Should we pull the statues down? Is colonialism a good thing?

Once the statues of racist colonialists and slavers started toppling in England; in Ireland, everyone’s thoughts turned to Oliver Cromwell. For those who don’t know about Oliver Cromwell, he was the man charged with taming Ireland. His catchphrase was “To hell or to Connaught” (Connaught being the least fertile and arable land in the country). This slogan was cried out as they set people’s homes alight and murdered them. The sad thing is that I am not being dramatic. It’s well documented. Oliver Cromwell’s army, which he led on the front line for the first year, rode house to house in the Irish countryside, dragging people from their dwellings and offering them the choice of death or moving hundreds of miles away to terrible land. It was so systematic, so full of hatred and void of sentiment or leniency, that there are Irish to this day, generations later, who swell with abhorrence when you mention his name. His war in Ireland lasted a few years and estimates of the drop in the Irish population resulting from the Cromwellian campaign range from 15 to 83 percent. So, you’ll understand that we’re not his biggest fan..

And that’s just the story of one man in one colony. Empires/Kingdoms colonised many places with many men. Colonialism does not happen without violence. The best way to perpetuate peace is to lead with a peaceful mindset and avoid violence at all costs, oh and not to steal other people’s stuff like their farms, crops, homes and their very own bodies. You’ll get the undertone that I am generally against this whole concept of colonialism.

That being said, there is one pro-colonial school of thought that suggests colonialism is a good thing because it spreads democracy. I’ve had a wee thunk about that. Let’s look at the EU which now covers hundreds of millions of people, yet they never conquered anyone. Each country voted to be part of it and in doing so accept and maintain democratic governments. Each country has benefited in better labour conditions, better health standards, better parental leave, better environmental standards, better agricultural standards – and this all accomplished, all these benefits, ideology and theories pervaded across a vast continent,  without anyone losing a life in battle. So, it is possible to perpetuate a democratic ideal without bloodshed.   

Back to Cromwell and the UK statues. The truth is that I feel stuck in the middle here. I moved to London when I was 21 and stayed for a decade and a half. In many ways, I grew up there. I thoroughly enjoyed living in the UK, I have lots of UK friends, met my husband in a tacky nightclub drinking tequila in Soho… I don’t necessarily want to see statues toppled but I do desperately wish that the UK curriculum would provide a more balanced view of its history and ancestry. The English need to be aware of, not just some, but of the many, many atrocities committed in the name of Queen & country.

As an example, here is how they taught us about the history of Northern Ireland;- first of all we learned the facts (Harland & Wolff strikes happened on this date, Bloody Sunday happened on this date etc etc). After that we had to view the facts from four angles  – how a Catholic in NI would view events, how a protestant in NI would feel, how people in Republic of Ireland feel and how English people felt about it all. And anytime anyone struggled to identify with a section in NI, we were told to do this “Imagine you are 7 years old and men in balaclavas break into your kitchen and shoot your father in front of you over the dinner table. How would you react? How would you feel?” Because that happened on both sides.  I guess their point was to make us understand that there were many different sides to the story and everyone’s emotional reaction was, to an extent, valid.

[Just a wee aside here – the Irish history teachings are not perfect at all! The above is one thing they got right. One thing they got wrong? There was no mention of the 1904 anti-Jewish pogrom in Limerick in any of my text books.]

This is what I would love to see more of amongst my UK friends – an excellent awareness of how the actions of their ancestors really impacted the world around them, a heartfelt understanding of what it means to the “colonised” and the truth that there is no such thing as a benevolent conqueror (as some of my UK friends actually believed), – by its nature conquering means destroying.

Published by gillsheeran

Former CFO/COO who quit my job to emotionally support my family at the start of the pandemic.

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