Statues of several historic figures have been removed following protests over the last few months

Nearly 150 years after it was abolished from most nations, slavery continues to rankle millions of people and is one of the most divisive issues.

Over the past few weeks, statues of several controversial historic figures have been destroyed in many parts of the world. Many of these demolitions have occurred amidst disputes and verbal spats between those wanting to topple the statues and those who saw them as key personnae of the history of their country and the demolitions as nothing but an attempt to destroy or rewrite the history.

Perhaps nowhere else have the demolitions been as controversial as in the United States, the world’s lone standing superpower, and Belgium, the tiny minnow from Europe, that had punched far above its weight for well over a century. In Belgium, the figure in question was King Leopold II who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909 and who is ‘credited’ with having conquered a huge swathe of Central Africa in 1885, especially what’s Democratic Republic of Congo and its neighbouring Congo Brazzaville today. Leopold II ran the bloodiest colony in Africa and is said to have been responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in the continent.

In the United States, the statues ranged from Christopher Columbus to numerous leaders of the Confederate states who were in favour of slavery and were fervent believers in racial superiority. Indeed, the history of Confederate America is one that arouses strong feelings either way even today, almost 250 years later. For the protestors and anti-slavery activists, these statues remain an insult to the African-Americans whose ancestors had suffered heavily at the hands of slave traders and their politician bosses.

There have been hundreds of such divisive figures all over the world through its history. Because few leaders or historic figures have been unidimensional, actions of the same person can be repulsive to some, while others would laud them. Take Leopold II. Despite being a murderous despot for large parts of central Africa, in Belgium he was, and even today is, seen by most as having taken the Belgian Empire to its zenith and earned a place as an equal for the tiny country on the table of European powers of the epoch.

And hence for most of the Belgians or at least its various governments, it was fine to have monuments in his honour and his statues all over the country, even if he had presided over one of the worst genocides in the world. Or for that matter statues of various American leaders and generals who fought the civil war on the Confederate side, supporting the entire baggage of slavery, racism and white supremacy that came with it.

Indeed, even today for many Americans these personalities represent heroes from their history and they remain proud of them and their achievements and that’s why there have been protests and clashes about removal of these statues or renaming several government buildings, colleges or other institutions that were named after not just these leaders of the Confederate States but also businessmen that had supported them at the epoch and were as active slave traders as any.

The latest target for the removal of a statue is Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who is ‘credited’ with having ‘discovered’ the Americas. His explorations brought unprecedented riches to the Spanish Kings who immediately colonised the rich territories in the continent and in return also destroyed entire civilisations with thousands of years of history of the region as well as nearly wiped out an entire population thanks to the germs and infections brought in from Europe. For centuries, in the schools, students have been taught that Columbus and his Portuguese rival Vasco Da Gama were great explorers who contributed immensely to human knowledge.

The conflicts over these personalities come frequently partly because the schools in most of these countries teach history from their perspective and either totally overlook or paint over the immense damage done by these heroes to mankind and how many of them ended up destroying entire societies and creating problems that would not just outlive them but continue to rankle the entire world even today, hundreds of years after their deaths.

It is the absence of a well-rounded education and presentation of history in its entirety rather than just from the winners’ perspective that has ensured that vicious divisions continue in our society today over actions and historical events that are just not defensible at all. And most of these were not defensible even when they occurred as no human society knowingly would sanction mass murders or slavery of another human being. The lack of a sensitizing education is also the principal reason behind the White Supremacist movement and widespread racism that have always been intertwined with slavery, at least for the United States and Europe.

However, a reform of education and ‘rectification’ of history looks extremely difficult, if not impossible, at a time when the United States seems to have drifted so much to the right and where the Republicans and the Democrats don’t seem to even agree on the time of the day, it would be a miracle if indeed history books in the southern states were modified to reflect the bitter truths about the past and the role played by the Confederate ‘heroes’ in creating racial fissures in the society and treating African-Americans like outcasts with minimal civic rights, beliefs that continue to divide the country violently even 250 years after they died.

However, revising history is perhaps easier said than done as it requires moral courage for a leader to stand up and say that his country has been wrong and has done inhumane things to people of other countries. This is the reason why even decade after the end of colonisation in most parts of the world, the former colonisers and slave drivers are yet to recognize their errors and apologise or even pay reparations for those acts. Thus, even though Europe has been better placed, than the US, for decades to revisit its history and rectify its school books about the damage that European colonisation and slavery caused to the world, it has only managed to take baby steps. Perhaps the right way to proceed and finish this matter once and for all would be to involve historians and scholars from the countries and societies that suffered at the hands of the Europeans in redrafting the history books for European children. Perhaps only then will the issue be dealt with enough sensitivity and openness to put an end to the debate.



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