The historic sites built with slave money
Does it matter if historical monuments have links with slavery? Some claim that we are dwelling too much on the past, but others think that we should be ashamed of our colonial history.
The sociologist Orlando Patterson describes slavery as “social death”. It means being ripped from your family, your friends, your community, and taken to a place where your sole function is to serve someone else. It means ceasing to be a person at all: a kind of living death. This is the fate that British, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch merchants inflicted on millions of Africans.
The Black Lives Matter movement has forced many Western countries to reassess their history. For example, yesterday the National Trust released a report identifying 93 historic buildings in Britain that were funded with wealth taken from its colonies.
The report has sparked a debate over whether we can still appreciate historic monuments built on human suffering.
Some, like journalist Alessio Colonnelli, argue that we should “contextualise” these buildings – provide information about their human cost – because it is necessary to teach people about their colonial past.
They argue that people living in European countries that once ruled over large empires are too positive about their own history. According to polls, one-third of Britons think that former colonies are better off thanks to the empire.
Others, however, insist that we cannot dwell too much on the origins of buildings because many of the world’s greatest monuments were built through human misery. The most popular tourist attraction in Europe, the Palace of Versailles, was constructed at huge expense by a king whose people were starving. And hundreds of thousands of forced labourers are thought to have died during the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Supporters of contextualisation counter that the Great Wall is a different case because ancient Chinese slavery does not affect people’s lives today. But descendants of European slaves still suffer from the legacy of slavery – in the form of racism. African American activist Randall Robinson has led calls in the US for reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves.
Their opponents assert that the same logic can be applied to the Colosseum, which was built using wealth that the Romans stole from the Second Temple, a Jewish holy site. Although Jews today still suffer racist discrimination, no calls have been made to contextualise this building.
But, it is argued, ancient Rome no longer exists to compensate them, whereas European countries still holding colonial wealth have a duty to acknowledge its origins.
Some propose that acknowledging the colonial atrocities in our past allows us to make amends for them. Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor has called on Britain to make a public apology for the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, in which British soldiers killed 600 Indian civilians.
Others suggest that we should focus more on modern slavery. Many people will watch the 2022 World Cup unaware that thousands of Indians and Nepalis, working in slave-like conditions, have died constructing the Khalifa Stadium in Qatar, where it will be held.
So, does it matter if historical monuments have links with slavery?
Yes, of course, say some. They argue that recognising the colonial links in our past does not mean disavowing it: no-one is proposing to tear these buildings down. The aim is rather to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of their creation, putting them in their full context. Historian Corinne Fowler suggests that by contextualising the origins of great historical monuments, we are in fact adding to their history.
Not at all, say others. They insist that colonialism is in the past, and that it would be more helpful, as modern citizens of former imperial countries, to examine the progress we have made in our own societies. Some are concerned that we are focusing too much on the negative aspects of our own history at the expense of the positive contributions that European former colonial powers have made.
- Think of the biggest and best historical monument or building that you have ever visited. How would you have felt if someone had told you that it had been built by slaves?
- Is it possible to feel patriotic while also recognising the atrocities carried out in your country’s history?
- Imagine that you are creating a museum of your own life. Draw a floor plan with four or five rooms, and think about what important objects you would put on display.
- Should European countries be made to pay reparations to their former colonies? Think about the arguments on each side, and then write a short speech for or against this proposition.
Some People Say...
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.”Michael Crichton (1942–2008), American novelist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that historic buildings, monuments and heritage sites are important elements in teaching people about their history. More than half of adults in the United Kingdom say that they visit heritage sites at least once a year, and schools often organise school trips to important local buildings and monuments.
- What do we not know?
- There is debate over the extent to which historical rulers relied on slaves to build monuments. Archaeologists think that the workers who built the Pyramids at Giza were not slaves. Slaves were obedient workers, but because they had to be fed and clothed, they were expensive. Instead, If a ruler were to pay his workers a wage, then the workers would have to buy their own food and clothing, and markets would develop around the building site. The ruler could tax these markets and regain some of his money.
- Someone who studies human social behaviour. Modern sociology was developed by European thinkers in the 19th century, but it is also based on the writings of African American thinkers like W. E. B. DuBois.
- National Trust
- A charity operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that maintains historic buildings and country estates for the public. Founded in 1895, today it owns more than 500 properties, as well as a large and expanding art collection.
- Palace of Versailles
- An immense palace in the suburb of Versailles to the south-west of Paris. It was built by King Louis XIV, known as the Sun King because of the splendour of his dress and his power within Europe.
- Great Wall of China
- Actually a number of different walls built over several millennia by different Chinese dynasties. Most of the current wall was built by the Ming dynasty between 1373 and 1644. Contrary to popular belief, the Wall cannot be seen from space.
- A vast stadium built by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. It could seat between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. It was used to hold gladiatorial contests and even mock sea battles.
- Second Temple
- The second of two temples built by the Jews in ancient times on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The first was destroyed by Babylonian invaders in 586 BC. The Second Temple, was constructed on the same site in 538BC, and demolished by the Romans in 70 AD.
- Shashi Tharoor
- A writer and politician from the southern Indian state of Kerala. He is a member of the Indian National Congress, the major centre-left political party in India.
- Amritsar Massacre
- In 1919, British soldiers under General R. H. Dyer fired into a crowd of Indian civilians in the northern Indian city of Amritsar. The massacre fuelled the Indian independence movement, and less than three decades later, India became an independent state.