South Africa


The horror! The horror! The long colonial hangover

The horror! The horror! The long colonial hangover
Protesters gather in front of Oriel College in Oxford during a protest of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign within the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the college. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Will Oliver)

Sculpted images of white men, once admired by other white men, are not ‘history’ but transient tributes. The role of Cecil Rhodes is neither erased nor destroyed by the removal of his image from UCT or Oriel College in Oxford. Nor did the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein or Joseph Stalin write either of those tyrants out of history. The overthrow of their likenesses simply removes them as icons: graven images to be venerated.


“The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad mistake.” — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)

The young Edward Gibbon, later famous for Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, began his first published work with a sweeping judgment: “The history of empires is that of the miseries of humankind.” Current fierce clashes over slavery and its after-effects, as well as continuing impassioned disputes about colonialism, reveal that the thrust of Gibbon’s adage generates as much, perhaps more, quarrels than ever. When angry crowds topple statues in the UK, the US and elsewhere, effigies which had lingered unscathed and aloof on their plinths for many years, the question is why? And why now?

The clearest answer comes from the late novelist and essayist James Baldwin, still our most incisive anatomist of racial dynamics, profoundly experienced by him as an African American. “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read,” he wrote in 1965. “And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations.”

The intensity of divisions over the legacy of colonialism, which first swept South Africa a couple of years ago and now rages through much of the West, demonstrates that opposing opinions are mostly not about the past. Instead, the highly partisan conflicts – sometimes played out violently, face to face – display deeply personal modern preoccupations, reflecting how we see ourselves today.

So to probe the present furore, a useful start might be a contemporary footnote. In 2018, on 9 February, at around lunchtime, the British Treasury tweeted its weekly “surprising#FridayFact”. The tweet boasted, “Millions of you helped to end the slave trade through your taxes.” Under a drawing of a column of enslaved Africans roped together, the Treasury added: “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20-million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off till 2015.”

If we owe any debt to the past, it is to face the facts squarely. So there is another financial debt with contemporary resonance. While it took the British 182 years to balance the books, the poorest nation on earth required 122 years to clean its slate.

This FridayFact didn’t mention that the cash (approximately £17-billion today) had to be borrowed from bankers and only served to compensate slave owners for the loss of their human chattels. Nevertheless, the Treasury crowed, “Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

Not everyone was thrilled to learn this, myself included. Eighteen years of working on UK newspapers, and paying taxes, meant that I too had helped settle that massive debt. Taken aback by the public response, the tweet was rapidly deleted. But not before the facts had been hopelessly mangled. The slave trade was prohibited by an Act of Parliament in 1807, so slavery itself wasn’t abolished within the British Empire till 30 years later. Nevertheless, the Treasury’s self-satisfied boast had briefly exposed a convoluted contemporary view of Britain’s role in the long history of slavery.

Overlooked was the fact that the £20-million paid out to 46,000 slave owners made many of them multi-millionaires. The largest claim was from the father of the later Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was compensated with £106,769 (approximately £10.2-million today) for the loss of 2,500 slaves in the West Indies. The recompense paid to Cape Colony slave owners, who complained bitterly at the time, also trickles down to the present, part of the patrimony of their descendants. Yet for their estimated 38,257 slaves in the Cape, the 1833 legislation stipulated that they had to continue as unpaid “apprentices” for a further several years.

If we owe any debt to the past, it is to face the facts squarely. So there is another financial debt with contemporary resonance. While it took the British 182 years to balance the books, the poorest nation on earth required 122 years to clean its slate.

In 1804, after a series of successful slave rebellions, the former hugely profitable French colony of Saint-Domingue became the world’s first black republic and changed its name to Haiti. It was the first country to abolish slavery. But a black republic posed a threat to other slave-owning nations, including the US. In 1825, bolstered by international diplomatic pressure, a fleet of 12 French warships presented Haiti with an ultimatum: pay 150-million francs in compensation to all former French slave owners for the loss of their slaves and sugar and coffee plantations. The amount was underwritten by French banks and Citibank in the US. That debt was reduced in 1835 to 90-million francs (approximately $21-billion today) and was finally paid off by Haiti in 1947.

So while a comprehensive accounting of colonialism can’t be reduced to a book-keeping inventory, both of the above debts, which required reparations for slave holders rather than slaves, represents a legacy with lasting consequences.

Public pride, private shame

To stick as close as we can to the present, and nearer to home, it only became apparent seven years ago that the British Foreign Office had conducted a prolonged campaign to hide from the public the extent of British brutality as the curtain came down on its empire after World War II. As at the end of apartheid, there was a colossal bonfire of incriminating documents in British diplomatic missions all over the world as each colony proceeded toward independence. Other records were spirited back to England and hidden for over 50 years. This massive purge of colonial evidence was codenamed “Operation Legacy”.

