To heal the wounds of colonialism, let’s build monuments to its victims


Syracuse is one of the most fascinating and revealing places in all of Italy. As early as the Roman period, Cicero called it the most beautiful city in Magna Græcia. It was here that the Phoenicians and Greeks traded. Until the Roman conquest, Syracuse was an important crossroads in the Mediterranean macrocosm. This city, as all of Sicily, witnessed raids, conquests, and moments of decline interspersed with more prosperous periods. Over time, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, and the Aragonese came through here and their passages all left a mark on its breathtaking landscape.

It is often overlooked that Syracuse was also a fascist city, insofar as fascism made it one of its most famous, and most mistreated, outposts. It was not by accident that Benito Mussolini referred to it as “the colonial capital”, since it was from the shores of Syracuse that the conquest of Africa was launched in the 1930s. Its geographic location allowed the fascist regime to assure all manner of supplies, from provisions for soldiers to weaponry.

The city was linked to colonised Libya by a ship service, as well as the postal service, which went all the way to Mogadishu and Asmara, after leaving Syracuse and crossing Libya. The Sicilian city was also connected to Tripoli and Benghazi by underwater cables. In short, being at the center of this colonial history was a moment which is still to this day considered (wrongly) as a great pride of the city. It should be remembered, however, that it did not last long. Over time, other Sicilian outposts such as Catania were preferred over Syracuse.

From this fascist – and above all colonial – past, today remains a construction known as the Monument to Italians Fallen in Africa which dominates, unquestioned, the Piazza dei Cappuccini on the city’s waterfront. Residents as well as tourists go there for the scenery, among the city’s most beautiful. But it is rare for anyone looking at these statues to wonder what they are doing there. The history of this monument is interesting and represents a European trend, throughout the entire continent, for colonial history to be forgotten, or worse, trivialised. A part of the past but one “better not to talk about”.

A thing which, even though it has been removed from both institutions and individual Italian or European families (which includes grandfathers, father, or uncles who went to Africa), sometimes reappears in the couplet of a song, or in a line in a film (think of the film Big Deal on Madonna Street, a famous Italian film, when Vittorio Gassman, in the fake rescue of Carla Gravina, says to her fake aggressors: “Hey! Where do you think you are? Abyssinia? We’re a civilised nation here!”). Or on magazine covers, in family photos, or even in a monument like the one at Syracuse.

Colonial knots

It is interesting to retrace the history of this monument; for through these Syracusan knots, it is possible to understand why for many people today throughout Europe, from Bristol to Brussels, in the wake of the American Black Lives Matter movement, this colonial past is at the heart of so many discussions. For the European colonialism of the past gives rise to today’s discriminations. And it is these colonial knots that the monument at Syracuse shows us. The Syracuse case study is one which not only Italians, but also all Europeans, should consider closely in order to understand how such European repression was possible.

The first thing to note about this monument is that it was erected in the place where it is found today, on the seafront Piazza dei Capuccini, not during the two decades of fascism, but well after the war, in 1952, when Italy had already become a republic. The Italian government at the time had to contend with this burdensome heritage made of Carrara marble and white stone, for the monument was born of the needs and desires of another time. Romano Romanelli, a sculptor from a family of prominent Florentine artists, had designed the monument in 1938 and it was destined for the “imperial” city of Addis Ababa.

It was meant to be erected in the center of the African city to glorify the ancient empire that Benito Mussolini and his henchmen, Badoglio and Graziani, had conquered by means of massacre, gas (banned by the Geneva Convention), and rape. However, the Second World War put an end to the dreams of fascism’s glory, and the monument was put into storage, while over time, certain pieces were stolen or deteriorated.

Once the war was over, the mystery is that the now republican Italy decided to erect it anyway. Syracuse was chosen precisely for the links maintained for twenty years with these colonies which had been conquered and brutalised. It was a strange decision for a country that claimed to have renounced fascism. It is worth noting that Italy at the time (like many European countries) had not completely healed from its injuries. Many of those in power under fascism remained in their positions, as Gli Anni facili (“Easy Years“), the Luigi Zampa film inspired by the work of Vitaliano Brancati, perfectly captures. Zampa had at the time been prosecuted by Rodolfo Graziani, the official who had led massacres in Libya and Eastern Africa. And it was precisely in the 1950s, when the monument was erected in Syracuse, that Italy was engaged in Somalia, its former colony, through the Italian Trusteeship Administration in Somalia (AFIS).

