Of Cabbages and Kings
“In the beginning was the word
I think the word was ‘OM’
The last words heard in the tavern
Were “show me the way to go Home!”
— From the Tower of Babul by Bachchoo
One nation’s heroes are another nation’s tyrants. Problems arise when, through the march of history, the nations merge, living in the many mansions of declared democracies.
Isn’t that what happened in the United State of America when a nation of black Africans were transported as slaves to toil for the European immigrant usurpers of that continent? Isn’t the contemporary explosion of the US after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman the consequence of two opposed historical perspectives? The owners see the plantation as the source of wealth and the owned know it as the rack of torture.
George Floyd’s murder brought these views of history from the subconscious of that nation and certainly of Britain, into a conflicted open.
The Black Lives Matter movement of the US demanded an end to the powers that allow the American police to discriminate against Afro-Americans and imprison and kill them. And today there is a smooth transition to the universal demand by millions of Americans, black and mostly white, for an end to the legacies of this opposing history, this pretence that the abolition of slavery and the granting of universal votes to black and white, has fulfilled the requirements of democracy as defined, not by the Athenian or Roman state of old, but by the definition “of the people, for the people, by the people!”
The people on the streets of New York, Washington and a hundred cities in the US, even those who choose not to peacefully march, but to loot armament stores, are demanding that the two nations thrown together on a continent by opposing histories, bury the legacy of those histories. Can it be done? It’s the closest the entire nation has got to demanding it.
This historical sub-conscious of a movement that seems to be activated by a demand for rights and reform, emerged dramatically in Bristol when demonstrators pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, a slave owner who used his wealth from the slave trade to benefit, in several philanthropic ways, the citizens of his city. Statistics can be easily produced to prove that Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, among others were built and rendered prosperous through the money earned in the slave trade and plantations worked by slaves in the “new world”.
The remarkable factor of this protest, led by black Britons, had four or five white sympathisers pull the statue down and drag it to the cemented waterways of Bristol port and cast it into the waters.
The protests against the constituted, though anti-constitutional, racism of the US has reinforced the fact that Britain is also, in this day and age, an amalgam of two metaphoric nations: the descendants of colonisers and those of the colonised.
In Oxford the demonstrations of thousands of people who took to the streets were not demanding any material advancement, but the symbolic removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the streets of the town. Oriel College, which was endowed by Rhodes, has in the last few years met with such protests and has consistently maintained that Rhodes may have been a racist and a prime mover of colonial conquest and subjugation in Africa, but he was a part, perhaps even a shameful part, of Oxford’s history.
And yet his presence in stone on the streets is, to some, a celebration of historical brutality. The ironic element of this protest is that the people leading it are students from abroad who are Rhodes scholars — as was Bill Clinton in his draft-dodging time at Oxford.
In London, Sadiq Khan, the mayor, has waded into this symbols-of-heritage argument with the demand that the Tate galleries, named after the owners of slave plantations growing sugarcane in the Caribbean, ought to be renamed.
He is also committed, he says, to the removal of statues, which offend the ethnic population of London. So, is it off to the museums or to the cold depths of the Thames with the statues of Charles Napier, the conqueror of Sind and the bronze statue of Robert Clive, who transformed the East India Company from a trading into a militant, mercenary and colonising enterprise?
Historians still argue about his role. Did colonial rule unite an India that was tearing itself apart with internecine wars? Did colonialism leave a legacy that was, on balance, not entirely negative? Must the enthusiasts who gather to pull down these statues be lectured on the alternative arguments before they bring out their slings and arrows? Will Sadiq Khan do some homework and say which legacy is clearly without ambivalence?
He is right to point out that the Tate family were slave owners. Will his intervention now cause the winners of the Tate-Booker literary prize to rush to return the sums of reward money that could be denounced as carrying the taint? Ummm… I think “no way Jose”!
Opposing Sadiq’s view, which could encourage the demolition of Napier, Clive and others, the UK’s home minister, Priti “clueless” Patel waded in with some homilies about sticking to the law and keeping to the regulations of the Covid virus emergency. Keep the statues you pull down two metres apart? And make sure they are wearing protective PPE masks?
Which brings me, gentle reader, to the renaming of streets and cities in India.
Take Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi. It is beyond dispute that this emperor was more than nasty towards the Sikhs. It is also true that he had Hindu generals and high officials in his administration. Opinion, which demanded his name removed, was canny enough to replace it with the name of a Muslim President of India. So that wasn’t, as the removal of Colston’s statue was, a manifestation of the historical clash of India’s principal religious “nations”.
Or was it?...