5th Dec 2023


On toppling statues

  • Belgian police guard the statue of King Leopold II in central Brussels, Tuesday 30 June (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

More statues have toppled across the globe in the last few weeks than at any time since the collapse of eastern European communism in 1989.

In Bristol, 17th-century slave dealer Edward Colston was torn from his pedestal and ended up on the bottom of the harbour.

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  • Author Adam Hochschild. 'Brussels now at last has a square named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first democratically-chosen prime minister' (Photo: Copyright Nancy Rubin)

In Antwerp, Belgium's King Leopold II, who earned huge profits from the forced-labour regime he imposed on the Congo, was painted red and set on fire before being carted away, and other statues of him across the country have come down.

In the American South, a number of Confederate political and military figures have been hauled off to storage. In Philadelphia, the notoriously racist former mayor and police chief Frank Rizzo met a similar fate. The list is lengthening almost by the hour.

Sometimes I imagine all these dead statues, in whatever afterlife they now inhabit, talking to each other.

Leopold says to his contemporary Cecil Rhodes, "You're here, too? And we thought they'd remember us fondly!" Robert Milligan, the 18th-century merchant and slave plantation owner lifted off his London plinth by a crane a few weeks ago, congratulates a long string of Confederate generals: "Even though your side lost, you fellows were more lionised than anyone! How'd you manage that?"

This latest round of toppling was sparked, of course, by the worldwide protests against the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a symbol of the racism that has lingered on in so many societies long after slavery and colonialism have ended.

Sometimes a shocking injustice in the present also shocks us into thinking about how we remember the past. Or, perhaps more correctly, it makes us notice the way the past is commemorated all around us.

For example. Mathew G. Stanard, author of The Leopard, the Lion, and the Cock: Colonial Memories and Monuments in Belgium, has compiled an online list of 443 statues, busts, plaques, and street names that celebrate that country's colonial past.

The roster of such things honouring slaveowners and Confederate generals in the United States is even longer. Even though 99 percent of the Belgians or Americans walking those streets and passing those monuments might never think of their meaning, it matters how we commemorate our past, especially if it's in the form of a two-tonne block of concrete or metal that's expensive to remove.

I'm glad to see the Leopolds and Rizzos and Colstons go—and it's especially fitting that Colston ended up underwater, for more than one-out-of-ten of the millions of captive Africans transported across the Atlantic died on that terrible voyage and were tossed overboard.

Start with schools

This week's apology from King Philippe of Belgium for "acts of violence" during both Leopold and Belgium's rule of Congo was welcome.

But two things are more important than removing or mothballing outdated statues.

One is the way we teach history in schools. And the other is whom we could be celebrating instead of kings and generals and slave traders.

Intelligent schoolteachers all over the world, I hope, are using George Floyd's murder to make their students think about the patterns of racist behaviour that are deeply embedded in all our societies.

But formal curricula change with agonising slowness, and only when citizens vocally demand it.

As recently as 15 years ago, for instance, Belgian 12-year-olds were using a textbook that said, "When the Belgians arrived in the Congo, they found a population that was the victim of bloody rivalries and the slave trade. Belgian civil servants, missionaries, doctors, colonists and engineers civilised the black population step by step."

And only in this past school year, after much controversy, did Texas public school students finally start using textbooks acknowledging that slavery and its expansion played a "central" role in igniting the American Civil War.

Finally, whom should we be celebrating?

Patrick Lumumba Square

More important than the statues we tear down are the memorials of all kinds that we build. Brussels now at last has a square named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first democratically chosen prime minister, who was too independent-minded for Belgium and the United States, and was deposed and assassinated with the complicity of those two countries.

There are also earlier figures from the long struggle for justice in the Congo, such as a sergeant named Kandolo, who in 1895 snatched a whip out of the hand of a white officer and then led a mutiny in the colonial army.

Or Andrew Shanu, a clerk and translator for the King Leopold's regime, who, a few years later, at great risk to himself, sent incriminating documents to a journalist in Europe, where they were used to publicise colonial atrocities.

To replace those statues of slave traders in Britain, what about someone like the Jamaican Samuel Sharpe, the leader of the greatest slave revolt the British Empire ever saw, in 1831-32.

Before he was hanged, he told a British missionary friend, "I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live my life in slavery."

Or Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who earned his freedom, and then traveled the British Isles for five years in the late 1700s, speaking to large audiences on behalf of the abolition movement.

There were extraordinary Britons who were part of that movement, such as its principal organiser for much of his life, Thomas Clarkson, who braved a nearly fatal attack from a group of angry slave ship officers on the Liverpool docks.

Or Elizabeth Heyrick, the fiery Quaker pamphleteer who inspired a raft of local women's antislavery societies that were almost always more radical than those run by men.

Monuments are not the only way to remember such heroes and heroines, for sometimes we don't even know what they looked like: if you're leading a revolt in the Jamaican or Congolese hinterland, there's no time for someone to sculpt your likeness or paint your picture.

But there are other ways of remembering: film, drama, websites, exhibits in public buildings, and more.

At long last, for instance, Washington DC finally has the splendid National Museum of African-American History and Culture, visited by two million people last year.

It took nearly 400 years from the moment the first enslaved African arrived on our shores before it was built. Let's hope it does not take this long for the additional historical remembering that needs to be done, all over the world.

Author bio

Adam Hochschild is the author of ten books, including King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian colonisation of the Congo, and Bury the Chains, about the British anti-slavery movement.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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Colonisers speak - 60 years after Congo's independence

Belgium is in the midst of a nationwide reassessment of its colonial past. Under pressure from a younger, more activist, generation and a growing African diaspora, the former colonial power has taken some steps over the past year.

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