In short, Italy, which had colonized Somalia, was appointed by the United Nations to teach democracy to the people of Somalia. Somalia was thus made to endure humiliation by its former rules in order to obtain its independence. Still, from the Christian Democrats (at that time in power) to the Communist Party (which led the opposition), there was bipartisan support to bring to an end the colonial era, an effort which would confer prestige on Italy.

The monument was the subject of public debate, for the city of Syracuse did not appreciate this poisoned gift. At the beginnings of the democratic republic, no city wanted to be seen as fascist. Besides, the monument itself did not hide its fascism. The entire thing had the form of a boat whose prow was pointed towards Eastern Africa. This boat was topped with bronze statues representing the fallen from all military orders, including an askari – a local (Eritrean or Somalian) soldier from the colonies. The monument includes bas-reliefs depicting scenes of war and a chapel dedicated to servicemen fallen in Africa. In short, a serious problem for Syracuse! But what to do?

In reality, more than controversy, the issue was one of embarrassment, for ithe idea was to erect the monument while removing any traces of fascism from its facade. Its official designation was also a great dilemma as the proposed names recalled the two decades of fascism (for instance, “Monument to the Conquest of the Empire”) and were too problematic to be used. Then, in order to cover up all the fascist soldiers which decorated its sides, a compromise was finally found: add a bronze statue of a worker and call the monument a general and vague “To Italian Workers in Africa”. This official name became eclipsed by the more commonly used “Monument to Italians fallen in Africa”. The monument has been there since its construction and is no longer a subject of controversy.

Negated memories

In reality, this story of Syracuse shows us something fundamental: many of the memories that were negated in relation to European colonial history (not only Italian) were reinforced and reintegrated at an historic moment, just as democracies in Europe were gaining strength after the catastrophe of the Second World War. In his Politiques de l’inimitié, Achille Mbebe, the Cameroonian philosopher, highlights that “civil peace in the West therefore depends in large part on distant violence, centers of atrocities […]  at the four corners of the world.” And that this “society of good manners” as the philosopher calls it, “is made possible thanks to new forms of enrichment and consumption brought about by colonial ventures.”

And this is perceptible. As Edward Said noted in his foundational work Culture and Imperialism, European literary culture is permeated by colonialism and brutality. Consider Said’s example of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Reading the work, we understand that the wealth of the Bertram family, the protagonists of the book, comes from a colony: Antigua, mentioned 12 times throughout the text. And when the protagonist dares ask a question about slavery, the only response is silence. Consequently, to return to Mbembe, “the colonial system and the slavery system […] represent the bitter dregs of democracy, which […] corrupts the body of freedom and inevitably leads to its decomposition.”

In the present day, the modern equivalents of colonies and plantations are migrant detention centers or prisons. And so, to speak about the colonial and slave-trading past means speaking about democracy in our nations today. It means asking uncomfortable questions not only about the past, but also the present. In the United Kingdom, in Bristol to be exact, where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down following years of protests and petitions to change the plaque, the discussion concerns not only the British colonial past (whose wounds are still bleeding in the territories once ruled by Her Majesty), but also the present, where the Brexit campaign was almost entirely decided on racism, and now where, with the arrival of Covid-19 in Europe, all the underlying social inequalities have exploded.  

Build alternative paths forward

Whether it is a statue of the colonizer king Léopold II in Belgium, or of the journalist and former colonial official Indro Montanelli in Italy, citizens are demanding a different and more just society. We must act monument by monument, achieving a decolonization which is not simply limited to removal (even if, in certain cases, it is the only possible solution for certain monuments), but which also aims to build alternative paths forward, such as adding historic information to the original monument so as to invite people to consider a critical and decolonial view of these vestiges of the past.

What is needed in modern democracies is a policy of relativisation, which must necessarily include reforms of the European educational curriculum (and textbooks) in order to address the history of colonialism and slavery. Next, but not secondarily, a real presence of bodies that have for centuries been considered as inferior to the life and function of the nation is necessary and fundamental. In other words, we must be serious about transforming the spaces that we inhabit and experience into transcultural spaces.

In a Europe that wishes to be ever more unified, we can no longer allow society to be dominated by a handful of white men. We need all our colours, all our genders, and all our religions. Finally, to come back to urban spaces, it will be increasingly necessary to have “restorative” monuments so that the oppressed can have, from this point forward, a place in cities. Also, sooner or later in Syracuse (and not only there), a monument should be erected, or a mural should be painted, in honour of the victims of Italian and European colonialism. So that we never forget all the harm that was done. So that we can build a new future, together.



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