To this day, the evil of colonialism has not sunken in. The exhibition on Thomas Stamford Raffles in the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore on the occasion of the bicentennial of the 1819 founding of the British colony has provided an opportunity for reflection. I was inspired by posts and remarks from Faris Joraimi and Alfian Sa’at, who have pointed out the absurdity of turning the question whether Raffles was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ into an academic debate about the truth of his observations of the Malay Archipelago. To me, this shows that the curators lack the right attitude to the past. How come that its morality is so often reduced to an academic debate? I argue that colonialism has not been laden with the right symbolic meaning.
Europe’s healing after the Second World War was made possible by Willy Brandt’s famous genuflection before the Warsaw Ghetto monument. The mental state that this symbol signifies was one of trepidation and awe before the enormity of what happened. There has never been a comparable gesture towards Europe’s former colonies, in spite of the enormity of an evil no length of railroads can diminish.
The meaning of colonialism to Europe still does not reflect the monstrosity of what was done. When properly appraised, colonialism should appear terrifying, indeed making you fall to your knees. Instead, we talk about damage done to economic welfare, political rights, societal structures. Apologists bring up development and institution-uilding. Yet no one in the mainstream brings up the sheer evil of the dehumanisation and destruction of communities and identities that comes from the colonial project’s imposition of a racial hierarchy of exploitation.
I cannot imagine European commemorations of the Second World War leading with legal analyses of the illegality of Germany’s invasions, or the deleterious effect of the War on intraregional trade. These academic questions are important and deserve to be discussed. However, when the War comes up in public ceremonies it is to reflect on the evil humans can do. The Resistance museums in Europe often aim to let their audiences contemplate the suffering and difficult moral choices that hallmark such periods in history. Exhibitions such as the one in the ACM would not be possible had enough opprobrium been attached to Raffles’ project. No one can imagine a curator gleefully pointing out Dr Mengele’s biological inaccuracies as they lay out the man’s gruesome medical ‘experiments’.
I have written before that if Europe wants to come ‘back’ to the international stage, it has to realise that not every non-Western country will be jumping for joy. But our lackadaisical attitude towards colonialism also hurts our humanity. Facing the tragedy of the Second World War teaches us a powerful moral lesson. Reflecting on colonialism would be an act of humanism. What is needed is a symbolic project to change the meaning of colonialism in the public debate. This cannot be a one-off ‘sorry’ at a press conference. It has to be a process that changes European societies’ attitude.
Reparations are a difficult subject, not in the least because trying to express centuries’ of damage to communities—which often no longer exist, or only in modified and amalgamated form—in monetary terms would be a useless and insulting exercise. It also should not be an attempt to simply buy off remorse. Japan’s trouble with its neighbours is an example that imperialist history cannot just be dealt with that easily. However, in order to change the meaning of colonialism in Europe it would be of tremendous symbolic importance.
Paying reparations would be a difficult and long process. That is precisely what would make it suitable to change the symbolic meaning of colonialism. Willy Brandt’s knee-fall did not stand on its own. It was part of broader cultural movement to restore Germany’s moral position. Some sort of investigation would be required in order to establish what amount of reparation would be owed by what European country to what community. This would be an ideal chance for these countries to listen to affected communities—in public hearings—to hear the harm done to them. The reparation process would occupy public debate and drive home to European (and non-European) audiences the gravity of the crimes of colonialism. Final ceremonies to hand over the amounts would be ideal occasions for humbling gestures. More practically, many former colonies now also have to deal with ageing populations and I am sure their retirement systems could use a boost to provide a dignified old-age for the people many of whom used to live under colonial rule.
Facing humanity’s worst moments, it is necessary to stand in awe before the depredations. Emotion—also displayed by the two Singaporeans mentioned in the opening—is an essential part of this, is a reason on its own. Colonialism’s symbolic meaning needs to recognise the tremendous hurt that formerly colonised communities still have. Faris Joraimi writes about his despair at the loss to the Malay community that was the sinking of Raffles’ plundered manuscripts, and his unease at the Riau-Linga-Johor regalia now unceremoniously on display in a Singaporean museum. Recognising this despair is recognising the humanity of the people that were harmed by colonisation. If the plunder of Europe’s synagogues were still on display in Berlin’s civilisational museums, we would recognise the hurt. It is time to empty the British Museums of our continent in trepidation of our capacity for evil.