Social Justice

Removing Colston's Statue Is Just The Beginning Of Addressing Britain's Shameful Past

The statue has been put on display in a Bristol museum as part of an exhibition on the city’s Black Lives Matter protests.

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JUNE 11: The statue of slave trader Edward Colston is retrieved from Bristol Harbour by a salvage team on June 11, 2020 in Bristol, England. The statue was pulled from its plinth in the city centre and thrown in the water by anti-racism campaigners during a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo by Andrew Lloyd/Getty Images)
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After the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the globe following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin conversations began to take place about systemic racism in the UK. One of the focuses of those conversations has been the way in which British institutions continue to celebrate figures who profited from the transatlantic slave with statues, memorials, streets, and building names.

An investigation by the Guardian in January 2021 found that a large number of tributes to slave traders, colonialists and racists have already, or are scheduled to be, removed. However, the question of systemic racism and the many other tributes still remains. Robert Beckford, a professor of black theology at the Queen’s Foundation, told the Guardian: “There’s the danger that the statues will go down and plaques will be removed, but the racist structures remain. I’m interested in a holistic response that enables us to keep in balance a recognition of how and why these statues were erected.

“And secondly, how we then deem history in a way that is inclusive and just and providing us with a vision of what it means to be a multicultural, multi-ethnic nation,” Beckford added. As Edward Coulston’s toppled Bristol statue is set to go on display at an exhibition in the city, we look back at the circumstances that triggered a national call for the removal of several other statues, monuments and buildings across the UK, and how far Britain still has to go.

The weekend of June 6, 2020 saw anti-racism protests up and down the country as Brits stood in solidarity with U.S. marchers demanding justice for Black Americans killed unlawfully by police. These deaths, including the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, are just four of around 1,000 people killed annually at the hands of the U.S. police force.

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In addition to showing solidarity, UK Black Lives Matter marches drew attention to the discrimination and systemic racism that Black people and communities in Britain still face today. “The UK is not innocent”, is a phrase that's become central to protests here in Britain, serving as a succinct reminder of the atrocities committed by white British people throughout history.

In Bristol last June protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th Century slave trader and active member of the Royal African Company. As part of the Royal African Company, Colston was responsible for the trafficking of over 80,000 people from Africa to the U.S., making the RAC one of the world’s most prolific slave trading merchants. Colston’s statue, a de facto celebration of slave trade profiteering, stood in the city’s centre where thousands would pass it daily, alongside the building that bears his name. Colston Hall, just streets away and Bristol's flagship concert venue, has been the focal point of anti-racist campaigns by residents for a number of years. In 2017, the venue’s trust announced that a long overdue name change would follow a period of renovation estimated to complete in Spring 2020. The name Bristol Beacon was revealed in September 2020 to replace Colston Hall, along with further changes to distance the organisation from Colston’s name.

The historic 2020 triumph in Bristol inspired the launch of Topple the Racists, a new website launched by Stop Trump Coalition that maps out monuments of people with links to the slave trade around the country. Their mission statement reads: “We believe these statues and other memorials to slave owners and colonialists need to be removed so Britain can finally face the truth about its past – and how it shapes our present.”

Cities across the country followed Bristol's lead. On June 9, 2020, a statue of Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands, following Sadiq Khan's announcement that London's statues and street names would be reviewed. In Oxford, hundreds of protestors gathered the same day outside the university's Oriel College to demand the removal of Cecil Rhodes' statue, which was later denied by the college in May 2021 due to costs and “complex” planning processes The historic market town of Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, also campaigned to rename the Arts Centre and road which currently bear his name also; see the Stortford Against Rhodes manifesto. And in Plymouth, Sir John Hawkins Square – a public space named after the 16th century slave trader described as "the first English slave trader" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica – is set to be renamed.

The call to remove monuments of racist figures extended beyond the UK, too. In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II – who profited from the enslavement of Congolese people – was removed in Antwerp. The city of Hamilton, New Zealand removed the statue of John Hamilton, a British naval captain accused of killing indigenous Māori people in the 1860s. In the U.S., Confederate memorials across Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina , and Tennessee have been pulled down or removed since June 2020.

On the morning of June 12, 2020, Repubblica journalist Antonello Guerrera tweeted that a London statue of WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had been boarded up due to protests taking place. Churchill, a known racist, was not the only monument to receive such protection – The Cenotaph, a WWI memorial on Whitehall, had also been placed behind boards.

Shortly after, Prime Minister Boris Johnson shared a series of tweets seemingly in response to criticisms of the protective measures, saying: "to tear [the statues] down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come." It's important to mention that, as highlighted by Twitter user mxliviax, a 2012 review found that the UK government systematically destroyed thousands of documents pertaining to and detailing Britain's most horrendous crimes during the final years of the British Empire. To use Johnson's words, the UK government "censor[ed]" history. Johnson, who has in the past used racist terms when speaking about Black people, added that Churchill was a "hero" who "fully deserves his memorial."

In direct opposition to Johnson's stance, hundreds of thousands signed petitions calling for change in the UK’s extensive memorialisation of individuals involved in the slave trade. Removing these statues and signs would ensure the atrocities committed by individuals and the systems they represent are remembered in the appropriate context. Rather than being celebrated without mention of their actions and involvement, they will be held accountable in history books and curriculums as key players in maintaining the structures of inequality that have marginalised and continue to marginalise Black people and people of colour in the UK.

