History can't be sanitised by dismantling old relics

Despite its wrenching pain, history cannot be unlived, argues Rashmee Roshan Lall

A vandalised bronze bust of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the Table Mountain National Park, South Africa. Schalk van Zuydam / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

The controversy over Rhodes Must Fall – the campaign to tear down Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, because of his views on other races and colonial domination – can only be described as hysterical. Hysterically funny, in the manner of a rather unpleasant farce.

It started last spring in South Africa as a concerted movement to force the University of Cape Town to remove the Rhodes statue that stood on its campus. This was as much of an affront, the campaigners said, as Rhodes’s politics, which supported white supremacy and colonial plunder. That was an exaggerated claim, any way you look at it, but it gained momentum. In the month that the campaign took to force the authorities to capitulate, it infected other South African universities. Then it moved overseas.

Where do you stop? How do you sanitise history? If this were an absurdist play, the scenes would play themselves out with chaotic certainty.

Pull down Rhodes’s statue. Continue with Winston Churchill and all the other worthies in British history, who held opinions now deemed illegal.

Do the same with Abraham Lincoln, wherever in the world his likeness is to be found. He may have liberated African-American slaves, but doubted they could be integrated into white society and favoured their separate development in British colonies in the Caribbean. It was apartheid in all but name.

Go around India and the Middle East destroying some of the great buildings that were built using the proceeds of activities that are rightly condemned today.

Pay special attention to the Royal Automobile Club in Cairo. It might be an excellent candidate for razing. After all, it opened in April 1924 in the then Chawarbi Street as an exclusive watering hole for those whose livelihood and status depended on the exploitation of ordinary Egyptians.

In his eponymous new novel, the popular Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany evocatively portrays the Automobile Club of Egypt as the very fulcrum, even the agency of colonialist and racist thought. “The club’s founders were all foreigners or members of the local Turkish aristocracy,” he writes. He goes on to describe its first administrative committee’s terrible tussle with drawing up the rules and bylaws. Should Egyptians even be allowed to become members? And should Egyptian staff be hired even though they were cheaper than Europeans? A fictional French committee member sums up the expatriate view of Egyptians at the time: “dirty, stupid, filthy, liars and thieves”.

Having had a rather magical dinner at the club just a few months ago, I can say that Cairo would be the poorer without it. There is little point in the sort of revisionism that seeks to erase brick and mortar structures and thereby memory.

Redolent of history and now choc- full of local members and guests, the Royal Automobile Club is a good example of modern Egypt’s accommodation with the past. That it thrives does not suggest continued enslavement. Rather the reverse, perhaps.

The same might be said of historical structures that have been preserved in other decolonised parts of the world. Erected by former colonial masters, the convulsions of time have rendered them unimportant and out of sync with prevailing norms. Must they be destroyed? Deleting a memory does not erase the fact that it once existed.

India, which led the 20th century’s great transformative process of decolonisation, has taken a generally benign approach to the some of the more solid manifestations of its history. It has changed the names of some cities and roads, but in Delhi, for instance, the now superfluous statues of British viceroys and other notables have been removed and saved in Coronation Park on the far edge of the city. They were forlorn, mossy and covered in bird droppings when I visited the park not too long ago, but at least they still exist as reminders of another age.

Can one dismantle the legacy of colonialism by the simple act of destroying a statue or a building? This is an increasingly urgent question in the light of ISIL's newly revealed act of cultural vandalism in Iraq. According to satellite pictures recently studied by the Associated Press, the extremist group razed the 1,400-year-old monastery of Saint Elijah near Mosul. That was in autumn 2014, but now that it has become news, ISIL's handiwork has been deplored by the US and Unesco, as well as Iraqi Christians who once knew it as a place of pilgrimage.

Respect for culturally important objects has long been an accepted principle among civilised nations, both in times of war and peace. This is why there has been universal condemnation of ISIL’s persistent use of the bulldozer for cultural heritage that it can not reconcile with its worldview. So too the Taliban’s 2001 decision to dynamite the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan.

How then to read the dynamite effects of the raging mania to sanitise physical and psychological territory? It is sweeping western campuses with the demand for “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and an outright war on “microagressions”. Imperialist statues are deemed as troubling as words and images that refer to sexual assault or the age of colonialism. Either (or both) might offend someone.

But there is a basic problem with campaigns to scrub campuses, curriculums and all public spaces to render them politically correct. In the words of American poet and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou, history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. The same is true of life.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs

On Twitter: @rashmeerl