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How the defacement of two statues could lead to Poland’s reckoning with its Black history

22 June 2021

Amidst this summer’s worldwide protests against systemic racism, two public statues honouring Tadeusz Kościuszko — the illustrious 18th century Polish soldier and statesman who fought in both the Polish-Russian War of 1792, and the American War of Independence — were defaced. Both statues, one in Washington D.C. and the other Warsaw, saw their pedestals painted with the letters “BLM”.

Poland became implicated, if tangentially, in demands from some Black Lives Matter supporters to remove statues of historical figures considered to glorify white supremacy. The practice of graffitiing or toppling statues has been most widespread in the United States, where monuments to the upholders of slavery dot the landscape. Statues of Christopher Columbus have been met with disapproval from Indigenous peoples and African-Americans for decades — and on 4 July, American Independence Day, yet another one was tugged down and dumped in a harbour in the city of Baltimore.

What might [Black Lives Matter] mean in a nation like Poland whose Black presence is widely perceived, inaccurately, to have begun in the late 20th century?

But dramatic attacks on monuments have also taken place in Europe. A wooden statue of US First Lady Melania Trump was torched in Slovenia. Similar actions took place in Belgium, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, where statues of former monarchs, statesmen, and industrialists responsible for colonial genocide and subjugation were defaced, forcibly felled, or removed by authorities.

Certain targets have been confounding. In the Dutch town of Breda, a monument of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, erected in honour of the Polish forces that liberated the area from Nazi occupation was spray-painted. It is still unknown whether this act, among others, was actually carried out by BLM supporters or by others, advancing some other agenda. Instances of backlash have cast doubt on the true affiliations of the perpetrators. In Pau, a town in southern France, a statue commemorating the abolition of slavery was splattered with white paint and the words, “White Lives Matter”.

Polish and Polish-American officials were quick to denounce the attack on the Kościuszko statues. In a written statement, the New York-based Kosciuszko Foundation called it “the wrong target for this frustration,” citing General Kościuszko’s support for the emancipation and education of black people. In D.C., journalist Marek Wałkuski, a US correspondent for Polish Radio, asked pedestrians, all African American, if they knew the identity of the defaced statue. None did. But, in response, all gave reasoned analyses of the motivations behind the defacement. One young man, when informed that Kościuszko was a Polish ally in the American War of Independence, said “We’re sorry about your ancestor. But, they don’t even treat Polish people right in this city, anyway, and this country. Immigrants aren’t treated right anymore.” Meanwhile, in Warsaw, Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski tweeted that he was not in agreement with vandalism, and that he’d commissioned the cleaning of his city’s statue.

But moving beyond denouncement, the Kościuszko defacements have also presented an opportunity to discuss the relative lack of Afro-Polish historical figures in public spaces, beginning with associates of Kościuszko himself: Jean Lapierre and Władysław Franciszek Jabłonowski. Broadening the conversation in this way is a necessary move for arbiters of public opinion to make towards addressing systemic racism, say proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the United Kingdom. But what might such a proposition mean in a nation like Poland which, unlike the former two, has a Black population of less than 0.1 per cent, lacks a colonial past built on slavery, and whose Black presence is widely perceived, inaccurately, to have begun in the late 20th century?

In a Foreign Policy article, “Europe Needs to Talk About Race Too,” the journalist Remi Adekoya, himself Afro-Polish, asserts that “The United States, where the black population is sufficiently large to power its own nationwide movement, is not a viable model to emulate, yet neither is Poland, where injustices, and anger, fester in silence.”

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People of African descent born or raised in Poland say the contributions or very presence of Afro-Poles in the nation’s history are either disremembered or misrepresented. Among this generation born in the 1990s are academics and cultural producers who have focused their careers on exploring the racial erasures and offences they themselves endured growing up. Dr Margaret Ohia-Nowak, a linguist who has published articles on the discourse of Blackness in Poland, recently presented a webinar, “Are Only Bad People Racists?”, analysing the coverage of George Floyd’s death in Polish and international media, and explicating the relevance of BLM to Polish society. In the arts, theatre director Wiktor Bagiński has staged productions that reclaim Black figures in Polish history such as Józef Holendr, a butler to King Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696).

