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 the National 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 before I turned down Logic Lane to the philosophy department. 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’.
I moved to the Afrikanisches Viertel, in Wedding, about a month after I arrived in Berlin. Most of the streets are named for places in Africa – Togostraße, Windhukerstraße – but Nachtigalplatz commemorates Gustav Nachtigal, Bismarck’s Reichskommissar for West Africa, and Lüderitzstraße is named for the founder of German South West Africa. Only one of these colonial names has been changed – sort of. In 1986, the city announced that Petersallee now referred to Hans Peters, a co-founder of the CDU and a member of the Kreisau Circle of wartime resisters. Small panels were attached to the street signs giving his name and dates. But the street was originally named for Carl Peters, an imperial high commissioner of northern Tanganyika in the 1890s and a notoriously brutal, violent racist, condemned even in his own time.
‘Colonialism as a form of violent foreign rule was legitimised by a racist ideology of European superiority,’ says the board that greets you at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. In a slightly too small room, hundreds of objects are laid out in clusters along a line representing the Greenwich Meridian, a ‘symbol of Eurocentrism’ and the anchor for a system that European powers used to navigate, conquer and impose borders on large parts of the world. The objects – carved elephant tusks, commercial images for coffee brands, whips – tell the story of the German Empire.
Out over the Toison d’Or the old bastard glooms. Shovel-bearded, he sits astride his mount, his 1000-yard gaze intent on the main chance. The socle bears his name, his regnal dates, and the legend ‘PATRIA MEMOR’: a stern summons to remembrance. As usual, though, with such biddings, the true call is for selective forgetting. It calls Belgians to remember the patrimony bequeathed by King Leopold II with riches milked from the empire in the Congo. In fact, to label Leopold’s venture ‘imperialist’ is, if anything, flattering.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.