Toppling statues

With pent up rage, angry clusters of young people have defaced, decapitated, smashed to bits, dumped in rivers the imposing monuments and effigies that glorify colonial masters like King Leopold II of Belgium and Cecil Rhodes, diamond merchant and prime minister of the Cape Colony (1890 -1896), The latter’s head was chopped off while the king was tarred and feathered with red paint and derogatory slogans. And we thought their memory would forever be spared of ignominy. Cristopher Columbus is in the heads off- list in the august company of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses Grant, and (oh, no!) Abraham Lincoln.

Historic reckoning? Absolutely! Strange that it should stem from the recent murder of a certain George Floyd, victim of police brutality in United States of America. That sparked the “Black Lives Matter”, racism exploding like a volcano, pushing to center stage divisive “white supremacy”. Colonialism is still very much with us, though in a mutated more devious form.

In Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp, imperial monuments honoring King Leopold II have been defaced with denunciations of his evil deeds in the Congo. From 1885 to 1908, he was the sole proprietor of the Congo Free State, his private preserve which was bigger than Belgium itself; about 15 million Congolese died during his sanguinary reign. He enslaved the natives and exploited their natural resources. Ironically, his great grandniece, Princess Esmeralda, an environmental activist and aunt of the reigning King Philippe, is spearheading a movement that demands an official apology from the King and Parliament for the evil that the Congolese suffered while in Belgian hands. The King did write a letter expressing deep regret, but the Princess said that is not enough because it is not an apology. Princess Esmeralda is of the opinion that Belgium should also apologize for killing Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960. Furthermore, the history of Congo should be taught in Belgian schools to remove the nostalgia that conceals the realities of the colonial period. As for Cecil Rhodes, he was a slave of trader who controlled the diamond mines. He gave Oxford University hefty endowments but made sure Afrikaner students would not be admitted. Ironically, today, non- whites can easily avail of Rhodes scholarships. However, not all the perfunes of Arabia, nor all lthe money in the world can conceal crimes against humanity.

We Filipinos are such copycats, I wonder when the iconoclastic virus will bite us. We have overthrown a couple of governments but have left our monuments intact, more or less, though its detachable parts have ended up in neighborhood junk shops. Apolinario Mabini’s quill is an easy target and had to be replaced every year; the heads and hands of the figures in the tableau of Bonifacio’s monument are low lying fruits; the centuries-old monument to Legazpi and Urdaneta have been harvested of irreplaceable decorations. Metallic plaques and markers are pried from walls and pedestals and rapidly converted to cash.

Along Roxas Boulevard statues disappear during Biblical storms but after the fury, they are rescued and restored to their original state. Mayor Lacson continues to read the morning paper and not far from him are Ninoy Aquino and Evelio Javier, martyrs of Marcos’ martial law contemplating the horizon. (The West Philippine Sea?) However, two statues have disappeared mysteriously, the first being “Unang Hakbang, a family scene complete with pet dog, vandalized piece by piece beyond restoration. The stunning memorial of the “ Comfort Woman “ in honor of the sex slaves of the Japanese imperial army, provoked the ire of the Japanese government, so it was unceremoniously removed by the DPWH, with a lame excuse. TheKaisa Foundation had already paid for it, but it is nowhere to be found; the sculptor said it was returned to his atelier, yet purloined one dark night. He cannot imagine by whom!

We have been moving statues around as well, like Reina Isabela II who for decades knelt piously in front of the Malate Church, until a scrupulous historian declared that a licentious woman like her had no business being in front of the house of God, so off to the Parian Gate she went. In her place, a plaza and a fountain were built in honor of the ruler of Manila, the Muslim Rajah Sulayman.

The intrepid scientist, Dr. Juan Javier Balmis, who brought the small pox vaccine upon orders of King Charles IV, had a place of honor at the Plaza Roma in front of the Manila Cathedral. Suddenly, he was gone; I seem to have heard that Dr. Balmis migrated to the campus of the University of Santo Tomas where some people knew who he was and what he had done for the Indio Filipinos. King Charles IV took his place at the Plaza Roma, but next year during the Quincentennial, he might just be replaced by the more famous King Felipe who stands at a crossroads in Intramuros, as if directing traffic.

You will certainly agree that our malady is not an iconoclastic mutant, but an incurable brand of colonial mentality . We revere the very people who made us suffer during wars of conquest and occupation. Let me give you a glaring example: In Plaridel, Bulacan, Col. John Stotsenburg is honored with a park and the canon he used against Filipino revolutionaries is impaled at the center, like a relic of Christendom. Stotsenburg was defeated at the Battle of Quingua by Gens. Pablo Tecson and Gregorio del Pilar, but there are no parks nor memorials for them in Plaridel, formerly Quingua.

It took us many years to re-christen Camp Murphy after Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo , President of the First Philippine Republic; only recently did the Philippine Army rename Camp Eldridge, Gen. Macario Sacay.

The only monument that was defaced honored President Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator. It was a gigantic head, a quirky imitation of those figures chiseled on Mt. Rushmore. Someone threw an explosive which caused no permanent damage, but it did not survive the ravages of time. There are two shrines that have to be removed, the Kempeitai memorial in Mabalacat, Pampanga and Gen. Yamashita’s shrine at the place where he was executed in Los Banos, Laguna.

Instead of destroying the monuments of King Leopold lI, Cecil Rhodes and other slave traders , an additional plaque explaining their dastardly deeds should be affixed on their monuments. We have to correct the narrative and set et their records straight. Toppling their statues will only erase the memory of their evil deeds. Let us give all this a dose of purpose .