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

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, criticised the Black Lives Matter (BLM), stating we should not import their issues and causes into the Australian context. 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 English centre. The empire was held together by overwhelming coercion, racism and economic exploitation of its nonwhite 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 in Australia. The kidnapping and forcible exploitation of Melanesian labourers on the cotton fields and 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. As the American civil war began, the viability of continued cotton plantations – resting as they did on slave labour – was being undermined. The plantation owners who fled that state found an opportunity for a fresh start, in Queensland, Australia.

Louisiana planters, finding their cotton production grinding to a halt, found a receptive commercial environment 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 Columbus in the US, or slave traders like Edward Colston in Britain, the reflexive cry of ‘just get over it’ can be heard in 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 majoritarian nations. Indeed, such a cry undermines an extensive examination of how our societies became white majority states in the first place.

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, explains it:

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 extends its cross-border solidarity to the historic whites-only statelet, to indicate their 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 current US President Donald Trump has recycled old white nationalist tropes in his current capacity, it would be delusional to think that white nationalism began with him. In the last stages of World War 2, as the regime faced certain defeat in 1945, the United States provided a secretive yet crucial refuge for white supremacists fleeing Europe. Operation Paperclip was a secret American initiative to recruit Nazi scientists, engineers and technical experts, and seamlessly assimilate them into the burgeoning US military-industrial complex.

The Soviets also nabbed German scientists, in 1946, as well. 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 United States have for initiating such a programme? I think there is a little-examined yet striking ideological continuity between the ostensibly democratic United States and Nazi Germany – mutual dedication to white supremacy.

Prior to World War 2, 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 United States. 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 United States.

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.

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