Fresh horrific details have emerged about the murder of George Floyd, the handcuffed Black man asphyxiated in Minneapolis by a white police officer kneeling on his neck. Transcripts from police body-cam footage reveal that as Floyd was dying, he cried out, “Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead.”
The protests that followed his death have once again focused on the symbols of racism that still pervade public spaces in the US and elsewhere. Dozens of statues, from those commemorating Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery during America’s civil war, to those honoring British slavers, such as Edward Colston, have been defaced or removed. Long-established organizations with historical links to slavery, from JP Morgan Chase, America’s second-biggest bank, to insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, have apologized and pledged to fund charities working for inclusion.
For the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a straight line between the grotesque Atlantic slave trade and the lingering racism that still blights Black lives. But singling out white leaders and businessmen from Europe and America’s past as the slave-trading racists they undoubtedly were ignores two realities.
The first is that until relatively recent times, racism was the default human setting. Slave traders and owners considered themselves to be “good” Christians, yet they turned away from the suffering of their fellow human beings. Pretty much everyone was a racist. That doesn’t make it acceptable, of course.
The second reality is that trading in slaves was not invented by Colston, any more than owning slaves was introduced by Thomas Jefferson. Slavery was practiced by everyone, from the ancient Sumerians to the Romans and, of course, the African tribes that, for generations, preyed on their neighbors for profit, selling their captives to the Arab world in the east and to European slavers in the west.
From the 16th century on, north African pirates raided shipping in the Mediterranean and coastal towns throughout maritime Europe, hunting for slaves. Entire villages as far north as southwest England, Ireland and even Iceland were stripped of men, women and children. The menace of the so-called Barbary pirates ended only in the early 19th century when US president Jefferson – a slave owner himself – dispatched navy ships to the Mediterranean. In short, slavery did not start with Confederate generals nor with the colonial expansionism of Europe.
None of this diminishes in any way the horrors endured by the human beings who fell victim to the Atlantic slave trade – a trade that, unlike earlier forms of slavery, was conducted on a savagely industrial scale.
And what of the likes of Jefferson or of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th century British empire-builder whose statue now seems certain to be removed from the Oxford college that has benefited from his legacy? Should the taint of historic racism be allowed to diminish their achievements, or would we do better to consider their lives and their legacies in the context of the eras in which they lived?
Pulling down Rhodes’ statue might satisfy those who are uncomfortable with the realities of history, but what does it achieve? If the aim really is to rip up an entire chapter of history and pretend none of it happened, then perhaps every surviving Rhodes Scholar should be asked to give back the funding they received in the old colonialist’s name.
The Rhodes Trust has thought about this. Reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, CEO Elizabeth Kiss says the Trust acknowledges that the racism of which Rhodes is now accused “continues to shape the unequal power structures and deep social and economic inequities of today’s world.” She also points out that today one in five Rhodes scholars is of African descent.
Today, thanks to the many alumni who have contributed to the scholarships over the years, Rhodes’ original legacy accounts for only a small percentage of the Trust’s endowment. These gifts, says Kiss, “demonstrate that over the past 117 years the Rhodes Scholarship has developed a meaning and reputation that far transcends its founder.”
The same could be said for America, or for any society that once flourished on slavery. As we pull down the statues of men from the past whose lives we now abhor, we would do well also to consider the present. Slavery, after all, is not dead.
According to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, in 2016 more than 40 million people around the world were living in modern slavery, an “insidious crime that permeates national borders and global supply chains.”
Perhaps we – the global consumers who turn a blind eye to abuses in the developing world in exchange for cheap fashion, technology and food – are as guilty as any 18th century slave owner.
History is complicated and often unpleasant. To over-simplify it and use it to serve a contemporary cause is easy enough, but ultimately futile. If it’s truth and understanding we are after, we need to view the whole picture, not a few selected details. If we fail to understand this, we cannot know just how far we have come as human beings – and, most importantly, how much farther we have still to go.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.