We see history more clearly after tearing down statues of racist colonisers

A photograph showing the 'blackbirding' of Indigenous South Pacific Island people, circa 1890. Photo: National Library of Australia

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticised the Black Lives Matter movement stating we should not import their causes into Australia.

Perhaps he is unaware of modern history, but white nationalism is a global ideology and its advocates derive supporters and inspiration from its application across the globe.

The most successful exporter of white nationalist ideology, and the most efficient practitioner of that ideology, was the capitalist British Empire. Employing ruthless means, the British ruling class expanded its operating frontiers, not only to increase its economic wealth.

White supremacy was the ideological glue that cemented connections between the Empire’s colonies and its English centre. The Empire was held together by overwhelming coercion, racism and the economic exploitation of its non-white peoples.

One of the major results of exporting English imperial capitalism was the eventual emergence of the nation of Australia. Founded on the dispossession of the Indigenous nations, the newly-constructed Australian capitalist class used, among other methods, slave labour to enrich itself — blackbirding as it is known. The kidnapping and forcible exploitation of Melanesian labourers on the cotton fields and in the pearling industries of the new nation have been amply documented.

What is not so well-known is the warm reception granted by Australia to a class of fleeing merchants from another colonial-settler nation — slave owners and traders from Louisiana, in the United States.

US slave owners to Queensland

As the American Civil War began, the viability of continued cotton plantations — resting as they did on slave labour — was being undermined. Lousiana plantation owners found a receptive commercial opportunity for a fresh start in Queensland. Given a business-friendly economic setup, they continued their use of slave labourers, albeit from a different source — the Pacific Islands. Queensland became the replacement cotton industry for those slave owners and traders whose businesses were disrupted in the United States.

It is indicative that the Queensland colony’s authorities — ultimately responsible to Britain — were quite comfortable with providing asylum to their fellow white supremacists from the Northern Hemisphere.

When protesters pull down statues of Christopher Columbus in the US, or slave traders like Edward Colston in Britain, the reflexive cry of “just get over it” can be heard from the shrill conservative punditocracy.

This claim is intended to dampen any debate about our collective history and provide a rationale for continued historical amnesia regarding the black presence in white majority nations. Indeed, such a cry undermines an extensive examination of how our societies became white majority states in the first place.

Historical revisionism

In this context, it is instructive to note that the white nationalist view of history extends beyond national boundaries, and engages in historical revisionism of its own.

Dylann Roof, the white nationalist American who gunned down several African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, was wearing the flag of the long-dead white supremacist state of Rhodesia on his person, among other racist symbols. Rhodesia nostalgia has become a bedrock of white nationalist propaganda. As John Ismay, writing in The New York Times in 2018, explained: “Nostalgia for Rhodesia has since grown into a subtle and profitable form of racist messaging, with its own line of terminology, hashtags and merchandise, peddled to military-history fans and firearms enthusiasts by a stew of far-right provocateurs.”

Reclaiming the long-gone white supremacist nationalism of Rhodesia has long and disturbing echoes. In fact, the decision by the-then Rhodesian government to declare independence was based precisely on a tribalist refusal to accede to majority rule in the former British colony. American (and Australian) white nationalism extended its cross-border solidarity to the historic whites-only statelet, to indicate a desire to configure their own societies on the same organising principle as that of Rhodesia.

The appeal to Rhodesia nostalgia is not a mere hobby-like exercise in historical appreciation. It plays the same, albeit updated, role that the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the slave-owning Confederacy plays within the circles of white nationalist retroactive victimhood.

Preying upon the real socioeconomic anxieties of poor white workers, Rhodesia nostalgia channels those social concerns into an anti-immigrant direction, mythologising a supposedly lost “golden age” of a white exclusionary tribalism.

While US President Donald Trump has recycled old white nationalist tropes, it would be delusional to think that white nationalism began with him. In the last stages of World War II, as the Nazi regime faced certain defeat in 1945, the US provided a secretive, yet crucial, refuge for white supremacists fleeing Europe. Operation Paperclip was a secret US initiative to recruit Nazi scientists, engineers and technical experts, and seamlessly assimilate them into the burgeoning US military-industrial complex.

The Soviets nabbed German scientists. This measure is routinely interpreted as evidence of an ideological correspondence between two “totalitarianisms”. Let us for the moment accept that rationale. What excuse does the US have for initiating such a program? There is a little-examined, yet striking, ideological continuity between the ostensibly democratic US and Nazi Germany — mutual dedication to white supremacy.

Prior to World War II, when Nazi Party ideologues and leaders were looking for a successful example of a racially-stratified society, they found inspiration and legally significant examples to emulate in the US. The goal of a whites-only homeland found common currency on both sides of the Atlantic. Adolf Hitler’s opposition to race-mixing was well within mainstream thinking about race in the US.

Tearing down statues of racist conquistadors, rather than erasing history, provides a necessary starting point for illuminating the darkest corners of imperial colonisation. We would do well to consider whom we uphold as venerable figures for our children.

[Rupen Savoulian posts at Antipodean Atheist where this article first appeared on July 9.]

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