His Statue Got Tossed in the River. But Who Was He, Really?

His Statue Got Tossed in the River.
But Who Was He, Really?

Since George Floyd’s murder on 25 May 2020, waves of protests, petitions and outcries have ignited around the world – the UK is no exception. People everywhere are demanding a change to cultural pillars that are embedded and largely considered acceptable. One such pillar is statues and monuments, many of which are in the likeness of former slave-owners and imperialists, symbols of oppression and glorification of racism, slavery, and white supremacy. The transatlantic slave trade resulted in the sale and exploitation of millions of Africans for 400 years. According to the United Nations, approximately 17 million died during this time excluding those who died during transport (which one in six individuals survived). Some statues, many of which were erected after the slave trade was abolished, are being removed – by protestors, by councils, and by private landowners.

“The transatlantic slave trade resulted in the sale and exploitation of millions of Africans for 400 years.”

So what’s happening?

The Stop Trump Coalition (STC), the same group that boycotted President Trump’s visit to the UK in 2017, created a crowdsourced project called “Topple the Racists”, an interactive map showing the location of various statues and memorials to be removed from over 30 towns in the UK. They call for statue removal, “so that Britain can finally face the truth about its past – and how it shapes our present.” STC’s Topple the Racists official statement reads:

“We started the map of problematic statues across the UK as a crowd-sourced project that aims to highlight the complicity and history of Empire and slavery… We are actively encouraging people to engage with the map, not just by submitting examples, but by reading through the ones listed, and providing different perspectives on historical figures who were elevated for some of their actions with no mention of their complicity in exploitation and racial violence.”

You’ve seen the news. But perhaps you’ve wondered, what’s all the fuss about? What does a statue mean? Allow us to introduce some of the historical figures whose effigies have been taken down since June:

1. Edward Colston

A wealthy 17th-century merchant and slave trader whose company (the Royal African Company) transported over 100,000 people from West Africa to the Caribbean and Americas to be enslaved. A variety of streets, landmarks, and schools in the Bristol area bear his name due to the wealth he acquired through selling people. An 18-foot bronze statue of his likeness, which was erected in 1895, was the first in the UK to be removed. Protestors hauled it down during a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 7. It was thrown into the harbor but has since been removed by local authorities and taken to a secure storage facility.

* Note: The following changes have also been made to other Colston memorials:

Colston Girls School (Montpelier) – This girls school has removed a statue of Colston and is considering a name change.

Colston Tower (Bristol) – A sign with Colston’s name will be removed from an office block in the city centre.

Colston Hall (Bristol) – The Bristol Music Trust will also undergo a name change. Signage on the building will be removed until a new name is decided.

2. Robert Milligan

An 18th-century West Indian merchant who founded London’s trade hub, West India Docks. He also owned two plantations and 526 enslaved people in Jamaica. His statue was removed from West India Quay by the local authority on June 9. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets said this paves the way for a “wider conversation about confronting this part of our history and the symbols that represent it”.

Thomas Guy
3. Thomas Guy

Founder of Guy’s Hospital and major investor in the South Sea Company, which transported enslaved people from the Royal African Company. This company, in particular, had contracts to kidnap people and deliver them to Jamaica. In a joint statement, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London said, “Like many organisations in Britain, we know that we have a duty to address the legacy of colonialism, racism and slavery in our work.”

 

 

 

4. Cecil Rhodes

A 19th-century imperialist and known apartheid architect. He is best known for founding the southern African colony Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe. A “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, calling to end Rhodes’ memorialization, started in 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and later spread to Oxford after pressure from students. On June 17 2020, Oriel College in Oxford announced plans to remove the statue.

5. Sir John Cass


A 17th-century slave trader and Conservative MP who made significant wealth from the Royal African Company. The Cass School of Education and Communities in Stratford, London has agreed to carry out a university-wide review of historic funding and a new institutional naming policy.

