But things didn’t just stop with the Confederacy. In numerous cities, activists have targeted statues of Christopher Columbus, the Genoese explorer who, in the service of the Spanish crown, launched a new age of European colonialism when he reached the New World in 1492. His career is checkered by wanton acts of cruelty and tyranny; his legacy has come to represent for many a whole history of indigenous dispossession, exploitation and genocide.
In Boston, a statue of Columbus was found beheaded on Wednesday morning. Another Columbus statue in Richmond — where a whole series of monuments is now set to fall — was thrown into a lake. And in St. Paul, Minn., indigenous activists threw a rope around a 10-foot bronze statue of Columbus on the grounds of the state capitol and dragged it off its pedestal. Authorities did not intervene as the statue came tumbling down, and activists danced in a circle around it, singing native songs.
“For healing to happen, this needed to happen,” Mike Forcia, chairman of the Twin Cities American Indian Movement and a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, told the Minnesota Reformer. “It was here for far too long. It’s a slap in the face to all Native people and all people of color.”
Such scenes in the United States are being played out on an astonishing global tableau. The killing of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality, but it also retrained focus on the systemic, historical ills that still define American society. And, across the pond, it reminded others of their own histories of injustice.
In Britain, in particular, activists have attacked statues honoring English slavers and former prime minister Winston Churchill, leading to outraged reactions from ruling Conservative Party officials. Scrutiny has moved to an array of old imperialists, from Cecil Rhodes to East India Company officials whose statues and monuments remain either in or near Westminster, Britain’s symbolic and political heart.
A key culprit is 18th-century adventurer and company official Robert Clive, who helped capture and plunder vast tracts of India. He was a controversial figure in his own age, widely reviled by contemporaries and political rivals, and dubbed “Lord Vulture” by those horrified by his record of asset-stripping and cruelty that, among other things, prompted a famine in Bengal that killed millions. His image was only burnished a century later with a statue outside Britain’s Foreign Office.
“Just as statues of defeated Confederate generals rose in the southern United States, long after their deaths, as totems to a white supremacy that was felt to be under threat during the civil rights movement, so, in due course, Clive was subject to an equally remarkable metamorphosis,” wrote William Dalrymple, a noted British historian of India. “In the early 20th century, as resistance was beginning to threaten the foundations of the Raj, Lord Vulture was miraculously transformed into the heroic Clive of India.”
The protests are spotlighting the country’s amnesia over its imperial past, a scrutiny that has only been intensified by events in the United States. “Britain’s geographic distance from colonialism and the slave trade has allowed some Britons to claim their country is not, at heart, racist,” wrote Mark Landler of the New York Times. “But the removal of statues of Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee in the United States has made those arguments harder to sustain.”
“These monuments are put up to revere these figures, and if we say we want a non-racist society, of course we have to get rid of them,” Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, told the Times. “Statues are not about history; statues are about a certain version of history.”
Indeed, President Trump and his allies have clung to a certain version of history. Trump angrily tweeted his opposition to recent calls to rename U.S. Army bases that carry the names of Confederate generals — or, as my colleague Alex Horton put it, “traitors.” On Thursday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) decried from the Senate floor the “Jacobin” and “Maoist” mobs targeting the country’s monuments, suggesting that those who want to remove the statues see the United States as fundamentally “evil” and “irredeemable.” Critics would contend that it is precisely because they have faith in American redemption that they want these statues removed.
The debate over the statues is hardly clear cut. Though Christopher Columbus represents a catastrophic history of genocide for indigenous peoples, the statues that went up in his honor in early-20th-century America were meant to empower Italian Americans and Catholics, who faced hideous bigotry and constant suspicion. But sometimes the argument to remove the statues is stronger than the one to keep them.
“It’s like scale falling from my eyes,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Politico in reference to the protests. Though hardly a supporter of the Confederate monuments, Kaine said he had accepted their presence in the Virginian capital as an emblem of “pain” and pushed instead for newer monuments commemorating black Americans to come up.
Now, Kaine sees that may have been insufficient. He said that it’s not what statues represent about the past, but “what they say about people and our values in the present.”