How changing times and populations can redefine narratives, but erasing them is plunging into darkness
When history fades from our memories, it suffers the fate of myths. The magnificent monuments around the world are a mark of the victorious who erected structures and inscribed lines on them lest our memory should fail us. When any place suffers an invasion, it is not unusual for invaders to raze those very monuments to the ground in an attempt to erase our collective memory. The destruction is often followed by the construction of new monuments, which help create new narratives to suit the new rulers. Civilisations have been built and wiped out in this game of building narratives. Desecration of monuments, religious or otherwise, and construction of new ones, all help seal the deal. History is usually in the able hands of the victorious or closely guarded by the regimes in power. Likewise, monuments are almost always founded and funded by the powerful or those who enjoy their patronage. The consequences are suffered by the vanquished who hold on to their unwritten narratives, waiting for the tides to turn.
We are traversing though times where the ‘oppressed’ feel they have a chance to rewrite history or at least some of its sombre chapters. Early signs of disgruntled populations who wanted to change the narratives appeared on British soil in January 2018, when a group of young students backed by the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, staged a demonstration at Blighty Cafe in London because they claimed it glorified the colonial era. In a world of contradicticting narratives, it is not uncommon for a grand figure like Winston Churchill to polarise debates. Some maintain that he put Britain first while others point out that he did it at the expense of other populations. The most severe judgement came from a book titled Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian diplomat. The book provides a detailed insight into Churchill’s role in the death of over two million people in India during the Bengal famine in 1943. It is believed that it was on Churchill’s command that grain was not allowed to dock at Calcutta. Instead, the grain was transported so that it could be added to the buffer stocks in Yugoslavia in the event of a possible future invasion of Greece or Yugoslavia. However, Britain does not stand alone. Unrest is brewing on the other side of the Channel where a certain French Général has come under fire for his views and decisions.
Like Churchill, Général de Gaulle was cheered after the WWII, but he lost the elections in 1953 only to be voted back in five years later. Both Churchill and de Gaulle were wartime leaders, but their own populations did not see much use for them during times of peace. Both thrived during wars, making a name for themselves during WWI and WWII and selfishly using the media to up their ratings. Both were deeply suspicious of Germany, and immensely proud patriots. On the downside, both allowed famous fascists to get away with mere slaps on their wrists. After the war, Churchill freed Oswald Mosley, who would happily carry on with his racist and fascist views. It seemed magnanimous to forgive a fascist, but forgiveness was not Churchill’s forte when it came to Alan Turing who was arrested for homosexual acts and charged with gross indecency. Although Turing was instrumental in cracking the Enigma code that ended the war sooner, Churchill refused to intervene on his behalf. De Gaulle, for his part, let Maréchal Pétain go in peace despite all the madness and mayhem he unleashed in France. Pétain and his pact with Hitler placed over half of France under the Vichy regime and in bed with the Nazis. For his role in WWII, Pétain had been sentenced to death, but de Gaulle in his wisdom commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, both leaders were soft on local fascism once the war was won, both said unsavoury things about populations in their colonies, and both would suffer the same fate with the rise of new narratives.
With the wisdom of hindsight, when we revisit chapters of our history, we tend to dissect the stories with our current social construct, and many of the chapters seem horrifying. From slavery to colonisation and more, the human race has pillaged its way across the planet. But what is at the root of this mindless plunder? A closer look at some of the models tells us it is more to do with resources and power.
When Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Pedro Álvares Cabral set out on their adventures, their aim was to bypass the Islamic sphere and directly meet the source or better yet, take it over. The media and those in power defined these men as trailblazers and explorers, but those at the receiving end of their ‘explorations’ have a slightly different interpretation of their deeds. Even today respectable newspapers refer to Henley Morton Stanley as some sort of hero when in truth he was a low-grade journalist turned zealot explorer who pulled the wool over gullible people’s eyes and tricked the people of Congo into signing their property to King Leopold for a song.
In their hunger for power and resources, the Portuguese unwittingly triggered the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While the Portuguese have never shared the Anglo-Saxon obsession of staying white or collecting data on ethnicity, the trans-Atlantic slave trade would uproot millions and plant them on American soil. Those in the North – now known to us as the United States of America – would end up in a society where segregation was systemic. From health to basic education, from jobs to social success, the American dream and model has turned into a nightmare for millions who have been kept out in systemic ways.
In 1919, Theodore Roosevelt made a speech where he said, “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house.” As things stand, The United States of America may well be a polyglot boarding-house with the absence of a common narrative. Every group of colour, ethnicity, religion and more hangs on to its own narratives, but the grand mix of their peoples clings to the American dream of economic success. The only trouble is we are passing through times where the economy has hit many people hard. It is not a coincidence that many of those who tend to get wiped out during these economic times happen to be people of colour who have long felt they have been living through the American nightmare. America’s push of a twisted multicultural model has led to people living separate lives. Following their flawed policies and model has led us into ‘sunset segregation’, a term used by sociologists to highlight the fact that people may interact for work purposes during the day but by nightfall, they head back to their respective communities and get on with their separate lives and in many cases separate values.
Those who woke to their nightmare now want to rewrite the chapters of history. Whilst it is clear that many of those heroes are now villains, the question we must as ourselves is, ‘Do we want to be a society that topples statues or can we have them standing and let debates prevail?’ Some of the people who ended up standing tall in bronze or marble were unapologetic slave owners. In fact, some of the finest universities in the United States and Britain have been funded by families who have made their fortunes through methods considered criminal by today’s standards. The Opium trade in the 1800s made Perkins & Co. corporate raiders whose extended families and friends came to be known as the ‘Boston Brahmins’, and they enriched themselves whilst intoxicating populations. Alas! When it came to the Colombian cartels, our social construct had redefined its values on drugs. In many ways, we are still happily intoxicated and oblivious to the methods, ways and structures in place that are used to amass wealth and power. Our anger can either topple statues or we can channel it to change the structure of power.
James Bradley, The China Mirage
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa
Inglorious Empire, Shahi Tharoor