Incineration had to be so comprehensive that it was specified “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”. Documents buried at sea were to be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practical distance from the coast”. In order that the post-colonial governments would never learn of Operation Legacy, officials were required to dispatch “destruction certificates” to London as proof that they had completed their duty. In some cases, as the handover date approached, the task of immolation proved so huge that colonial administrators warned the Foreign Office that there was a danger of “celebrating Independence Day with smoke”.

The essential British concern was explicitly clarified by the Colonial Secretary in 1961: that no post-independence government should have access to any material which “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”.

In Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, colonial officials were ordered to destroy “all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice …”. Elsewhere, many documents were shipped back to London to be hidden away, but in Kenya where British brutality was notorious, officials were bluntly instructed, “Emphasis is placed on destruction.”

The papers returned to London were held in secret by the Foreign Office for decades, in breach of the 30-year rule stipulated by the Public Records Act. Their existence only came to light in 2013 when the British government was finally forced to reveal a series of documents in a court case brought by three elderly Kenyans for the abuse they suffered at the hands of British troops. “Even then,” revealed the London newspaper The Guardian, “the Foreign Office failed to acknowledge that the 8,800 colonial files were just a small part of a secret archive of 1.2 million files that it called the Special Collections, and which it had held unlawfully at Hanslope Park.”

The Guardian discovered that the Foreign Office had been hiding the 1.2 million historical files at a secure compound in Buckinghamshire, north of London, surrounded by barbed wire fences. This gigantic, top-secret archive occupied 24km of floor-to-ceiling shelving, storing records going back to 1662, covering the slave trade, the Boer Wars and more than 20,000 files concerning the withdrawal from empire.

Those were the records that survived. In fact, as independence loomed for former British colonies, from India in 1947 to a multitude of African countries from 1958 to 1968, the priority for the Colonial Office was to cremate as much evidence as possible. At least one official, however, had a sense of history, if no hint of embarrassment. The chief secretary of the British Protectorate of North Borneo wrote to the Colonial Office in 1963, on the eve of independence, to confess that his subordinate’s monthly reports “would be unsuitable for the eyes of local ministers”. But Mr Turner recommended that, rather than incinerate such records, they should be sent to London, “on the grounds that some at least of their contents may come in handy when some future Gibbon is doing research work for his Decline and Fall of the British Empire”.

The meaning of effigies

June 2020, despite a deadly pandemic, has been remarkable for protests raging across the globe in the wake of police murders of black Americans. Collateral damage of the “Black Lives Matter” crusade have been some statues of white men, from Confederate generals in the US to a slave trader in the UK. These symbolic acts reignited exactly the same polarising debates prompted here during the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaigns.

Standard justifications for retaining the statues in situ include “you can’t edit history”, or “that’s part of our history and we should learn from it”.  Yet statues are neither history nor lessons. They are a memorialisation: icons to commemorate people who were admired at the time the statue was erected.

The most notable statue to be toppled lately was that of the 18th century slave trader Edward Colston, whose bronze effigy was dragged from its plinth in Bristol and dumped in the harbour. Typical of the defensive responses was that of British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who tweeted, “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past.” To tear down statues, Johnson harrumphed, “would be to lie about our history”. Actually, the fib was engraved on the plaque below Colston’s statue, which recorded that the monument was: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city.”

Colston was deputy governor of the Royal African Company which shipped an estimated 84,000 slaves across the Atlantic, of which up to 20,000 died at sea and were dumped overboard. The slaves had RAC branded on their chests. Colston used some of his wealth to endow charitable projects in Bristol, including schools and almshouses. Though he died in 1721, the statue was not erected till 1895: the late Victorian period when there was a desire to emphasise civic rectitude and eradicate any memory of how his fortune had been made.

Times and attitudes change. Sculpted images of white men, once admired by other white men, are not “history”, but transient tributes. The role of Cecil Rhodes is neither erased nor destroyed by the removal of his image from UCT or Oriel College in Oxford. Nor did the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein or Joseph Stalin write either of those tyrants out of history. The overthrow of their likenesses simply removes them as icons: graven images to be venerated.

In the US, the push to remove statues of Confederate generals was met by irate tweets from President Donald Trump, who lamented it was “so foolish”, claiming, “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”

Statues are not created to deliver a history seminar, but to inspire us to admire certain qualities; qualities in vogue at the time of construction, like that of Colston, erected 174 years after his death. Most statues of Confederate generals were not commissioned directly after southern states lost the civil war in 1865. They were created in the late 1890s and early 20th century, as southern whites mounted a counteroffensive against black emancipation. Other memorials to Confederate “heroes” were constructed much later, during the civil rights period of the 1950s and ’60s.

