In May this year, things were getting heated about the statues in our streets, particularly in Fort de France on Martinique. After one of Victor Schœlcher was attacked by the mob, regardless of the fact that he had been the prime mover for the abolition of slavery, the Empress Josephine became the next victim of their blind fury. As midsummer arrived, her statue was sullied, burned, destroyed, on 26 July 2020. The statue had already been decapitated several years ago and splashed with red paint. In addition to being extraordinarily violent, the vandalism was furthermore completely historically ignorant. It was perpetrated for the supposed responsibility of the First Consul’s wife for the re-establishment of slavery in 1802. The fact is, there is nothing to suggest that she initiated anything in this complex process, a process that is itself much less obviously cut-and-dried than would seem at first glance. In fact, as a result of the island being under British occupation, slavery had never been abolished on the island of Josephine’s birth during the Revolution.
But let’s be clear here. The people who perpetrate these acts care nothing for historical accuracy. Pulling down statues is simply one manifestation, amongst many, of a desire to create division. It’s not about spurring a historical debate. It’s about spreading hate and encouraging yet more simplistic acts of provocation. And in the midst of all this violence, the voice of the historian is drowned out. Of course. The last thing activists want is the return of their worst enemy, historical accuracy. But when playing fast and loose with the past becomes the rule, there’s little historians can do. They get trampled in the confusion, ignored, despised.
Study and research are far from being the only victims; though maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just they that suffered. The reality is, however, that when history is so distorted and in fact manipulated, it is our present and above all our future that is threatened. By their actions, these activists in their many guises blind those around us to the real story, and in fact end up working against themselves. In the case of slavery, for example, since they deliberately ignore the economic reasons for the phenomenon, there is a risk that we won’t spot it even when it still goes in certain regions of the world today, since we never really learned the lessons of the past.