Colonial memory and the social role of history

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Following the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a white policeman in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, the struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement captured public attention and rapidly gained support around the globe. The ensuing protests against violence and discrimination towards people of colour drew the world’s attention to the origin and persistence of systemic racism in the United States and in Europe. They also drew attention to the presence of historical monuments to individuals, such as slaveholders or colonial officers, that continue to stand in cities and towns  across Europe and in its former colonies. These monuments are increasingly seen as oppressive symbols of White domination, and anti-racism activists call for their removal.

In this article, I approach the debate on removing commemorative monuments through a reflection on the relation between commemoration, national identity and the social role of history.

Commemoration is not history

As many historians claim, statues are not history. Nor are they material sources, archeological artifacts fortuitously preserved through time. They instead are objects of commemoration: the political constructions of certain narratives from the past, and an expression of the ruling power who decided to put them there.

In that sense, the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston – pulled down by anti-racist protesters in Bristol in early June 2020 – said less about Britain’s early modern involvement in the transatlantic slave than it did about the Victorian inclination to erect bronzes of male historical figures. Colston had been commemorated as a local benefactor because he spent a great part of his fortune (accumulated as slave trader) on supporting charitable institutions.

Colston’s statue was erected in 1895, almost two centuries after his death, just when Britain was drastically expanding its empire and rushing to get hold of ‘unclaimed’  territories around the globe. At that time, although slavery was theoretically abolished, scientific racism was enjoying growing recognition. Developed within European universities, theories supporting the superiority of Whiteness served to draw racial boundaries and justify European imperialism. In that respect, Colston’s statue transpires a view of history that can hardly be unraveled from the deeply nationalist and colonial mentality characteristic of those times. The ‘history of history’ is particularly meaningful when it comes to commemoration.

Identity and the narrative of the ‘great men’

To adequately address the controversies over removing certain public monuments, one should first ask why urban landscapes in Europe were systematically adorned with imposing figures of old dead White men in the first place.

Many of the public statues now under scrutiny date from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the time when history was first and foremost the story of ‘great men’ credited for nation-building. Indeed, history as a scientific discipline has long been an instrument of nationalist discourses, with the notion of nation grounded in a claim of a shared past, with members allegedly connected by a common history, or, rather, by the collective memory of it.  Public commemorations promote a shared identity which, unfortunately, tended to exclude minority memory.

Interestingly, European imperialists did not approach colonial territories as nations, because, in their eyes, they had no history. The colonies were viewed as being stuck in a timeless backwardness, waiting in the antechamber of the Western narrative of progress and modernity.

The writing of scientific history was initially developed as a way to legitimise the political project of Euro-centric nation state building. The erection of statues celebrating ‘great men’ served the same purpose.

Beyond commemoration?

One would think that by now, a person’s sense of belonging to a local or national community is no longer rooted in the ‘grandeur’ of a common past, and that we would have moved beyond erecting  statues of people to decorate our streets. This is not the case. For example, less than a year ago a plan to install a three meter high statue of Margaret Thatcher in front of the British Parliament shook public opinion and was discussed at length among British MPs. While the project did not go through, we seem far from escaping what historian Pierre Nora called the ‘age of commemoration’.

In addition, the remedy to the manifest lack of diversity among historical figures celebrated in public spaces is, in some instances, the proposal to add more statues, but of the people whose role in history has long been overlooked: women, people of colour, and other minorities. For instance, feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez is behind the initiative that installed the statue of suffragette leader Millicent Fawcett  in Parliament Square in 2018.

Public space / contested space

It remains that statues commemorating historical characters in the public space leave little room for dialogue. In contemporary cities, urban design is a matter of the state and symbols of commemoration illustrate where public institutions hold monopoly over historical knowledge.

Public space is not simply an area of socialisation and exchange, it is also a site of conflict and the place that determines the identity of the city to its citizens. In that sense, public space is not experienced in the same way by everyone and social factors such gender, race, class or age are highly determinant.

Acknowledging that people live public space in a diversity of ways is essential for understanding calls to remove the symbols and monuments that populate them. In Europe, people of colour might have a different relation to public space — not just because of the absence of non-White statues to identify with, but because of their daily experience of micro-aggressions and racial discrimination.

The fact is is that public space in Europe has not been decolonised, and nor have European minds. What is more, apart from the potentially controversial narratives conveyed by historical monuments, the overrepresentation of White men in public space indirectly supports their actual occupation of the space, not to mention their privileged access to power over it. The absence of racial minorities among symbols of commemoration raises the question of whether it is possible to be non-White and European.

The violence of the controversy surrounding the removal of commemorative public monuments or street names lies to a certain extent in the problematic nature of national identities. The denial of the role of Europe’s imperial past in shaping contemporary Western societies has triggered a latent malaise. While elevating notions of freedom, democracy and equality in their self-definitions of national identity, nations also intentionally leave out their histories of slavery and colonial crimes. Former imperial powers struggle to recognise their moral faults not only because it threatens the status quo, but also because it challenges a system of thought and collective memory to which the country imagines itself tied.

It’s time to shift the focus

In closing, the increased visibility of global systemic racism reflects the imminent political need to address the violence of the slave trade and colonial enterprises. At the same time, the social role of history should move beyond commemoration. The public discussion about controversial monuments urges us to precisely consider history as constructed knowledge.

History undeniably has a social role, but it is not to reconcile the nation, or to comfort those who fear losing powerful symbols of their identities. History instead can help us understand the origins of such fears.

Different perspectives and legacies will always exist, but as long as collective memories continue to shape social values, there will be a need to challenge settled narratives and recognise the voices of the people left out of public representations of the past. Indeed, the debate deserves a shift in focus away from the issue of Europe’s guilt or the question of great White men’s legacy, and towards the writing of a shared history of slavery and colonialism that will help us understand and overcome the persistence of racism in our societies.


Daphné Budasz is a Ph.D. researcher in history at the EUI. Her research deals with the intersection between gender, race and imperialism and focuses on interracial sexual encounters and the role played by Indian migrants in British East Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. In addition to her research, she is involved in several public history projects and is notably the co-founder of the Postcolonial Italy: Mapping Colonial Heritage.