Neither neutral, nor history. Propaganda

Statues don’t lie. It is the living, gazing at a likeness of a dead individual, who bestow meaning. Inscriptions on the plinth below, in contrast, are intended to guide our opinion and can be whopping deceits, though usually by omission as in the case of Edward Colston. Unlike a Greek bronze of a sinewy athlete, admired for its aesthetic quality, the representation of a notable public figure, whether Julius Caesar or Cecil Rhodes, aims to memorialise, even immortalise, their personal qualities and acts. Statues of public figures are silent testimonials.

Such endorsement of values means different things at different times and to different groups. Skirmishes over Confederate generals in the US, or white Britons forming a phalanx to “defend” statues of their “heroes”, mirror James Baldwin’s description of violent southern white hostility to civil right marchers.

“If you have been watching television lately,” wrote Baldwin 60 years ago, “I think it is unendurably clear in the faces of those screaming people in the south, who are quite incapable of telling you what it is they are afraid of. They do not really know what it is they are afraid of, but they know they are afraid of something and they are so frightened that they are nearly out of their minds.”

Baldwin had a clear idea of what they feared: loss of status. However low in their own self-created hierarchy, enraged white southerners believed that, by immutable ordinance, they ranked above black people. And this conviction was sanctified, as today, by public memorials to slave owners and slave traders.

The burning pyre

So we’re not really talking about “men of their time”, but attitudes of our time. It’s the pall of black smoke that once again gives away the guilty conscience.

In 1885, at the time of the Berlin Conference for European nations to carve up what remained of “unclaimed” Africa, the Belgian King, Leopold II, declared privately that he coveted a slice of “that magnificent African cake”. Under the guise of a philanthropic mission he seized the Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom. He was the founder and sole owner. Henry Morton Stanley, who opened up the Congo for Leopold, later confided to his diary: “We went into the heart of Africa self-invited – therein lies our fault.”

The depravity and brutality of Leopold’s Congo Free State was unparalleled. From 1885 to 1908 as much as half the population was wiped out. An estimated 10,000 or more Congolese perished through murder, starvation and disease. Punishments for failing to meet work quotas included chopping off hands and being whipped to death. Such was the international outcry that in 1908 Leopold was forced to hand over his vast private colony to the Belgian state. But first, all the relevant archives were incinerated.

Smoke covered the sky over Brussels for eight days. “I will give them my Congo”, declared the king, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”

Such barbarities cannot possibly be absolved by the standard formula that Leopold was “a man of his time” because evidence of systematic atrocities was widely publicised at the time, notably by the British Consul Roger Casement and journalist ED Morel, supported by authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. When Leopold died in 1909, he was buried to the sound of booing.

But in the ensuing century all that was forgotten. The immense profits from the Congo — first from ivory, then rubber — had allowed Leopold to launch grandiose building projects in his small European kingdom, and such was the amnesia after World War I that a myth of the “builder king” flourished in Belgium. As a result, apart from major statues of Leopold II, there are an estimated 70 memorials glorifying colonialism all over Brussels today. When this June there were demands for the removal of the statues of Leopold, the brother of the current Belgian king hotly defended his ancestor by blaming those who worked for Leopold. “He never went to the Congo himself,” objected Prince Laurent, “so I don’t see how he could have made people suffer there.”

It is all too possible, as Boris Johnson claimed, “to lie about our history”. That is repeatedly done by governments, including some led by men who are later celebrated in bronze or stone.

The most enduring account, first published in 1899, is Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, based on his brief spell as an officer on a steamer, Roi des Belges, on the Congo River. Conrad’s narrator, the seafarer Marlow aboard the Thames pleasure yacht Nellie, tells his companions the grim tale of his quest for the crazed Kurtz in the fetid Congo jungle. Marlow is scathing about European motives for carving out colonies in Africa. “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire,” he relates, “with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” Marlow has read the eloquent report by Kurtz for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. But it has a note on the last page (“scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand”), with the exhortation: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Conrad was not merely singling out Belgium, or Leopold, as his narrator concludes: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” His view of colonialism was unambiguous: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

If Joseph Conrad, born Józef Korzeniowski, for whom English was his third language, could see so clearly through the “civilising” cant of rapacious colonists before the turn of the 20th century, how is it that so many white folks in 2020 piously defend effigies of Confederate generals, English slave traders or a blood-stained monarch?