Below are just a handful of the other UK statues, locations and buildings that honour individuals with ties to the slave trade and other human rights atrocities. While this list is not exhaustive, it serves to highlight the extent to which Britain has been complicit in ensuring such figures are to this day memorialised inaccurately and without context. It will be updated regularly.

In direct opposition to Johnson's stance, hundreds of thousands signed petitions calling for change in the UK’s extensive memorialisation of individuals involved in the slave trade. Removing these statues and signs would ensure the atrocities committed by individuals and the systems they represent are remembered in the appropriate context. Rather than being celebrated without mention of their actions and involvement, they will be held accountable in history books and curriculums as key players in maintaining the structures of inequality that have marginalised and continue to marginalise Black people and people of colour in the UK.

Below are just a handful of the other UK statues, locations and buildings that honour individuals with ties to the slave trade and other human rights atrocities. While this list is not exhaustive, it serves to highlight the extent to which Britain has been complicit in ensuring such figures are to this day memorialised inaccurately and without context. It will be updated regularly.

North West

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  • William Gladstone (Albert Square, Manchester): Opposed the abolition of slaveryand, upon the abolition, helped his father obtain over £100,000 in reimbursements for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations in the Caribbean. The Gladstones were one the world’s largest slave owning families.
  • William Gladstone (Sir John’s Gardens, Liverpool): As above.
  • Penny Lane (Liverpool): Although better known as the name of a Beatles song, Penny Lane was named after James Penny, a slave ship owner.

South West

  • Lord Robert Clive (Old Market Hall Square, Shrewsbury): Led the East India Trading Companyin its conquest of the Indian subcontinent.
  • Sir Francis Drake (Plymouth Hoe Park): Sea captain who began his career as a slave trader. With his cousin, John Hawkins, Drake participated in some of Britain’s earliest slave trading voyages to West Africa.

London & The South East

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  • Nelson’s Column (Trafalgar Square, London): Horatio Nelson defendedand benefitted from the existence of slavery.
  • Sir Robert Clayton (Lambeth, London): Member of the Royal African Company’s Court Of Assistance.
  • William Beckford (Guildhall, London): The Beckford family made their fortune from sugar plantations in Jamaica– after his brother’s death, William Beckford became one of the largest landowners in the West Indies and inherited around £50,000 per annum from the plantations.
  • Thomas Guy (Guy’s Hospital, London): Profited from shares in the South Sea Company, which was responsible for transporting 64,000 African slaves between 1715 and 1731.
  • Sir Hans Sloane (Duke Of York Square, London): 17th Century physician who benefited immeasurably from the infrastructureof the slave trade. Sloane used slaves personally in gathering artifacts for his “collections”, and also chose not to aid injured and unwell slaves while providing medical care for plantation owners in Jamaica.
  • Mahatma Gandhi (Parliament Square, London): Shared anti-Black sentiments in his writing – a statue of Gandhi has previously been removed from a Ghanaian university following the #GandhiMustFall movement.
  • John Locke (Outside Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington Gardens, London): Locke both benefited from and attempted to justify the existence of slavery.
  • King Charles II (Royal Hospital Road, London): Facilitated his brother, James II’s, monopoly over British slave trading in West Africa.
  • King James II (Trafalgar Square, London): Led the Royal African Companyto becoming one of the most prolific slave trading companies in the transatlantic slave trade.
  • Cecil Rhodes (Oriel College, Oxford): 19th Century imperialist and founder of the De Beers diamond company.
  • Rhodes Art Complex & Rhodes Ave (Bishop Stortford): As above.

Midlands

  • Mahatma Gandhi (Belgrave Road, Leicester): As above.

Scotland

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  • Melville Statue commemorating Henry Dundas (St Andrew Sq, Edinburgh): Obstructed the abolition of slavery, and advocated for harsh punishment of defiant colonists. A plaque is set to be added to the monument detailing his ties to the slave trade.
  • Sir Robert Peel (George Square, Glasgow): Creator of the modern police force who petitioned the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill, citing it as a threat to Manchester’s cotton industry.
  • Frederick Roberts (Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow): Senior military member at the height of the British Empire's imperialist rule.
  • Cochrane Street: One of many roads in the United Kingdom named after slave traders and individuals with ties to the slave trade – Cochrane Street is named after Andrew Cochrane, a tobacco lord and slave trader.

Wales

  • Marble bust of Sir Thomas Picton (Cardiff City Hall, Cardiff):Used tortureto obtain confessions while Governor of Trinidad.
  • HM Stanley (Denbigh Library, Denbigh): Explorer accused of crimes against humanity during his time in Africa.

Ireland & N. Ireland

  • Sir Hans Sloane (Sloane Square, County Down Killyleagh): As above.

Speaking Statues, a UK organisation that works to highlight just how embedded colonial symbols are in our everyday life, regularly share more information on the subject. You can learn more about Britain’s colonial legacy and role in the slave trade, as well as finding other media on Black British History and the Black British experience, via these articles, podcasts, and history resources.

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