Kościuszko’s own valet and confidante was a Black man named Jean Lapierre. Of unknown national origin, Lapierre was nicknamed “Domingo,” a clue that he perhaps hailed from the island of St. Domingue, soon to be Haiti. A polyglot world traveller, he immigrated to Poland in 1794, and given his multilingualism and aptitude for accounting (he would much later become the bookkeeper of a Polish noble) was soon attached to Kościuszko. Lapierre was at the commander’s side as he led a revolt to try to free white serfs enslaved by feudalism. Lapierre can be seen in a sketch by the painter Aleksander Orłowski (1777-1833), in attendance while an imprisoned Kościuszko is visited by Russian tsar Paul I and his entourage. A striking painting of Lapierre, “A Portrait of Domingo, Kościuszko’s Servant” by artist Jan Józef Sikorski (1804-1887) is in the archives of the Polish Military Museum in Warsaw.

“A Portrait of Domingo, Kościuszko’s Servant” by artist Jan Józef Sikorski (1804-1887) Image: Courtesy of Polish Army Museum, Warsaw

“A Portrait of Domingo, Kościuszko’s Servant” by artist Jan Józef Sikorski (1804-1887) Image: Courtesy of Polish Army Museum, Warsaw

Another of Kościuszko’s peers, military commander Władysław Franciszek Jabłonowski (1769–1802), was also of African descent. He fought in Kościuszko’s uprising against Tsarist Russia in 1794. Jabłonowski’s biological father was African, and he is thought to be Poland’s first Black general. According to scholar and journalist Dr Ernestyna Skurjat-Kozek, president of the Australia-based Kosciuszko Heritage organization, he played an important role as commander in several battles of the Kościuszko Uprising. After its defeat, Jabłonowski participated in the underground network connecting Poles among the partitions. In 1799, he was appointed a brigadier general in the Dąbrowski Legions.

Jabłonowski was a complex historical figure. Historians are divided on how to interpret his deployment in 1802 to Saint Domingue with Napoleonic forces to suppress the Haitian revolution. In The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801–1804 (2011), Dr Philippe Girard views Jabłonowski as a tragic figure for having gone voluntarily to “fight fellow people of colour”. Yet during the campaign, a fair number of Polish troops switched sides to fight in support of, not against, the revolutionaries: they are still heroised to this day. In any case, Jabłonowski hadn’t time to show his allegiance either way — he died of yellow fever shortly after reaching the island, the fate of the vast majority of the troops. Adam Mickiewicz, celebrated as Poland’s national poet, immortalised Jabłonowski with a line in the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, his ode to Kościuszko. Yet the verse, sadly, contains anti-Black sentiment:

how Jablonowski had reached the land where the pepper grows

and where sugar is produced, and where in eternal spring’

bloom fragrant woods: with the legion of the Danube there

the Polish general smites the negroes, but sighs for his native soil

Were there other African-Poles in the country’s pre-20th century history? Certainly. In his iconic painting “View of Warsaw from the Royal Castle” (1773), the Venetian landscape painter Canaletto (1721-1780) who adopted Warsaw as his home for the last 14 years of his life, shows a Black man in the very centre of the cityscape. In Warsaw, on the Dekerts side of Old Town Market Place (Rynek Starego Miasta), there is a building that dates back to the early 17th century called “Under the Little Negro” (Kamienica pod Murzynkiem,) so named because of the sculpture of the head of a young Black man gracing the centre of its façade. The existing sculpture is a post-war facsimile of the original sculpture, which was severely damaged during the Second World War. But its remains are on display in the Museum of Warsaw, which states in its description that the head appears in an account of the city from 15 February 1580.

