“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
These stark verses by one of England’s greatest Romantic poets capture the futility of power. Yet, in their lifetimes, they were heralded, loved or feared by their people. The ebb and flow of time respects neither monarchs nor vainglorious warriors. Heroes of one age become villains in another. History is replete with such instances. Shelley wrote of time as the great leveller, though it is not just time but also the cycle of history that can bring down reputations, monuments and statues, as the ideas they represent are no longer acceptable.
Christopher Columbus, the Italian voyager who stumbled upon the New World, was hailed and admired by generations as a great discoverer. His landing in a Caribbean island on October 12, 1492, marks a watershed in human history. It set the pace for global movement of people to the Americas and accompanying commercial, demographic, economic and political changes. Scholars say this was the first step towards globalisation.
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Yet, this perception of Columbus as a heroic voyager has rusted over time. Native Americans have a very different view of Columbus. They see him as the man responsible for killing their forefathers and stripping them of their lands and way of life. With their indigenous culture destroyed, generations were confined to designated reserves. Protests against Columbus statues have spread across the Americas.
In 2020, when US cities exploded in anger at the brutal murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis, and protestors came out in large numbers under the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Columbus statues were desecrated. In Boston, Miami and Virginia, protesters forced authorities to remove Columbus statues from public view. In one instance in Richmond, a statue was pulled down, set alight and thrown into a lake.
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Symbols send out powerful messages. Throughout history, rulers have used symbols to project power, glory or their ideas of the world at the time. Images and monuments mould societies through their presence, and have a lasting effect on people’s thinking, at times at a subconscious level. So, attacks on such symbols are nothing new. After the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia, the statute of Tsar Alexander III in Moscow was torn down by Communist cadre. The Soviets took down symbols of the Tsars and replaced them with their own. There are around 7,000 monuments built in honour of Lenin, the “father” of the Communist state. Other Communist countries also paid homage to Lenin by erecting busts and memorials. Many of these were destroyed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After the Nazi defeat in World War II, Hitler’s images disappeared from Germany and other European nations he had conquered. During the 1956 Hungarian revolt, Joseph Stalin’s statue was beheaded and left on a Budapest street. Stalin was also wiped off from Russian consciousness after his death in 1953 by his successor Nikita Khrushchev.
“Symbolism has existed since the beginning of history. Monuments and statues have an overarching presence in every corner of society and help to mould opinion. Symbols and monuments have been attacked down the ages. The destruction of statues of Confederate generals and White supremacists in the US, asserts that ideas they embodied are no longer acceptable,” says historian Harbans Mukhia. Recognising that cultural representation matters, pulling down statues of hate figures aims to correct a historical perspective. In America, it is being seen as justice being done to African Americans, Mukhia adds. Acting against historical legacies is now becoming a symbol of resistance, a way for people to say they are no longer willing to accept symbols of hate from the past.
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Race relations have always been one of America’s greatest weaknesses. The sense of superiority of Whites, built on centuries of entitlement, is behind the recurring attacks on African Americans. The situation has improved a lot from the days when Blacks were not allowed to share public spaces with Whites. The days of segregation are over, and African Americans are no longer confined to just sports and entertainment. When he became the President of the most powerful country in the world, Barack Obama broke the highest glass ceiling. But there was a backlash, and Donald Trump rode to victory on the nervousness of Whites. US police forces continue to suffer conspicuously from age-old prejudices while dealing with Blacks. George Floyd is not the first, nor will he remain the last Black man to be killed by police.
The sight of a handcuffed George Floyd, dying of suffocation while being pinned to the ground by a policeman in full public view, despite pleading that he couldn’t breathe, touched a raw nerve. The incident, captured on cellphones by bystanders, went viral around the globe. Across USA, protesters vented their rage against symbols of White supremacy.
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According to US press reports, since the Charleston church attack of 2017, nearly a hundred statues of Confederate heroes were attacked or voluntarily removed by city officials by 2020.
Virginia’s capital Richmond, the headquarters of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, was a prime target for protestors. As their former capital, it had the maximum number of statues of Confederate generals and soldiers. The American South, home to large plantations, was a place where traders brought in slaves from Africa. Confederates were White supremacists who were ready to commit atrocities to maintain slavery and slave trade.
The statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis was removed in Richmond, while Confederate general Robert Lee’s statue was also attacked, forcing the state’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam to pledge its removal. In Charleston, North Carolina, protestors went after the statue of John Calhoun, a former vice president and defender of slave trade.
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Slave dynasts BLM protesters defaced or pulled down statues of King Leopold (left); slave trader Edward Colston (centre); and Confederate President Jefferson Davis
In Philadelphia, police commissioner Frank Rizzo’s statue was vandalised by protesters. He was a well-known White supremacist who encouraged people to vote for White candidates, opposed school integration, and was infamous for brutal attacks on Blacks and LGBTQ communities in the 1960s and 70s. The statue was removed from the City Hall.
In Portsmouth, after the city council delayed a decision to remove a Confederate monument, protesters used ropes and bricks, bolt cutters and hammers to behead and tear down four statues.
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The BLM movement reverberated across the Atlantic, where former colonial powers had profited from buying and selling of slaves. Bristol was a thriving centre for slave trade in the 17th century. Then a major colonial power, England ruled over several countries in both Asia and Africa. From the bustling port of Bristol, nearly 2,000 ships would annually sail to Africa and transport captured Africans to be sold as slaves in plantations in the Caribbeans and across the Americas. The Bristol elite owned sugar plantations in several West Indian islands. Among its big merchants was a man named Edward Colston. He owned several ships, became extremely rich from the slave trade, and possibly wished to whitewash his tainted wealth by donating liberally to charity, winning many admirers during his lifetime. He not only gave to the church, but also to various public causes. Schools, buildings and streets were named after him. Much loved during his time, he was regarded as the father of Bristol’s prosperity. Nearly 100 years after his death, a bronze statue of the slave trader was put up in his honour in 1895. It remained there, even though many West Indian immigrants subsequently settled in Bristol and were aware of his involvement with the slave trade. Protests to have the authorities remove the statute got little response, and people had learnt to live with it.
Until June 7, 2020, when, in a burst of anger, BLM activists in Bristol took matters in their own hands, bringing down the symbol of slave trade and throwing the statue of Edward Colston in the Avon River.
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As Europe joined the BLM movement, highlighting racial injustice in their corner of the world, in Belgium, a statue of the notorious King Leopold III was defaced. Leopold personally owned Orange Free State, now called Democratic Republic of Congo. During his reign of terror, African subjects were beaten, slashed with iron rods, burnt, tortured and often murdered, resulting in the killing of anywhere between 10 and 15 million Congolese. Leopold statues in both Antwerp and Ghent were blackened by BLM protesters.
And who can forget Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdous Square being brought down on April 9, 2003, by jubilant opponents of his dictatorial regime and US soldiers, after the latter invaded Iraq. Despite sabre-rattling by both sides, just two years before the invasion, Hussein’s detractors couldn’t have imagined that the system built over 40 years by Hussein and his cronies could be dismantled.
At that moment, US president George W. Bush felt vindicated his policy of “regime change” was correct. People used machetes to pull down Hussein’s statue. Nobody could believe the all-powerful Saddam Hussein would one day be hiding in sewers to escape detention. Later, when he was captured by the US Army and given the death sentence, reports say Iraqi prison guards mocked and harassed the once mighty dictator as he waited for the hangman’s noose.
Who knew then that this was just the beginning of America’s Iraq nightmare?
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