Motives are mixed. But the raw ferocity invested by many in protecting mute memorials suggests they’re not solely bothered that the statues themselves will be dethroned. Disingenuously, they cling to the residues of colonialism because they themselves, heirs of those memorialised in bronze, fear being displaced in the social and racial hierarchy which they have inherited.

Re-writing history

It is all too possible, as Boris Johnson claimed, “to lie about our history”. That is repeatedly done by governments, including some led by men who are later celebrated in bronze or stone. To stick to the recent past, and Mr Johnson’s own party, we only have to go back a few years to the British government’s efforts to hide away those 1.2 million official files, which only came to light when lawyers for three elderly Kenyans, one of whom had been publicly castrated with pliers, launched a High Court case in London to seek redress for their torture during the 1950s Mau Mau uprisings.

The British government did not attempt to dispute their startling claims as researchers had unearthed secret files which laid bare the brutality inflicted on Mau Mau insurgents: systematic beatings, castration, rapes, as well as bottles inserted into the vaginas of female detainees. Some were tortured to death, others burned alive. Documents show that the British cabinet of the time was aware of at least some of these atrocities but chose to do nothing.

Even so, in 2013, a subsequent British government fought this case bitterly, launching the extraordinary claim that the liabilities of the former British colony had been inherited by the Kenyan government — and so Kenya should pay for any abuses committed by colonial policemen or troops during their war for independence.

They feared a court ruling would set a precedent for other former colonies to sue for reparations, such as Cyprus and Aden, where rebels suffered pitiless crackdowns, or massacres in Malaya. But in 2015, faced with overwhelming proof of atrocities in Kenya, the British government finally caved in, made a rare apology for state-sanctioned human rights abuses and agreed to pay £19.9-million in damages to over 5,000 identified claimants. That was a tiny chink of light in the grim darkness cast by a great historical lie: first incinerating a massive trove of official records, then concealing the rest in a secret bunker.

But, by obscuring so much of colonial history, who in the end is fooled?

The debt to history

On a short break from Rhodes University in 1968 I hitch-hiked to Mozambique. That was a year, not unlike the present, of massive turmoil, with student unrest and rebellions across Europe, while riots ripped through the US after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Somewhere in Swaziland, after being dropped off on the edge of a dusty village, I spotted a scruffy café. After buying a pie, I rifled through a book rack stacked with the usual chunky blockbusters. And there, among the thrillers, was a paperback not available in South Africa: Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin.

To repeat, like a chorus, that those who sustained slavery or apartheid reflected “views common at the time” obliterates what even bigots should be able to register in retrospect: that white minority views were not shared by all whites, and certainly did not reflect the views of slaves or black South Africans, nor of their descendants today.

It was a lightning-strike of revelation. One of Baldwin’s major themes is not merely the legion of injustices meted out upon American blacks, the cruelty from which he fled as a young man to live in Paris, but what the racism does to those who believe and live by it: the perpetrators. What is it about you, he asks the blinkered white man: what is it in you, or what do you lack that needs me to be the “black” threat you project onto me?

I still remember the sentence, as I began to read by the side of a deserted road in the blistering sun, that struck me as a hallowed truth. Perhaps obvious, but not to me till then, and it seems not to a great many even today: a truth at once simple and profound. “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”

At the time, as an angry white student, I was consumed by the litany of daily humiliations and constant oppressive laws visited upon all black South Africans. Here was another way of looking at that madness; not just the grimace of bellicose politicians in pork pie hats, or aggressive hard-faced policemen, but peering closer at respectable middle-class whites living an apparently contented life. Eyes, once opened, could see, in Baldwin’s words in another essay, “the great unadmitted crime of what they have done to themselves”.

Edward Gibbon later refined his aphorism about the history of empires being the miseries of humankind. After prodigious research, in his great work on the Roman Empire, Gibbon came to a sterner conclusion: “History … is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

James Baldwin, the grandson of a slave, had a more nuanced view: “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished. The great question was what, exactly, had they accomplished: whether the evil of which there had been so much, alone lived after them, whether the good, and there had been some, had been interred with their bones.”

In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin asked, “What had this colonial experience made of them, and what were they now to do with it?” The question was directed to the exploited; but could be put today to descendants of the exploiters who strive so fervently to preserve public memorials to that very exploitation. It could also be asked of many white South Africans: “What had this colonial experience made of them, and what were they now to do with it?”

To repeat, like a chorus, that those who sustained slavery or apartheid reflected “views common at the time” obliterates what even bigots should be able to register in retrospect: that white minority views were not shared by all whites, and certainly did not reflect the views of slaves or black South Africans, nor of their descendants today.

“On the other hand,” Baldwin observed dryly over 50 years ago, “people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” DM


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