 “View of Warsaw from the Royal Castle” (1773) by Canaletto

“View of Warsaw from the Royal Castle” (1773) by Canaletto

Commemorating figures like Lapierre and Jabłonowski in public art would not only bring real knowledge of Poland’s diverse heritage to the general public, but it would also bring historical insight to current debates. Jabłonowski, for example, was given the nickname “Murzynek” — “Little Blackie” — by his fellow officers, and addressed as such throughout his decorated career. Two centuries have passed since Jabłonowski’s death, but Polish society continues to debate the use of this term. One photograph that went viral in June showed a young Afro-Polish protester at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Warsaw holding a colourful sign that read, “Stop calling me Murzyn.”

Poland has been going through its own prolonged period of reckoning with public statues since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Efforts fluctuate as the political ground shifts, but the nation has removed or rededicated hundreds of Soviet-era memorials that remain reminders of Soviet domination. Some calls have been made for the demolition of the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s gift to Warsaw. Yet there is also a unique sight to behold along one curved exterior wall of this massive structure: a phalanx of stone statues cut with multiracial attributes. The statue at the wall’s farthest reach is of a Black man. Dr Michal Murawski, an anthropologist of architecture and author of The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw, and a City Transfixed (2019), explains: “The statue of the ‘inhabitant of Africa’ is one of the several monumental figures representing ethnic diversity that stand in the recessed niches around the Palace’s Congress Hall. Other statues represent a Central Asian person, an East Asian person, and a South Asian woman, as well as an androgynous Arab, all in some sort of approximation of what the sculptors may have regarded as the respective figures’ ‘national dress.’”

Statue of “The African” on the exterior wall of the Congress Hall, Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw. Image: Nicholas Boston

Statue of “The African” on the exterior wall of the Congress Hall, Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw. Image: Nicholas Boston

The standard interpretation of these figures’ provenance, says Murawski, is that they were carved to mark the 1955 World Festival of Youth, a major international jamboree intended to mark progress with sport and culture. “The ruined, globally-isolated city of Warsaw flooded with thousands of visitors from all parts of the world,” he said. “Whatever the case, and notwithstanding the medley of stereotypes and essentialisms which which the sculptor endowed each figure, the statues of the African and its companions are a vivid illustration of late Stalinist visual culture and geopolitics, a reading which complicates our understanding of Stalinism as unilaterally isolationist and parochial.”

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The figure of “the African” might well be the only full-figure statue of a Black person installed in any public space in Poland. (In 2019, a monolith honouring August Agbola Browne, a Nigerian-born Polish resident of 31 years who was the only known Black insurgent in the Warsaw Uprising, was unveiled in Warsaw’s Hoover Square. It bears a flat reproduction of a photograph of Browne’s face, but no three-dimensional rendering of him.)

It might be superfluous to conclude by stating, as have others, that perhaps the defacement of Tadeusz Kościuszko’s monuments, particularly the one in Warsaw sprayed-painted with “Black Lives Matter,” is a symbolic reminder of the man’s support for the liberation of Black Americans. Instead of preoccupying on the value Kościuszko had for Black lives in America – and his free will to do so – there is now time and space to focus on the value Black people in Poland had for Kościuszko’s life, and that of the nation. Effacing Black Polish lives from public knowledge and display prevents the significance of Kościuszko’s historical involvement with Black lives from being brought to bear on the present. I leave the last word to Kościuszko’s biographer, Alex Storozynski, who, in The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution, describes the presence and agency of Jean Lapierre doing his utmost to liberate Kosciuszko from his captors and advance the campaign for Poland’s liberation.

“When Kosciuszko was captured by the Russians, Lapierre brought Kosciuszko’s personal belongings, and a letter proposing a prisoner swap: Kosciuszko in exchange for the 3,000 Russian soldiers imprisoned in Warsaw. Lapierre also delivered 3,000 ducats, three watches, a gold snuffbox, sheepskin blankets, fresh sheets, and clean underwear. Twelve years earlier, during the American Revolution, Kosciuszko tried to win the release of a wounded Black soldier in a prisoner exchange for a captured British soldier. Ironically, the situation had reversed, and a Black man was trying to win Kosciuszko’s freedom by delivering a similar proposition.”

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