In the Percy Bysshe Shelly’s classic sonnet Ozymandias, the inscription on the pedestal of an abandoned dilapidated statue reads,
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair”.
The poet draws irony out of the pride endowed to the statue of a long-forgotten king by the time he was alive. The structures, inscriptions and busts of this powerful individual’s magnificence are crafted to perpetuate the legend of his soul for eternity. It means that the social construct wants its adherents to celebrate the works and ideas of this mortal person with ecstasy, no matter how flawed he may have been.
Black Lives Matter has become a global movement with protesters marching on the streets demanding an end to racial discrimination and white supremacy. The UK is one of the countries witnessing emblematic toppling of the powerful Colonial leaders by black people. Amidst figures of coveted personalities of white legacy being vandalized, it is important to know what these men stood for.
Lately, in the port city of Bristol, England, the protest took a drastic turn when the 125 years old statue of Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into the river Avon on 7 June 2020. The protesters even pretended to kneel on the statue’s neck just like how the police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. Edward Colston who has revered as one of the greatest philanthropists of the colonial era with many landmarks named after him is facing the wrath of the protesters centuries after his death.
Gold, Silver, Ivory and Slaves: Who was Edward Colston?
Born to a wealthy merchant family in Briston in 1636, Edward Colston grew up to be the most prolific trader of his times with a trade spread across entire Europe prominently including Spain, Italy and Portugal. Wine, Oil and fabrics were the major commodities traded. He became a member of the Royal African Company (RAC) in 1680 which was established by the royal Stuart family of Scotland in 1660 and led by the Duke of York, brother of then King Charles II, who later acceded to the throne as James II. The company had a monopoly over the trade of gold, silver, ivory and slaves. The symbol of DY was tattooed on the bodies of the slaves. Initially, the company was only granted a monopoly over the British trade along the African West Coast primarily involving the extraction of Gold but later in 1663, a charter was issued to grant it complete right of the slave trade.
The slaves were taken from Africa and the Asian subcontinent and trafficked to the plantation sites in the Caribbean Islands. Under Colston’s affiliation with RAC, it is assumed that over 84,000 slaves were trafficked. Briston, Liverpool and Glasgow were a few of the busiest ports of Great Britain from where the commodities (including slaves) were transported. Colston’s tenure saw the death of more than 20,000 black slaves. By the end of his association with RAC, he had accumulated innumerable wealth and established himself as one of the most powerful people in Britain. That power got him the status of Tory (a political faction from 1678 to 1834) Member of Parliament from 1710 till 1713.
In the later years of his life, he perpetrated his noble charitable work of uplifting the uplifted. He gave a considerable amount of his wealth, generated out of selling human lives, to endow Churches, hospitals, schools and almshouses for white citizens. According to some historians, the priest who recited prayers at his funeral addressed him as a man “who knew no want”. Several books including Parliament: the House of Commons, 1690-1715 refers to him as “the highest example of Christian liberty that this era has produced”.
Clearly the ubiquitous display of him being a champion of humanity and no condemnation by Britain legitimized the oppression of the black community. The statue sends out the message that brutality of fascist powers of the colonial era and the massacre they committed on the black lives don’t matter.
With Edward Colston’s statue removed on 7 June protests in Belgium started demanding the removal of the statue of Genocidist King Leopold II. Reckoning the sentiments of protesters after they smeared the monument with graffiti paint, the local authorities removed the statue on 9 June. In an interview to Glasgow Times, a local resident said, “time for the plague is over”.
Ivory, Rubber and Slaves: Who was King Leopold II?
The time of Leopold II was nothing less than a plague to the local inhabitants of Congo. He became the private owner of the African country on 1 July 1885 and named it Congo Free State with the King’s private army deployed in the country.
Born on 9 April 1835, the King of the Belgians acceded to the coveted Belgium throne on 17 December 1865. Just like other European leaders, he pushed to colonize other underprivileged nations with an abundance of natural resources. Congo Free State had a gift of ivory and rubber whose international prices were soaring. Leopard II used brutal forces to extract and exploit these resources for his personal benefits. His private army forced millions of indigenous people into rubber plantations.
