It ends when there is a decolonised education system so that there is no chance of a person being miseducated by a David Subran, that’s when.
His 19 June letter to the editor criticising the calls for the removal of Christopher Columbus’ statue was a shameless genuflecting to the west’s pretensions of Empire that was almost amusing, but downright pathetic.
The late Professor John Henrik Clarke used to say that we will out-pope the Pope and out-Mohammed Mohammed. Similarly, we out-colonise the coloniser—aping his dress, his forms of governing and, of course, his history that we struggle so pathetically to adopt as our own.
There is a narrative, partly but not exclusively among the more mature generation, that we are to accept our current reality including the stories we’ve been told about the past. Even more distasteful is the oft expressed sentiment that we should be ‘grateful’ for what happened, regardless of the circumstances.
This is apparently because colonialism rescued us from lives of savagery, tribal violence and superstition plus grinding poverty; and that the colonised world was steeped in darkness and scientific ignorance until the brave, visionary Europeans, through its explorers, saved us by bringing the light of civilisation—because we had none of our own.
All of that we can pick out of Subran’s article. His ‘alarm’ at the latest round of agitation for the renaming of certain streets and the removal of statues to racist criminals is only matched with his reductionism and trivialising of the atrocities that marked the shaping of this society and region.
Now on the one hand, those who hold that conservative position do have a valid point in stating that you should not select or whitewash history. But they, and this most definitely applies to Subran, are the ones who either overlook or deliberately choose to ignore the fact that the (un)written history that was presented to us is extensive whitewashed, selective and often downright false.
The emerging histories of the Warao, Garifuna and various African and Indian peoples are testimony to that.
This is hard for many of his ilk to accept because we have all been steeped in a fiction of the universalism of Europeans. As they set about imposing themselves into the global south, extracting the resources they desperately needed for their own economies to survive and expand, western academia fabricated an image of the European man (much less so the woman).
This was partly to justify the parasitic relationship the west was developing with the global south. This image was white, Christian, heroic, capable of rational, scientific thought, possessing integrity, ordered and duty-bound to spread these traits throughout a world steeped in godless savagery and violent disorder.
You can see this implicitly and often very explicitly in writings from Francisco Vittoria in the 15th century to George W Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and Mike Pompeo today.
This is what Subran evokes when he wrote: “Christopher Columbus was an outstanding Italian navigator who risked everything to find a new route to the East. In so doing he was the first to find the western hemisphere after it was unknown over thousands of years.”
We will come back to this hilarity.
The point is that this visible image of the epitome of all that was good and praiseworthy; of a white athletic-looking man with a persona reinforced even in children’s books like ‘The Union Jack’ was set in contrast with the non-white native in a graded level of virtue depending on skin colour.
Books like ‘The Union Jack’ and ‘Boy’s Own’ spread the virtues of the British Empire as it eclipsed the Spain of Columbus’ time, which is one of the roots of today’s racist white supremacy ideology as Professor Claude Fergus illustrated.
Both images have been made to flood our consciousness: white masculinity is presented as universal, thus not needing to be named; the default image and ideology. The ‘native’ was superstitious, warlike, tribal, treacherous, lazy, unproductive, instinctively given to lying and capable of impulsive violence and predatory sexuality.
Again, this is conjured up when Subran wrote: “Remember that slavery was an integral part of society even from biblical times, and that indigenous people warred among themselves, even before the arrival of the Spaniards.”
Subran brings up here another feature common in Eurocentric analyses: decontextualisation. In this case it is decontextual and generalised and also false. Although enforced labour may very well be as old as humanity, many societies and civilisations did not function on a slave economy.
Take the ancient African civilisation along the Nile Valley, Kemet (Egypt). It’s interesting that I am writing this on Labour Day as Egypt is where the first known organised labour strike is recorded. But more to the point, from its early pharaonic period in 4245 BCE to the period it lost its independence around 525 BCE, Egypt’s economy was never dependent on slave labour although it did have enslaved people.
The pyramids and major structures were built by paid workers and slaves had many rights accorded to them, including rights of legal redress.
