Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Edward Colston and the legacies of slaveowners in Nigeria, by Abdulbasit Kassim

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“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change” – Martin Luther King

“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing” – Ronald David Laing

On Sunday, the statue of Edward Colston, the Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters and thrown into the Bristol harbor. Barely 56 hours later, the 150-year-old statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, whose colonialism and slave regime in Congo that began in 1885 led to the deaths of millions, was removed from a public square in Antwerp and deposited at the Middleheim Museum following the splattering of the statues with red paint and by protesters. More than 65,000 people have signed a petition to remove all statues of King Leopold II across Belgium. The removal of the statue of King Leopold II took place two years after the United Nations called on the Belgian government to apologize for the crimes committed during its colonization and a year after Belgium apologized for the tremendous harm inflicted on the Central African nations during the 80 years of colonization. In London, the statue of Robert Milligan, the 18th-century slave trader, who owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica, was removed from its plinth outside the museum of London Docklands. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan also announced that more statues of imperialist figures would be removed from the streets of London. The statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in southern Africa whose name was endowed with the Oxford University Rhodes scholarship, may also be removed following the ‘Take it Down – Rhodes Must Fall’ protest. The University of Liverpool also announced that one of its halls of residence named after the former UK Prime Minister, William Gladstone, would be renamed due to his views of slavery and his family connections to slaveholding. The Plymouth City Council also announced that the public square named after Sir John Hawkins, the Elizabethan seafarer who is considered to be the first English slave trader that transported captured Africans to work on plantations in the America in the 16th century, would be renamed because of his role in slave trade.

Edward Colston is gone. Robert Milligan is gone. King Leopold II is gone. Good. Now, let us revisit how we honor the legacies of the indigenous slaveowners.

According to the British-Nigerian Historian, David Olusoga, the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and other statues are not an attack on history, it is history. Edward Colston was known for his philanthropy and charitable contributions to the city of Bristol. Yet, the previously suppressed dark legacy of his active role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade haunted him. The toppling of the statues and relics of colonialism is a domino effect of the global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the call for the removal of Confederate monuments in the US seen by many people as symbols of oppression and racism. Like Edward Colston, the statues of John Castleman in Louisville and Charles Linn in Birmingham and others across the United States were torn from their plinths and disposed away from public display. The State of Virginia have also initiated the move to remove the huge statue of Confederate General Robert Lee in Richmond, the state capital. The seismic historical change taking place around the world might appear distance and far from Nigeria, however, it should serve as a wake-up call.

What we are witnessing here are “history wars” – the political struggles in which versions of the past – the silenced history – that have long gone largely uncontested are exposed and challenged. This is ultimately a battle of ideas, and sooner or later, we will feel the contagious and domino effect here in Nigeria. It is time to revisit the legacies of the slaveowners and those who played active roles in the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan Slave Trade.

How do we memorialize the legacies of indigenous Slaveowners?

There is no better time to revisit how we honor the legacies of slaveowners like Madam Efunroye Tinubu, the wife of Oba Adele, and one of the ferocious slave dealers that operated the Lagos-Ibadan pipeline delivering slaves for Brazilian and Portuguese export. To demonstrate her commitment to slave trade, Madam Tinubu once boasted of drowning her slaves rather than selling them at a discount. Her statue is honored and preserved at the Tinubu Square in Lagos Island. She is not alone. Efunsetan Aniwura was probably the most ruthless of all the slave dealers in Southwest Nigeria. She was an extremely wicked slave dealer. This woman made it an abomination for her female slaves to get pregnant, and when they do, she openly beheaded them in cold blood at the Ibadan Town Square. How exactly is the crime of Edward Colston and Robert Milligan different from the legacies of Madam Tinubu and Efunsetan Aniwura? Why should Edward and Robert be dishonored abroad while we continue to honor Efunsetan and Madam Tinubu at home?

People still honor and revere the legacies of Oba Akintoye, Kosoko, Ologun Kutere, Akinsemoyin and others who were the biggest slave traders in Lagos. How exactly are they different from Edward Colston and Robert Milligan? It is even on record that Oba Kosoko bought slaves who were previously sold and transported to Bahia because he needed their skills to build Brazilian type of houses and produce European items in Lagos. Oshodi Tapa, Dada Antonio, Ojo Akanbi and others who were former slaves and later became big time slave merchants built generational wealth from slave trade. Today, the legacies of these slaveowners are not only revered and whitewashed, but their children are still benefiting from the generational wealth their ancestors built from slavery. These are examples from the South. In Northern Nigeria, there are too many examples to cite. According to some estimates, by the late 19th century, slaves constituted about 50% of the population of the emirate in Adamawa. The Lamido of Adamawa received an estimate of 5,000 slaves in tribute annually, in addition to those captured during the expeditions conducted by his brothers. Beyond Adamawa, virtually all the emirates in Northern Nigeria were once bastions of slave dealers with Emirs who serially abused young girls and religiously justified it in the name of “concubinage”. The cruelty of slavery in northern Nigeria was documented in the book “The Diary of Hannan Yaji: Chronicle of A West African Muslim Ruler” edited by James Vaughan and Anthony Kirk-Greene. Sean Stilwell and Heidi Nast also wrote excellent books on the noxious enslavement and concubinage that took place across the emirates in northern Nigeria see “Paradoxes of Power: The Kano Mamluks and Male Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate 1804-1903” and “Concubines and Power: Five Hundred Years in a Northern Nigerian Palace”.

This is not a regional issue. From the north to the south, there are people who are complicit of the same crimes perpetrated by Edward Colston and Robert Milligan but whose legacies are revered and honored. In fact, look at Port Harcourt city. The city was named after Lewis Vernon Harcourt, the British Secretary of State, who was also a sex maniac. Lewis Harcourt was a serial child abuser and he abused both young boys and girls. Today, the hub of the oil industry in Nigeria is named after him. Some of our streets are named after colonial officers and local slave warriors with very dark histories. The question here is, should our society continue to honor the legacies of slaveowners and those who played active roles in the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan Slave Trade? Should the society continue to name monuments, schools, and landmarks after them even though we are all aware of their dark legacies? Should we just forget and overlook? Or should we follow the Donald Duke approach and build a slave museum to document the dark histories?

In her Wall Street Journal article “When the Slave Traders Were Africans”, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani emphasized the need for Africans to reckon with the complicated legacy our ancestors played in the slave trade. This act of reckoning should usher a moment for posing questions of historical guilt and a culture of apology for the injustices perpetrated against fellow Africans whose ancestors were killed and whose lineages were disrupted by the business of slave trade. I hope that when this seismic historical change manifests itself in Nigeria, the descendants of slaveowners in Nigeria would be brave enough to act and speak like Robert Wright Lee (the descendant of Robert Lee): “We have a chance here today…to say this will indeed not be our final moment and our final stand. This statue of my ancestor is a symbol of oppression and I support its removal.”

Mr Kassim is a PhD Candidate in Islam and Africana Studies at Rice University and a Visiting Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University. @scholarakassi1

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