2 days ago
Conservative leaders snigger at protesters seeking the removal of statues memorialising those whose fortunes came from the exploitation of slaves.
The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, implied facetiously this week that such demands are on a par with seeking to knock down Stonehenge on the grounds that it once could have been the site of human sacrifice. He was speaking in response to a puerile question from the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne – who got into trouble last year for blacking his face – suggesting that a measure be introduced to remove “all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation in this island”.
The flippancy of the exchange shows that both men feel that slavery happened a long time ago and does not stand out in history as a particularly horrendous crime, and that the demonstrations against those who benefited from it amount to a passing fad that need not be taken seriously.
They could not be more wrong. Does Rees-Mogg, who tends to wear his religious convictions on his sleeve, have an equally dismissive attitude towards the crucifixion, which is, after all, a well-attested murder of an innocent man by torture committed by a colonial oppressor 2,000 years ago?
It is the tendency of fervent Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Swayne to be ignorant not only of the history of other countries, but of the real history of their own. The campaign to remove the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh may seem to be a time-wasting and eccentric excursion into obscure historical alleyways. In fact, it raises the veil on one of the grimiest corners of British history, which is the military campaign fought by Britain on behalf of slave owners in the 1790s to crush the great slave revolt in Haiti, (then called Saint-Domingue) ignited by the French Revolution. The British Army lost 45,000 out of 90,000 troops sent in this war, largely as a result of yellow fever and the fierce resistance of the former slaves. Casualties were heavier than all the British wars against Napoleonic France.
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The episode was largely omitted from British history books. Unsurprisingly, countries, like individuals, focus on their virtues and successes and like to forget their crimes and defeats. What Rees-Mogg and Swayne are really saying is that the crime of slavery is not so gross that the virtues of those who perpetrated and benefited from it should not be celebrated, whereas the attempts to memorialise their atrocities get short shrift.