There’s been a lot of talk about how Black Lives Matter activists defacing statues of Columbus or Robert E. Lee is an attack on history. It’s not. The statues themselves are an attack on history.
Even in his own time, Christopher Columbus was widely considered a genocidal criminal. Bartolomé de las Casas, for example, a contemporary of Columbus and a witness to his crimes against humanity, documented European atrocities against the American Indians in his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. It was only in the 20th Century, when the American ruling class wanted to co-opt the massive wave of Southern Italian immigrants into the American mainstream, and turn them away from socialism and anarchism, that Columbus was put on a pedestal as an Italian hero.
Similarly, in the decade after the United States Civil War everybody, including the Confederates themselves, understood that the war had been about slavery. It was only later in the 19th Century, after the restoration of white supremacy in the South, that the myths about the war being about “states rights” or “tariffs” came into being. Accompanying the rewriting of history, The Daughters of the Confederacy began putting up statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, traitors who betrayed the oath they took on the graduation from West Point, and who if they had been American Indians waging war against Lincoln’s government surely would have been hanged. The statues were designed not only to distort history, but to intimidate black southerners out of demanding their rights as full citizens. The myth of the Lost Cause replaced the reality of the war to end slavery.
But there are even more direct attacks on history than merely creating myths to distort it. King Leopold, for example, who would rightfully be recognized as a war criminal on the level of Hitler himself had he killed white Eastern European Jews and not Africans, had his subordinates burn almost the entire archive of his murderous adventure in the Congo. A more recent example would be the British government’s destruction of its own archives, more specifically of the evidence that it ran a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Mau Mau in Kenya and against anti-colonial rebels in Malaysia.
Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.