The Penang Colonial Museum in George Town. A colonial museum provides former colonised people a voice that the nation state does not express.

ADDIS Ababa in Ethiopia may be far and remote from Malaysia. A monument, still further from Kuala Lumpur, sits near the village of Affile, in a picturesque hillside somewhere in Italy. There stands the structure unveiled in 2012, built with public funds, celebrating one of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s generals in Italy’s brutal campaigns in Africa in the decade before World War 2.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia sits another monument — a giant obelisk. Six bronze reliefs depicting a massacre, the worst in Ethiopian history, carried out by Italian forces during the occupation of 1936-41, while Mussolini’s general, Rodolfo Graziani, was viceroy of Italy’s new colony. Graziani’s brutality saw 30,000 Ethiopians die. That happened during the campaign of terror in February of 1937.

In Italy, Graziani’s crime, like that of the British at Amritsar, India, is seen as little more than a typical European colonial atrocity. But, as argued by Ian Campbell, the author of The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame (2017) in the July 22-28 issue of the Economist, that was no typical atrocity. It was a methodical effort to wipe out Ethiopian resistance, more like later Nazi war crimes than earlier colonial massacres. The executions were aimed at the Ethiopian nobility and the intelligentsia.

Graziani was never prosecuted for his crimes. Britain had also played an outsized role in sheltering Italians with blood on their hands. Campbell cites a telegram written by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill to his ambassador in Rome in 1944, instructing him to protect Marshal Badoglio, an Italian commander of the Ethiopian northern front, who used poison gas.

According to Campbell, few post-war Italian historians ever tackled the massacre. Those that did were often denounced as unpatriotic — being labelled a “liar”. When Lion of the Desert was released in 1981, it was banned in Italy for damaging the honour of the Italian army.

History textbooks by former colonial nations are either distorted or silent on covert or overt crimes committed on “native” peoples. Italian schoolchildren are not taught about the Addis Ababa massacre. The British do not teach their “colonial history” in schools, too.

The act of colonialism itself is a crime against humanity. It kills, plunders, occupies and deprives the other. The West owes reparations to its former colonies. The non-European world was governed for their own benefit.

A benign statement would sound like “Colonialism robs land, resources, peoples, identities and ethnicities”. It left a whole lot of ethnic and religious problems in the former colonies. It displaces whole societies and civilisations, much like what began out of the Roman Empire. But, European colonialism ushered in a different kind of practice.

It created a social-legal structure bearing on the consciousness of the colonised. One example was the result of the British Empire’s colonisation.

This commentary is not another petty effort at bashing the West. It seeks to understand the presence of communities, societies and nations by anchoring on a dominant past, a narrative which refuses to go away, a narrative that is “not over”, by any means.

In recent decades, counter narratives to colonialism and colonisation appear in various guises, somewhat beginning with the era of “decolonisation” in the 1950s, “liberalisation” and independence of “new” nation states. Discourses from subaltern studies and post-colonialism readily mushroomed, especially in former colonial powers, but with centres in the metropolitan West. The East rarely speaks and represents itself even to this day.

A colonial museum, a counter monument, like that inside a roundabout in Addis Ababa, provides former colonised people a voice, a representation, a form if you will, that the nation state
does not express. A colonial museum documents and displays the violence, enslavement and exploitation of non-white peoples. It demystifies the benevolent benefactor, and what appears to be humanitarian and dignified. It demystifies independence and, now, the term empowerment. It seeks to question images of benevolence and non-violence.

The deep structures beneath colonialism are horrendous. The history of colonialism and the human suffering it inflicted should be studied and understood,
especially when colonialism continues, assuming many new forms.

A colonial museum deconstructs the colonial pact and the colonial past for future generations. Indian member of parliament and author Shashi Tharoor, in The Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2016), mentioned the “”historical amnesia about what the empire entailed”. The British hardly knew about colonial atrocities.

British children from the new generation are not taught that their country financed the industrial revolution and its prosperity from the depredation of the empire. In the 18th century, India was one of the richest countries in the world. The British came and reduced it, after 200 years of plunder, to one of the poorest.

Reparations from Britain, or from any of the colonial powers to its former colonies? Erasing the memory of colonialism and colonial history would further add salt to injury. But, Anglophiles would remind us — it is benign, and it is over — “we have to move on”. Moving forward is not an option. But, where do we go to if we do not know where we come from?

Colonialism has robbed us of our time — that longue durée informing and giving perspective on our history and identity. In colonial history, that white man in a brown mask in Kuala Lumpur or Penang would not be conscious in “post-colonial time”, and eternally be at the crossroads of destiny.

The writer is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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