Protests against racial injustice and the supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter have spread across the globe. In the UK, one of the manifestations has been the removal of statues that represent the Britain’s history of colonialism and the slave trade. In perhaps the most publicized incident, Bristol protestors pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, a known slave trader, and threw it into Bristol harbor on the 7th of June. Arguably, these powerful acts will make history themselves and have definitely sparked many other monuments to be called into question, as Britain reviews its celebration of those figures who played a part in Britain’s brutal imperialist history.
Generally, it seems to be a trait of Britain, to overlook its horrific past of colonialism, opting for remembering its ‘greatness’ instead. Certainly, many believe that racism in Britain is incomparable to America and Britain’s involvement in the Slave Trade was minimal. This is not the case. Britain has a stark history of imperialism and racial injustice, structural and otherwise is very present in society.
The removal of such statues has of course sparked their own protests. However, for many the removal of the controversial figure of Edward Colston was long overdue. Colston was a leading member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on Britain’s Slave trade, he rose to the role of deputy governor. He made his fortune on selling human lives into the slave trade, and was among the richest slave traders in Bristol. Upon his death, Colston bequeathed his wealth to the City of Bristol. Many of the UK’s southern port towns such as Bristol, gained much of its wealth from the Slave Trade. Colston’s profile in Bristol has been in question since the 1920’s according to the BBC.
Since the BLM protest, the statue of Colston has been fished out of the harbour, the ropes wrapped around and graffiti on the statue will be preserved, alongside some protesters placards and placed in a museum, according to the BBC. Fran Coles, a conservationist on the project stated: ‘It has become part of the story of the object, of the statue, so our job is to try and retain that as much as possible, while stabilizing the statue for the long term.’
Other monuments have also been under review around Britain. Oxford University’s Oriel College harbours a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a controversial figure which again has been in question years prior to this year’s events. After peaceful protests and objections, Oxford recently announced that it would be removed. Cecil Rhodes was an ‘imperialist, businessman and politician who played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th Century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land.’ The campaign #RhodesMustFall began in South Africa, when students called for his statue there to be taken down. The calls were mirrored in Oxford to no avail for many years.
A spokesperson for Oriel College announced the removal and stated: “The commission will deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past.”
According to The Guardian, Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford responded to the statement, saying: “…This is not a definitive victory, it’s a sign of progress in the right direction. I think this is a paradigm shift, I think that the amount of pressure on Oriel College from different constituency has been a lot greater this time. I think there’s been more time to marinate in the wider anti-racist, anti-colonial arguments that underpin Rhodes Must Fall thinking. I think all of those things have fed into the discussion that has taken place.”
Other representations of Britain’s imperialist past, such as a statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan, outside the Museum of London Docklands. The University of Liverpool will rename their building, formally names after William Gladstone, a former prime minister affiliated with the slave trade. Henry Dundas, a politician who argued to delay the abolition of slavery and whose statue sits in Edinburgh, has also been petitioned for removal. Among many others statues the UK, whose cities are built on, and stamped with, the names of imperialist figures and oppressive histories.
As Britain addresses its memorization of figures that played a part in brutal imperialist narratives, these discussions have also called into question the structural racisms that are present in society, within education elite and otherwise, business, politics, law and so forth. There is now a question of what these statues should be replaced with, and in the case of Dundas, Nancy Barret, who began the petition stated to the BBC: “An empty column could be the perfect way to show that we are not trying to hide our past, but are aware of the damage it caused.”