If the daily quota of rubber wasn’t produced, then he used to inflict savage punishments upon the slaves, including amputation of hands, feet and lymph. Even women and children weren’t spared from this retribution. His reign caused the death of 10 million people while many historians claim it to be 15 million. In 1908, the Government of Belgium took over the administrative claim over Congo from Leopold II at the behest of abuse of power leading to massive death numbers. It is ironic how the king established a philanthropic company International African Society to cease the colony with a promise to uplift the living conditions of local inhabitants.
In the final years, he used his wealth gathered from Congo Free State to build landmarks and buildings in Belgium which are in present days seen as a symbol of Belgium’s rich history including the Royal Museum for Africa to showcase and preserve the local culture of Africa during Leopard II’s era. This year, 30 June marks the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence from Belgium and an organisation called Repair History had filed a petition signed by 68,000 people to remove all the remaining statues of the king by that date.
This monumental activism is getting outright support from Europe as it also knocked down another slave owner’s statue following the request of the Canal and River Trust, Robert Milligan on 9 June which stood at Museum of London Dockland. London Mayor Sadiq Khan took to twitter informing the world about the removal writing, “its a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade but that does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces”. While the Museum administration said, “the monument is part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity”.
Sugar, Ships and Slaves: Who was Robert Milligan?
Born in 1746 to a wealthy Scottish family in Jamaica, Milligan had many ships, various sugar plantations in the Caribbean and owned hundreds of slaves working relentlessly for him. By the end of his death on 21 May 1809, he owned 526 slaves. He was credited for laying the foundation of West India Docks in London for the smooth and faster import of raw material in the UK from the Caribbean. After his death, his statue was erected in that place which stood affront The Museum of London Dockland until 9 June 2020. The London mayor who is himself brown announced to review and improve the diversity of London’s landmarks in solidarity with the movement.
Even the ones we consider heroes
The movement is also taking on those deemed as the heroes in the mainstream. Winston Churchill is one of those. It is no secret that despite being looked up as a wartime champion, Churchill had a racist mindset. Recently on 8 June, the protesters defaced his statue in Parliament Square in London whose pedestal read “Churchill was a racist”.
The incident sparked the debate around the Noble laureate and former Prime Minister being a hero of a villain. Churchill’s inaction and apathy during the Bengal famine, due to his policies to provide food and resources to the war, caused the death of over 3 million people. It is believed that his relentless effort to direct Indian produce to British troops fighting war during the time of drought in Bengal during 1940 caused the catastrophe. In his response to that horrifying famine, he blamed Indians for “breeding like rabbits”. As a staunch British Imperialist, he believed in the idea of white supremacy and hated Indians calling them “the beastliest people in the world after Germans”. He directed his troops called blacks and tans to Ireland burning houses and killing local inhabitants. He even explicitly criticized Africans for being ‘childlike’.
Such problematic views were never called out even by his toughest opponents. He was knighted by the Queen on 24 April 1953. On Friday, Current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cited Churchill as a “National Hero” and stated the threats to his statue by the protesters “Absurd and Wrong”. His statement came after the London Parliament square statue of Churchill was boarded up to protect it from violent harms. He even took to twitter and said; “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past”.
The issue is not about censoring the past but about celebrating it. Why should a rational white person support black lives if their idols whom they preach never did so? This movement is giving the oppressed access to call out the oppressors and their philosophy. Even in Ireland, a petition has been floating around to remove the statue of former Republican John Mitchel, who explicitly advocates his racist views. Similar demand is for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oxford premises.
The final stanza of Percy Shelly’s Ozymandias reads, “Nothing besides remains, Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level stands stretched far away”
The remaining structure of the mighty king Ozymandias was wrecked, desolate and long forgotten. In the vast never-ending desert, the statue was standing alone surrounded by the complete emptiness of the barren desert sand. This poem by the English poet was published in 1818 but its theme resonates with today’s movement.