We find this common among many other African societies where the ‘slave’, who was often an indentured bondservant, had many rights comparable to free people. They could even marry into the master’s family and many rose to prominence in those same communities, even up to the title of monarch.
How many enslaved Africans became monarchs in Spain, France, or the US?
Likewise the warfare he so flippantly wrote about. Again there is this generalising. For some, presumably Subran included, this is just mental laziness. But on a wider scale this has very serious consequences that impact directly on global politics.
Interviews and papers of anthropologist R Brian Ferguson discredited much of the purported evidence of humanity’s ‘innate’ propensity for violence.
Ferguson said that the tendency in western academia to universalise and then read back into antiquity the peculiar nature of warfare (and chattel slavery) as engaged in by the west is meant to justify current military interventions or desired interventions by the political elites.
Indeed, research by Greg Grandin, Peter James Hudson, Stephen Kinzer, Chris Hedges and Daniel Immerwahr show how this blanketing and generalising of human, specifically non-white violence, is used as pretexts for military incursions (masked as humanitarianism or peacekeeping) into regions frequently destabilised by the west to create the conditions for said incursions.
These statues serve these purposes. They were often erected to reinforce the academic messages of the superiority of western modernity; they contribute through symbolism the normalising of aggression and militarism, and of authoritarian forms of leadership.
It also projects a spirit of adventure and exploration that, contrasted with the primitive backwardness of indigenous peoples of the global south, seems to apply only to western maritime technology—hence the statement Subran made regarding Columbus earlier.
As I pointed out in a previous article, much of what is touted as European technology and know-how was simply appropriated from China, Africa, Arabia and India. Neither the compass nor the astrolabe were European inventions and the very sails on the caravels were Arab lateens.
This big time navigator did not know how to plot longitude or for that matter any other European navigator. But it was known among the Arabs and Africans, some of whom transferred acquired knowledge of land navigation across the Sahara to maritime travel.
We know through the works of Janet Abu-Lughod, Olayemi Akinwumi and other scholars that there were extensive commercial trading routes all over Africa and then from Africa across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. And all of this was up to the 13th century, long before Columbus was born.
Exactly how much of this was taught in your un-selective, unbiased, objective history courses, Subran?
How about we include the works of Ivan Van Sertima, Helene Balabanova (who found forensic evidence of coca, which is indigenous to South America, in the remains of Pharaoh Ramses III) and Professor Dan Von Hoyel and so establish that the Americas were by no means ‘unknown for thousands of years’; hell, even the Vikings got here before.
Exactly what the hell do these apologists for Empire think colonial rule entailed? I mean by your ‘logic’ we’re really going to have to go back to the question of placing a statue of Adolf Hitler because it was after he was elected chancellor, Germany’s autobahn system was developed. So uhm, wha yuh tink?
The Subrans, Bessons, Anthonys, Kelshalls who want to crow on about witch hunts and erasing history either don’t know or don’t care to admit that these statues and street names were placed by people who had already erased other people’s histories and by retaining them as they are, we are complicit in their crimes.
And speaking of crimes, the other simplistic argument that there are actual issues to protest, such as crime in Laventille, always comes off as so stupid. Is it that people believe in some sort of magic wand theory of dealing with problems? How about processes of deconstruction?
Then again, in societies such as this one, processes were only for some people. Okay, scratch that.
But at the very least, these protests tend to open up discussions on the root causes of social problems. Violent crime, for instance, tends to stem from economic and social factors that were intended to only benefit a select few and exclude whole groups of people not considered people in the first place.
It brings attention to the existence of legal and political mechanisms put in place by the aforementioned elites to ensure that wealth and assets acquired at those other people’s expense are retained within families and corporations, passed down through generations and prevented from equitable distribution.
It shines the light that is needed to illuminate the myth of meritocracy and the violent outcomes of competitive individualism in societies that have normalised aggression.
It exposes the effectiveness of psychological restraints, which is where institutions like the church come in—trust me, Subran, the complicity of religion is coming in for a special focus one way or another. You would think that all that would have been a good thing.
Some things just cannot be fixed I guess.