IT seems certain to go down as one of 2020s most iconic moments.
After decades of controversially looming over the city of Bristol, the statue of 17th century slaver Edward Colston has fallen.
Black Lives Matter activists tore the statue from its lofty pedestal and hurled into the watery grave of Bristol Harbour.
In the hours since the toppling, debate about the legacy of empire and colonialism has erupted into mainstream discourse again.
This was compounded with the defacing of Winston Churchill’s statue, on which demonstrators labelled the wartime Prime Minister a “racist’.
Confronting the darkness of Britain’s imperial past is something long overdue. Britain’s – like any – empire was built on a mountain of corpses. The waves that Britannia ruled were those of a sea of blood.
It speaks volumes of the level of collective historical amnesia in this country that this debate it happening at all, but happen it must. A recent YouGov poll found that only only 19 per cent of Brits think that the Empire is something to be ashamed of, with 32 per cent calling it something to be proud of while 37 per cent considered it a source of neither pride nor shame.
It is right that the statue of Edward Colston fell, but slavers are an easy target. Ask anyone on the street in AD 2020 what they think of slavery, and even the most ardent jingoist would regard it with horror.
It is harder to assess the legacy of a man often described as the Greatest Briton of All Time.
Winston Churchill’s role as war leader cannot be ignored. While many members of his government wanted to negotiate peace with Hitler, Churchill stood fast and committed to fight on.
Considering what was defeated in the Second World War, this decision is not to be dismissed lightly. To have made peace with Hitler would have been to be complicit in his crimes against humanity.
Churchill made the right decision at a critical moment in world history. But this does not absolve him of his own monstrosities – of which there are many.
After all, as many a pundit will point out, if Churchill is allowed a free pass for his role in defeating Hitler, surely the same must be granted to Stalin?
The mythos behind Churchill sees him remembered as a champion of freedom and democracy in the face of fascism, tyranny and racism.
How peculiar it is then, that such a hero would describe the people living in British controlled Mesopotamia as “uncivilised tribes” and advocate the use of chemical weapons against them.
With any luck, no explanation is needed as to what is objectionable about this descriptor. This manner of language is rolled out by white supremacists to this day.
Defenders of Churchill have been quick to point out that what he proposed to use was a non-lethal form of tear gas. This is sheer pedantry that completely misses the point – the motive behind Churchill’s statement was one of abject racism.
To Churchill, Palestinians were “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
Take for another example, Churchill’s excuses for the genocides perpetrated by British colonialists.
In fact, he went so far as to say before the Royal Palestine Commission in 1937 that “a stronger race, a higher-grade race” had replaced the indigenous peoples of America and Australia.
Is there any way to interpret this other than apologia for genocide and ethnic replacement?
Most egregious of all, perhaps, is Churchill’s role in the devastating Great Bengal Famine of 1943.
A recent study exploring this famine found that the policy of the Churchill government contributed to a mass starvation in India as vital supplies were diverted away from the subcontinent.
As many as three million people died in this famine.
Churchill’s response? He stated that it was the fault of the Indian people for “breeding like rabbits.” At another point, he would also explicitly state his hatred of Indians, calling them a “beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Many will try argue that Churchill’s remarks should be taken within the context of their time, to which the question should be raised – what is this context?
Churchill was far from alone in these views. The British Empire was justified to its perpetrators as a great civilising mission that would introduce justice and enlightenment to the ‘uncivilised’ peoples of the world – an unambiguously racist assertion.
The point is not that Churchill was uniquely terrible. It is that a man who espouses an imperialist and racist ideology should not be uncritically celebrated as a national hero.
To confront and reassess Britain’s imperial past involves asking some tough questions and revising long held assumptions. This goes much further than just destroying public monuments of slavers.
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