The Sins of Our Fathers, the Crimes of Today

Who shall Pay?

Background

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, a wave of protests in the U.S. and Europe had been triggered.

Though the initial protest had been on police racism and brutality in the United States, it gave way to calls for an end to institutionalised racism. It also became a judgement on certain historical figures.

Questions that one might have had could include:

  • How did we get to this pass?
  • What does it mean to be white and to be black when history is put on trial;
  • How can this be remedied for the peace of future generations?

This is an emotive topic, but one that generates some interesting points to ponder. This is important not only for Africans or Europeans and their role in history. Rather, it has to do with how we confront our past and account for it.

In this musing, I would like to address two related issues which came out recently on the role of slave trade and statues:

  • This story on slavery and slave trade does not shed new light on what had been taking place in Africa for hundreds of years before colonialism. However, it raises interesting points on the question of accountability for past misdeeds using today’s standards.
  • This opinion piece on the role of statues assesses the role of statues in any historical narrative, and the need to rethink their place in the 21st century. This is in light of the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, United Kingdom.
  • This fire did not catch up in Africa regardless of it being the “sinned against” continent of these past acts of racism. Could there be any explanation for this?

The Problem

We are children of survivors, so observes Andrew Mar.1 What it means is that for us to be here, it was through the tenacity of our forefathers to survive: they could do anything as long as they could avoid extinction.

Anyway, this is what we still do today.

While history is a record of humankind’s ability to persevere and tame nature, it is characterised by acts of both kindness and cruelty.

This means that All of us today are a product of a cruel past, a past that has left scars that will take centuries to heal. Such scars, though, can not be healed by carrying over the wars of the past.

The problem addressed here has nothing to do with justifying actions of people long gone, but Rather looking at the role of contemporary society to judge its past.

We know of our past through recorded history, and statues.

The Black Lives Matter had been instrumental in leading these protests. One of their targets had been statues of notorious racists and slave traders.

What do statues represent? Are they a celebration of a person’s life or his or her accomplishments, or his or her misdeeds?

I would like to think they do represent a person’s accomplishments rather than their whole life or any other misdeed.

Statues can teach us about history, but they do not convey some immutable truth from the past. Instead, they are symbolic of the fixed ideas of a specific community regarding its past, as captured at a particular point in time.

So a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century Bristol philanthropist, for instance, could be thought of as celebrating his role in developing Bristol. While he might have traded in slaves, or some things we consider evil, his community cherished his contributions towards its upliftment.

The same could be said of these people who at some point during these protests were targets of destruction of their statues:

Cecil John Rhodes
Known for his active role in promoting British imperialism in the 19th century, there had been calls for toppling of his statue. For example, the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign had been aimed at reforming education in South Africa through removal of his statue from university campuses .
Winston Churchill
Perhaps the greatest of the British heroes in modern English history, he is also charged for his racist views and positions. See for instance this article that shows his dark side, particularly to people who weren’t whites.

But these people are both lauded for what they stood for:

  • Rhodes for his promotion of education and opportunities to young people; and
  • Churchill for his role in leading resistance against Nazism during World War II.

Accounting for the sins of the past

It is difficult to justify evils of the past, even if we would like. At the same time, it is also difficult to hold those gone to account. Today’s generations have the benefit of hindsight: with the creation of human rights, readjustment of values and reassessment of our past, we have to all admit that we are guilt of what we charge others for.

So in going through Nwaubani’s great-grandfather’s life, and his role in slave trade, we are called not to judge him byu today’s standards. In fact, he would have been honoured with a statue, for the good he did to his community. But the proiblem is:

The Igbo do not have a culture of erecting monuments to their heroes - otherwise one dedicated to him might have stood somewhere in the Umuahia region today.

After reading the above article, I just thought to myself, “true, we cannot judge him using today’s standards. If only Africa could lead the call to this, perhaps there could be a better way to reconcile race differences than harping on the sins of the past.”

Anyway, this is subject of another day when I will discuss transitional justice and its implications. Suffice it to say that the past is a painful territory to visit. It has no saints to speak of in today’s canons of human rights.

While colonialism is roundly condemned by lots of politicians, what they forget is that other weaker tribes welcomed it, only because it helped them become free from local tyrants. Other groups, such as people with disabilities, twins, girls and minority groups were able to enjoy a basic right of life itself.

Yet they do not raise these issues against anyone in today’s society. The reason being that every action should be evaluated against the rules of its day.

This equally applies to all: if the African strongmen of the past expect to be honoured in today’s society, then we should also be prepared to understand the controlling forces of the past even between Europeans and Africans, Arabs and Africans and tribe against tribe.

Conclusion

This musing of mine can’t win me friends as it goes against stated positions. However, it is based on a simple fact that history did something to us which is cruel, but it taught us to value others in a way we did not do in the past.

Destruction or defacement of statues may not be the solution to deep-seated prejudices. It only inflames hatred and engenders suspicion between groups that would have faced their past together to avoid its mistakes today and in the future. There is need to appreciate why statues are valued by their communities: they tell a story about a person’s action to that community which may be different from what another community knows about him or her.

Thank you for reading this musing on weekend: I hope it will help you embrace your past and forgive others as you would like them to forgive you for what your ancestors might have done.


  1. Marr, Andrew. (2014). History of the World. Available on Amazon. ↩︎

  2. BBC News. (18 July, 2020). “My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves’. bbc ↩︎

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