Mound of the Dead Men

Arianne Shahvisi in the London Review of Books

Statues with local relevance – Lobey Dosser in Woodlands Road; woman in Christie Park, Alexandria; William Denny at the Municipal Buildings, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Perhaps the oldest bronze statue in the world is the Dancing Girl, a 4000-year-old, 10 cm figure found in 1926 at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. In Sindhi, Mohenjo-daro means ‘mound of the dead men’. The statue – now in a museum in New Delhi – depicts a gangly teenage girl whose body language looks remarkably modern: insolent and unimpressed.

When I studied in Oxford a decade ago, I often passed under the stone statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College as I walked to the philosophy department on Logic Lane. Rhodes meant nothing to me in those days. My eighteen years of education had not once mentioned colonialism, and my head was often down as I trudged through the streets, falling into the common error, noted by Alan Bennett, of ‘confusing learning with the smell of cold stone’.

Most of my time was devoted to working through the hefty reading list. Looking for a role model, I first scanned it for women’s names. I could see only one, but it appeared time and again: Hilary Putnam. I clung to the thought of such an eminent woman philosopher until Putnam was referred to in a seminar as ‘he’. I took the disappointment silently.

It goes without saying that there were no Black philosophers on my reading list in Oxford, no people of colour, and none working outside the western tradition. Statues, like reading lists, tell us how to assign credibility and moral approbation. This realisation wasn’t new to me. When Winston Churchill was described at my primary school as a hero, at first I assumed there must be some confusion. My father is Kurdish, and at home Churchill was known for his view on using chemical weapons against Kurds:

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gases: gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.

He said that in 1919. By the time I heard his name in class, it was the early 1990s. In 1988, when I was one, my mother had held me in her arms as she shook a collection box outside Woolworths on Accrington High Street to raise money for the people who had survived Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds in Halabja. Five thousand people had dropped dead in the streets, their skin blistered, as mustard gas and nerve agents fell from the sky, and ten thousand were seriously injured. Three decades later, birth defects and cancers are ten times higher than in neighbouring regions.

My teacher presented Churchill as an uncontroversial luminary, and in that moment I had to divide myself in two: the side that would go along with the charade and please the misguided teacher, and the side that knew what was right and saw that there were other stories, too. One word for what the teacher was telling us is propaganda, and that may be the best way to understand statues of slave traders in a country that doesn’t teach its own colonial history. It is telling that so many people have this week argued we are supposed to remember these dead men for their philanthropy.

‘I contend that we are the first race in the world,’ Rhodes once said, ‘and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. I contend that every acre added to our territory means the birth of more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence.’ In his will he bequeathed large sums to Oxford University to found the Rhodes Scholarship and left £100,000 to Oriel College, which his statue now decorates.

Rhodes still stands, but unless the college cuts down his stone likeness from above its entrance, it won’t be long before he’s lassoed down to find a more fitting resting place in the silty bed of one of the muddy waterways that criss-cross the city. In the meantime, a statue of Belgium’s brutal colonial monarch King Leopold II has been removed, as has a bronze cast of the slave trader Robert Milligan, which until earlier this week stood outside the Museum of London Docklands. Across the United States, statues of Christopher Columbus are toppling. A mound of dead men is forming.

Watching the statue of Edward Colston break the surface of the water of Bristol Harbour, I remembered flipping coins into wishing wells as a small child. Until 1992, the penny was made of bronze, so those early wishes were made of the same stuff as Colston’s effigy. The practice of throwing coins into wells is an ancient tradition, and may have emerged because copper (a component of bronze) has oligodynamic properties: it kills bacteria, making water safer to drink. Colston’s statue was seven feet tall. That’s a lot of wishes. It’s a shame they dredged it up today: all that bronze at the bottom of the harbour might have made Bristol’s waters a little cleaner.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: