Fighting with history | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Fighting with history

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The statue of Winston Churchill is seen defaced, with the words (Churchill) "was a racist" in Parliament Square, London. File/ AFP

The causal link between colonialism and racism has been made during global protests against the murder by white police of George Floyd, a black man, in the US state of Minnesota on May 25. Africans arrived in the Americas in the 16th century on colonial slave ships to labour on plantations and ranches while European powers colonising countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia-New Zealand have driven indigenous people off their land and killed, persecuted and discriminated against them.  

Little wonder that thousands protesting racism have targeted images and place names honouring slavers and imperialist figures who perpetrated these historical outrages. 

In Britain “Black Lives Matter” activists in the port city of Bristol pulled down and dumped into the water a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader who transported thousands of African slaves to the US. Protesters have called for the removal at Oriel College, Oxford, of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist who made his career in white-ruled southern Africa. A statue erected in London of World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was a white supremacist, was defaced and covered in a box.

Belgian protesters defaced and torched a statue of King Leopold II in the city of Antwerp until it was taken down, daubed red paint on his statues in Ghent and Ostend and toppled them in Brussels. The king, who ruled between from 1865-1909, imposed his absolute rule on the Congo and murdered 10-15 million Africans, inspiring the coining of the term “crimes against humanity.”

In Sydney, Australia, two women were arrested for vandalising the statue of Captain James Cook, the 18th century explorer and navigator who made initial contacts with Australia, New Zealand and Pacific islands and who was killed during an attempt to kidnap Hawaii’s king. Cook’s Explorations led to the conquest of these territories, the decimation and subjugation of Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, Pacific islanders, and others to continuing racism and discrimination.

In Hamilton, New Zealand, a statue of naval captain John Hamilton was taken down after threats from a Maori chieftain to fell it by force. Hamilton had been involved in a 19th century battle with the indigenous Maoris over British occupation and land ownership in the islands. The presence of another statue of Cook on a mountain sacred to native folk has also been challenged.

Although black and brown colonial subjects who have settled in former colonial countries have achieved a degree of acceptance and many have risen in their professions, secured social standing, and risen to political office, they too can be subjected to racism. For them, the “Black Lives Matter” slogan struck a chord once the current wave of unprecedented, inclusive mass black, white and brown protests erupted across the US.  

The attacks on these colonialist symbols around the world have been inspired by anti-racism protests about statues and place names of political figures and generals who served the slave state confederacy during the US Civil War (1861-65). Since ongoing unrest erupted, US cities and institutions have even taken down statues of Christopher Columbus, the 15th century Italian explorer who opened up the Americas for conquest, European colonisation, ethnic cleansing of indigenous  populations, and African slavery.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade began in the early 1500s and ended in the mid-1800s. Some 12 million Africans were seized and transported to the “New World” where five million were settled in Brazil and three million to the Caribbean. In August 1619, 20 Africans kidnapped from Angola by Portuguese slavers, arrived in the oldest US colony, Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, and were sold as indentured servants, who were forced to with or with no pay but expected to be released once their contracts finished. Once Africans, who eventually totalled 400,000, had become the backbone of the plantation economy in the south, they and their descendants were classified legally the property of their white owners.

The 1863 abolition of slavery and the defeat two years later of the southern slave states by the north in the civil war did not end anti-African attitudes. Instead, US natives, Hispanics and Asians become victims to the systematic rampant racism dominating the US ethnic/cultural/economic/political discourse today.

The Afro-American or black community is the most disadvantaged of the four and suffers the greatest racism although it has made major progress over the past half century. In an article published on the BBC website, Jake Horton shows where this community stands 57 years after black rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King led his march on Washington to “demand racial justice.” Horton reveals, on the negative side, that black family income is a steady 40 per cent lower than white family income and the black employment rate is twice that of whites.

On the positive side, he shows that the black poverty rate has fallen to 20.8 per cent, about half the figure for 1966, while the white poverty rate has remained about the same at around 10 per cent.  Twenty-six per cent of blacks have completed four years of higher education as compared to 4 per cent in 1962. The rise follows the trajectory of the increase among white graduates who were around 10 per cent in 1962 and 35 per cent in 2019. Black election to the US Congress has soared. In 1961-62, there were four in the House of Representatives and none in the Senate; today there are 52 in the House with 435 seats, in line with their proportion of 13 per cent in the population, and three in the 50-seat Senate.

There are also black mayors, police chiefs, state governors and officials at many levels in national, state, and local administrations as well as thousands of black doctors, lawyers and educators.

Progress has rightly fostered the desire among the black community to be given equal treatment under the law and in the society. While going about their daily lives they are no longer prepared to accept the risk of being stopped, searched, arrested, or killed by police or white vigilantes. The death of George Floyd was, for them, the last straw. It is hardly surprising that their protests have ignited demonstrations by persecuted and disadvantaged people of colour across the world.

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