Robert Clayton
6. Sir Robert Clayton


Member of Court of Assistants for the Royal African Company and second-largest shareholder in the East India Company. Also formerly MP for the City of London and Lord Mayor of London. A statue of his likeness has been removed from St. Thomas’ hospital in London.

Campaigners are also calling for the removal of effigies of Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, Sir Francis Drake, King Charles II, two-time British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, the first British governor of Bengal Robert Clive, first-ever female MP Nancy Astor, 19th-century Irish nationalist John Mitchel, Henry Dundas, and Sir Thomas Picton.

 

What happens now?

There is some disagreement about the best way to deal with the current situation – partly because statue removal isn’t a straightforward process. City councils can decide to remove, move or change memorials, but if a statue is on a university campus or private property, it’s up to the owner to remove it (e.g. Cecil Rhodes in Oxford).

Why are these statues so hard to track down? Curiously, the UK does not have any official database of statues linked to the transatlantic slave trade or racism. Whilst some organisations do keep records of the figures themselves, their biographical information is extremely limited. According to an article by historian Madge Dresser, the public monuments in London and their relationship to slavery is, “a topic that has attracted remarkably little empirical research.”

Public monuments in London and their relationship to slavery is, “a topic that has attracted remarkably little empirical research.”

Backlash Against Removal

The government – including culture secretary Oliver Dowden, has indicated that no statues or monuments will be removed from its property.

In a three-page letter to MPs, peers, and councillors, secretary Dowden outlined the government’s position, stating that Britain’s complex past should be taught rather than airbrushed. “In our democracy, if one wishes to change the urban landscape, this should be done through the democratic process,” he wrote. Many listed monuments cannot be moved, nor street signs changed, without planning permissions (and in the streets’ case, a two-thirds majority vote in favour from residents who live on it).

Some, including the Prime Minister, express concern about erasing Britain’s history, however flawed it may be. Yet others in disagreement say that this argument doesn’t work. In a recent article for Sky News, historian James Holland pointed out that ‘Swastikas are banned in Germany and much of the Third Reich’s physical mark has been razed, yet interest and knowledge of Hitler and the Nazis has never been greater.’

Some also argue that a statue can’t do any harm – it’s just a statue, right? It can’t speak. Well, perhaps that is part of the problem. As Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace writes in her book, The British Slave Trade, and Public Memory,

“But what if the statue is not silent? What if instead, it has nothing to say? What if both to Colston and to those who later memorialised him, the slave trade was not a ‘topic’ for discussion at all? What if, for Colston, the slave trade was simply ‘business as usual’? These questions are worth asking because they imply that Colston’s statue may not be simply ‘covering up’, repressing, or denying an absent historical truth that the walkers now recognize and make presentations. Instead, Colston’s statue may demonstrate a fact much more troubling to consider, namely, that he might not have believed that he had any reason to feel that he was ‘guilty.’”

What if, for Colston, the slave trade was simply ‘business as usual’?

 

What’s being done

Government official and community leaders around the UK are taking steps in the right direction – and in some cases, scrambling to move controversial effigies before they’re forcibly removed. Labour-led councils in England and Wales have made plans to work with local communities and examine  “appropriateness” of certain monuments and statues. London Mayor Sadiq Kahn announced the newly-established Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm – a collective of senior City Hall figures, historians, and community leaders who will now be responsible for reviewing London landmarks including murals and street art, street names, statues, and memorials.

What will happen to the statues?

There is quite a bit of support for greater and more inclusive historical education through books, museums, and documentaries. Others suggest that, rather than being destroyed, removed statues should be included in museums to be studied. Otherwise, history is doomed to repeat itself.

“Glorifying colonialists and slavers have no place in a country serious about dismantling systemic racism and oppression, but education does.”

As the Stop Trump Coalition suggested in their official statement: “Monuments can find a new home in museums, or through art, and some might simply be removed. It is not our job to decide what happens. Glorifying colonialists and slavers have no place in a country serious about dismantling systemic racism and oppression, but education does.”