Statues and other monuments have always been powerful symbols expressing people’s sentiments and aspirations and at times their desire for immortality. Some have been crafted to glorify figures from official history or have been of people considered exceptional for the legacies they have left behind.
But because of their symbolism, some statues and other monuments have provoked strong reactions. Statues of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were sometimes disfigured and their temples shut down by their successors, with similar things happening in ancient Mesopotamia, China, Greece and Rome.
Today, it is not kings or political leaders who are taking down the statues of their predecessors, as this has been happening at the hands of angry protesters demonstrating against racism and police violence in the US, UK and a number of European countries.
Protesters in the UK tore down a statue of Edward Colston, an 18th-century slave trader, in the southern English city of Bristol and threw it into the nearby harbour on the second day of protests against the killing of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US.
After the fall of Colston’s statue, one protester knelt with one knee on its neck, re-enacting the death of Floyd who was killed by a white US policeman who pressed against Floyd’s neck with his knee for over eight minutes.
Colston was a member of the Royal African Company, which was likely responsible for transporting 80,000 enslaved men, women and children from Africa to the Americas in the 18th century.
Colston donated much of his wealth to charity when he died in 1721, and there are still buildings bearing his name in Bristol, a city that grew rich from the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.
But it was not only Bristol that built its wealth on the back of the slave trade. London mayor Sadiq Khan said the UK capital should also face up to the truth about its history related to slavery. “It is an uncomfortable truth that our city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade,” Khan said, who is of Pakistani origin.
Khan said that London landmarks including street names, the names of public buildings and commemorative plaques would be reviewed by a commission to remove those with links to slavery.
To avoid a repeat of the Bristol incident, a statue of 18th-century slaveholder Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands last week amid cheers from the people in attendance.
The museum said that the statue of Milligan, who owned two sugar plantations and more than 500 slaves in Jamaica in the 18th century, had “stood uncomfortably” outside its premises “for a long time.”
The University of Liverpool also removed the name of 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone from one of its buildings. Gladstone, whose family owned slaves in the Caribbean, opposed the UK law abolishing slavery passed in 1830.
Thousands of Oxford University students also demonstrated last week demanding the removal of a statue of the 19th-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college. Rhodes facilitated the British occupation of much of southern Africa, and a number of British colonies were named after him, including Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
A statue of Rhodes was taken down a few years ago from the Cape Town University campus in South Africa after thousands of protesters demanded its removal.
Last weekend, a demonstration in London demanded the tearing down of a statue of former UK prime minister Winston Churchill, who led his country to victory in World War II, from Parliament Square.
However, Khan said he did not consider statues of Churchill necessary to include in the review. UK students needed to be educated about famous figures from the past, he said, “warts and all.”
In the US, protesters pulled down a statue of the 15th-century Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in Saint Paul in Minnesota. A statue of Columbus in Boston and another in Miami met the same fate.
Many Americans celebrate Columbus for discovering the Americas in 1492. However, indigenous activists have often protested against honouring Columbus, saying his voyages led to the colonisation of their land and the eradication of their ancestors.
Protesters in the US have also pulled down statues of leaders from the Confederate group of southern states that fought against the union to maintain slavery between 1861 and 1865.
A statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis was pulled down by protesters in Richmond, Virginia, and a statue of Confederate general Robert Lee has been the site of many protests in the city since the death of Floyd. An order by the governor to remove the statue is the subject of a lawsuit.
Statues of former Belgian king Leopold II are also being removed in Belgium. Leopold reigned from 1865 to 1909 and established a vicious imperialist system in the former Belgian colony of Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, that killed over 10 million people.
On 30 June, the anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 will take place with demands for compensation from Belgium.
Italian protesters are demanding the removal of a monument to 20th-century Italian journalist Indro Montanelli in Milan, describing him as a “racist” and a “rapist.” Montanelli covered the Italian war on Ethiopia in the 1930s when he bought an Eritrean girl aged 12 whom he brought back to Italy calling her a “small animal”.
Spanish protesters are trying to erase the legacy of fascist general Francesco Franco by removing landmarks from Spanish cities erected during Franco’s rule from 1939 to 1976 after a civil war in which he wiped out his Republican opponents.
The current demonstrations worldwide to remove statues of racist figures bring to mind the tearing down of symbols of communism following the fall of the communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s when protesters pulled down statues of Lenin and Stalin in Russia and Eastern Europe.
A statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad in 2003, symbolising the beginning of the Anglo-American occupation of the country. In the years that followed, protesters wiped out the legacy of Saddam across Iraq as represented in various murals and statues.
Icons of racism are no longer celebrated in Western countries, but is removing their statues and monuments enough to erase these figures from history?
According to the national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the removal of statues honouring the colonisers is a symbolic response to injustices that did not end with the termination of the occupations.
One example is the bombing by the Egyptian popular resistance of the base of the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps at the entrance to the Suez Canal when defending the country against the Tripartite Aggression in 1956. Controversy also arose over a monument to the 19th-century khedive Ismail in Tahrir Square after the 1952 Revolution.
The Sudanese government removed statues of Charles Gordon, the British military ruler of Sudan during the rule of the Egyptian khedive Mohamed Tawfik who was killed by the Mahdist Revolution of 1886, from Khartoum after the country’s independence.
A statue of Horatio Kitchener, commander of the British army that occupied Sudan in 1898, was similarly removed from Khartoum. Similar removals have happened dozens of times since in countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, even as injustices continue, albeit in new forms.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly