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By Jason Michael
KING ROBERT THE BRUCE, the fourteenth century liberator of Scotland, was a racist, don’t you know? Well, this is what the as yet unknown vandals who spray-painted the words ‘Robert was a racist,’ ‘racist king,’ and ‘bring down the statue’ on the Robert the Bruce monument at Bannockburn would have us believe. Robert the Bruce was not a racist, the reasons for which we will return to later. It could perhaps be argued that he – like many Christian monarchs in Mediæval Europe – was Islamophobic, but we have to question even this. Scotland’s war of independence kept the King of Scots from going on Crusade; an ugly and shameful episode in western Christian history in which waging war against the ‘Turks and the Arabs’ was accepted after the call of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 as a religious duty:
…your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them…
Prevented from going on Crusade, the participation in which would have – as Urban II had promised more than three and a half centuries earlier – granted him a place in paradise and increased his and his kingdom’s stature on the European stage, his friends committed to take his heart to the Holy Land on Crusade after his death. From beginning to end, this crusading adventure was a farce. When the next international Crusade failed to materialise, James Douglas – who wore the Bruce’s heart in a silver casket about his neck (it was the Middle Ages) – set out with a company for Spain, where the Christian king Alfonso XI of Castile was campaigning against the Moors in the Kingdom of Granada. During the siege of Teba, however, the Scots were separated from the Christian army and quickly overwhelmed. Douglas and a good number of his companions were killed, whereupon Simon Locard recovered Douglas’ body and the silver casket and returned them to Scotland.
No doubt the Crusades and the pernicious anti-Muslim propaganda of the age coloured Robert the Bruce’s opinion of Islam, the Arab World, and the Arabs. They certainly created a set of cultural antagonisms between Europe and the Middle East which have continued in various forms to the present. But was this Islamophobia? No, and definitely not as we understand anti-Muslim racism. Islamophobia, which absolutely appeals to the memory of the Crusades – Deus vult (‘God wills it’) was the reason Pope Urban II gave for this holy war and a motto used today by many right-wing, racist groups – is a specific form of racism. While the far-right claims its hostility is directed at Islam as an ‘oppressive’ religion, its modern origins are rooted in western imperialist conceptions of white supremacy over and against the ‘backwardness’ and ‘barbarism’ of a religion and culture the overwhelming majority of which is non-European and non-white.
Speaking of the Crusades as racist, as Islamophobic, is somewhat anachronistic. Urban’s call for a holy war was made in response to a request for help from the Christian Byzantine Empire; to repulse the ‘pagan’ Turks and Arabs from Byzantine territory in eastern Europe and Turkey, to gain control of the holy sites in Palestine, and free the Christians of the Levant from Islamic domination. This was not a war of racial domination, but one of Christian imperialism. The Christian World – Christendom, both the Byzantine Empire and the Western Catholic Church, were the legacy institutions of the Roman Empire; a massive multi-ethnic empire stretching from Palestine in the east, across north Africa and southern Europe to Spain and Morocco in the west. Rome had at least one black emperor, Lucius Septimius Severus Augustus (145-211). His mother Fulvia Pia, of equestrian Roman descent, and his father Publius Septimius Geta, of Phoenician-Carthaginian descent, reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the Empire. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the most revered Fathers of the Church, was born at Thagaste in Numidia – modern day Souk Ahras in Algeria.
Christendom’s war against the Islamic World, in which King Robert the Bruce was at least spiritually partisan and involved, was not a racial conflict. And perhaps this helps to explain the assertion that Robert the Bruce was not a racist. Racism, as we understand it, finds its origins in the later European age of expansion and imperial-colonialism. Slavery has a history as old as human civilisation, but it is only with the [re]discovery of the Americas (from 1492) and Europe’s encounter with ‘new peoples’ that racially based slavery truly begins, the awful perception in much of Europe being that these new people were not real people, real humans; that they were sub-humans. This thinking, and the shortage of native American slaves, led to this disgusting denial of humanity being extended to black Africans who could be bought at the slave markets of western Africa and transported to the European colonies in the Americas. All of this happened after the death of Robert the Bruce.
So, why then was the Bruce monument at Bannockburn vandalised? Ultimately, we don’t know. But the timing and nature of the attack rule out what some would have us believe – that this was just a prank by mindless youths. The language and extent of the vandalism clearly demonstrate awareness of events in England the previous weekend; where demonstrators toppled the statue of one slave trader and local councils removed others, and the extent of the damage speaks to the commitment of the vandals to their cause. Whoever did this, it was not teenagers with a spray can.
‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland,’ The National, the following morning, ran with the header: ‘Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn defaced by BLM graffiti,’ itself lending to the assumption this was the work of Black Lives Matter activists. Oddly, the paper did not offer any speculation on who might have been responsible. Its defenders of course claimed that as a good newspaper it would naturally refuse to engage in idle speculation and baseless finger pointing. Very good for The National, it is at least selectively good. But this is nonsense. Newspapers are not simply lists of facts. Newspapers – good newspapers – are places for informed discussion, educated speculation, and opinion. Not in this case, however. The National’s piece by Laura Webster merely repeats the claim of the vandals and leaves it there.
Thankfully, however, the Black Lives Matter movement – or at least its activists responsible for the crowdsourced website Topple the Racists – has told us in advance which statues and monuments in the UK it has identified for removal. Yes, there are a few in Scotland – there is ‘Jim Crow’ Rock in Dunoon and Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, the man solely responsible for delaying the abolition of slavery in 1792, but it doesn’t mention Robert the Bruce. It took me all of maybe five minutes to gather that information, sitting here at home. Laura Webster, who we must assume is paid by The National, couldn’t even do that? Really? Black Lives Matter activists and other anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in the United Kingdom have no interest in Robert the Bruce. But someone does, and it is not exactly a stab in the dark to guess who that might be.
Very quickly after the toppling of the statue of slave owner Edward Colston in Bristol we got to see who came out to ‘defend the statues’ in cities and towns all over England, Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland – British nationalists. They made no attempt whatsoever to hide their Nazi salutes, and with one man caught on video shouting ‘sieg heil’ as he gave a salute, all pretence that these were football supporters’ ‘arms up’ gestures or ‘Red Hand of Ulster’ signs was blown out of the water. Their allies on social media – including some Conservative Members of Parliament – spent days trying to distract people from the issue of statues of racists by pointing to the grave of Karl Marx, trying to link him to the crimes of the Soviet Union and Black Lives Matter to him and Communism. All round, this was a right-wing neo-Nazi outpouring on the streets and across the internet. Like all neo-Nazis, they were using the tactics of intimidation and distraction – and then the Robert the Bruce monument was attacked by a person or persons unknown claiming to be part of the BLM movement. Funny that.
There is no difference between British nationalism and neo-Nazism and fascism. British nationalists are simply England’s neo-Nazis and fascists. I’m saying ‘England’s’ here quite deliberately, because British nationalism in Scotland, while exactly the same thing, takes on a slightly different form; that of Scottish unionism. While in England, British nationalism is entirely devoted to pushing the agenda of a Britain in which ‘there ain’t no black in the union jack,’ in Scotland – as it is in Ireland and Wales, unionists have the added burden of fighting a culture war to keep their nations British. For Scottish unionists, not only is the independence movement a threat to the union, a Scotland independent from the British racial state would make it a nation – as they see it – of race traitors. It is against this backdrop, then, with all of this going on when the Bruce monument was attacked, that we must ask cui bono? – who stands to benefit?
For those who said arms up means football style chants. With vocal accompanied for absolute proof. https://t.co/qwDNeXNq21—
Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) June 14, 2020
Do I have evidence? Is there proof? No. But we need neither evidence nor proof to speculate as a good newspaper should. Had this crime be a whodunnit, the first objective of the star detective would be to write up a list of likely suspects and perhaps consider the question of motive. This is not bad journalism. It is textbook investigative journalism and police work – who was it likely to have been and why would they have done it? In England, the far-right had identified ‘the left’ as the enemies of the people, as the political position of Black Lives Matter, and so went after what they perceived to be the sacred cow of the left – the ‘statue’ of Karl Marx (which is actually his bust on his grave in Highgate Cemetery). In Scotland, the far-right – Scottish unionists – identified the independence movement as the enemies of the people, as the political position in the country ideologically opposed to the British state and its bitter fruits – including racism. Is there another statue or monument anywhere in Scotland with more symbolic value to the cause of Scottish independence than the statue of King Robert at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn?
So, who vandalised the Bannockburn monument and why? Scottish unionists vandalised the monument, and of this there can be no doubt. We cannot identify the individual or individuals concerned, but he, she, or they did it because it represents the most powerful and potent ideas and memories of an independent Scotland, because it is sacred to the memory of Scotland’s resistance to English domination – both historical and present, and because it has come to symbolise the highest aspirations of a new Scotland; a country open and welcoming to everyone who would call Scotland home and seek the common good of the nation and its people. If I were Inspector Rebus – forget that drug addled Sherlock Holmes, this is my chief suspect, this is where I would go looking first, that is where we have our first opportunity and motive. It is strange, I think, that The National left this hanging, and – more worrying – that it allowed the vandals’ claim that this was the work of anti-racists go unchallenged.
The Origin of Race