In an interview with the Financial Times, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh recalled a recent visit to Vietnam. As a writer interested in the impacts of globalisation and the effects labour and capital had in creating the modern world, he brought a natural curiosity about how Vietnamese had learnt to cope with their country’s history.
“I remember asking people what they thought about the war,” he says. “And they said, ‘which war?’ ”
Ghosh’s anecdote was part of a wider discussion about how to use and cope with colonial history and about how, in general, South Asian societies – despite huge atrocities perpetrated against them – have been able to move forward, to consciously expunge collective memory of past injustices. The notion of “living in the present”, a term now very much a part of our new-age vernacular, originally stems from East mindfulness, after all. The great thing about Southeast Asia, Ghosh posits, is really “that people are able to let go” –not to have the past poison the present.” Japanese atrocities in China do not hold back the latter’s sense of itself or of its place in the world, even though Japan’s denial continues to rankle. By way of contrast, Ghosh offers the Middle East – “which is completely imprisoned in the past – nobody can let go.”
A few miles up the river from the Financial Times offices in London, in administrative Whitehall, stands the lone statue of Clive. Confident, supercilious and certain, he stands with legal document in one hand, an Indian sabre in another, bestriding the conquered lands of Empire. (When I say ‘legal document,’ I use it very loosely. Legality was effectively whatever Clive intended it to be.) Whenever I walk past the statue, I inwardly shudder. For 1st Baron Robert Clive, known as “Clive of India”, was a tyrannical megalomaniac. For a full century, beginning under his watch, the East Indian Company conquered, subjugated and plundered vast tracts of South Asia in a brutal reign which brought 400 million people to their knees –and many millions to their deaths. As an apt metaphor for what Clive did to the Indian subcontinent (an area then including Pakistan, Bangladesh and large parts of Afghanistan) the historian William Dalrymple highlights how one of the first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindi word for plunder – “loot.” Before then, it was only heard in Northern India – but it came to symbolise the relentless and merciless desecration of the subcontinent’s natural, monetary, cultural and artistic treasures. The word “loot” so came to symbolise the worst excesses of what was committed in the name of Empire that even the British eventually couldn’t stomach it – a reviled Clive was censured for large scale corruption and his East India Company overhauled.
It’s difficult to describe quite how much Clive and his successors in the British Raj stunted the Indian subcontinent’s progress and development, and how much he stunted Indians’ sense of worth and pride in themselves. Before Clive, it was the superpower of its day, responsible, astonishingly, for a quarter of the world’s output. After Clive, it became synonymous with famine, backwardness and decay. So Clive and his colonial ilk have a lot to answer for, to put it mildly. And yet, despite all this, to my knowledge there has never been a serious attempt to pull down Clive’s statue. Even in India, many colonial statues remain and are tolerated.
The point, to me, is that India has moved on.
It is a country determined to “live in the present”, a country which never was imprisoned by its colonial baggage, or by sense of victimhood. The centuries of loot were deeply resented – but were never debilitating. Life, under this interpretation, isn’t so much to correct past wrongs, but to direct the future.
I thought of this recently when contemplating another ogre – Cecil John Rhodes.
Just over a decade ago, I was responsible for raising funds which in part went towards the refurbishment of the Rhodes statue in Oriel College, Oxford. I was under no illusions as to how Rhodes, were he alive, would have viewed me or my kind, or that he was responsible for inflicting some of the deepest psychological scars on my country’s psyche.
The idea seems appalling now, coming as it does amidst the success of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign at home, and the increasingly confident campaign at Oxford, where Rhodes studied and through which he sought to gain an artificial legitimacy. At the time, we were infused with the magnanimous spirit of Mandela, the great conciliator and statesman, who had sought to raise up Rhodes’ name – and no doubt to utilise his massive benefaction – in the spirit of reconciliation and for the purposes of nation-building.
Mandela, of course, was, and still remains, our moral compass. So when, at the time, he had benevolently agreed to link his name with Rhodes to create a foundation which would “address the legacies of racial discrimination, profound inequality, poverty and lack of educational opportunity” it seemed churlish to do anything but support it. During those years, the Rhodes Trust agreed to pour 10 million pounds into the Mandela Foundation, for the financing of scholarships for disadvantaged black students, educational development programmes, improvements in child healthcare and to enhance the skills of teachers and principals in fifty rural schools in Mandela’s Eastern Cape.
While many balked at the idea, Mandela, in typical fashion, saw it as a way to “close the circle and bring together two strands of our history.” In effect, in the words of historian Paul Maylam, Mandela was “striking a deal [for the development of his country] to ensure that Rhodes’ wealth would be restored to the country in which it was acquired – without asking questions as to how it was acquired.” That’s how Maylam saw it – but my take on it is that rather than view Rhodes as a vehicle for belated restorative justice, the pragmatic Mandela viewed him instead as a vehicle for distributive justice. He looked to the future, not the past.
Those were heady times – idealistic, too. I remember a family friend, a famous artist in South Africa whose work graced our county’s new Constitutional Court, being called upon to create the tapestry in Oxford which depicted the two men together. The irony was always there, no doubt, but the tangible sense at the time was about moving forward through overcoming, rather than succumbing to, prejudice.
Two years after Mandela’s death, and the zeitgeist of South African society has palpably shifted. A new generation is no longer content to remain silent, or to be magnanimous towards, what it sees as a continuing culture of institutionalised racism and marginalisation. And to paraphrase Johnny Steinberg in another context, a discursive terrain has emerged in the country in which the ruling party’s old solutions are unwelcome and in which it scarcely has the language to converse.
The language of Mandela almost seems quaint now.
It goes without saying that there is absolutely no moral standing for trying to defend Rhodes and what he stood for – just as there isn’t when considering the legacy of Clive. This is different, in my view, to the question of whether or not a statue should continue standing or not, but the two strands are what the organisers have attempted to equate, and with considerable success too. Once activists invoke the scars of historical and deep-seated racism as a clarion call, it is difficult to resist, and I have little doubt that in time, the statue will be removed. Social scientists will posit that there is no right or wrong societal model for whether a statue should be removed or not. History is replete with examples of societies siding with the school of thought of “art as the preserver of history”, and other societies with the school of thought of “symbols as underlying codes to society”. It is the prerogative of each generation to critically assess for themselves how they interpret art, and history, and symbols; and thus decide whether they want statues and symbols to remain or not. And perhaps the time is right for South Africans to demand that the Rhodes statue be removed in Oxford. But as the South Asian experience suggests, what’s more important than the decision itself is what happens after it – and that for a society to progress, it has to move away from a sense of victimhood. And focus on what it can build.
And as the Duke of Orsino says in As You Like It, presaging a world in which no one society has a monopoly on victimhood:
“Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants
than the scene wherein we play in”
I wish the South African organisers of the Oxford campaign well. I also hate our past. But I am more concerned about my tomorrow, than I am about my past. DM