In Depth

Should Britain topple slavery-linked statues?

Cecil Rhodes and even William Gladstone may share Edward Colston’s fate

When a statue of 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston was dragged from its plinth on Sunday, the manner of its removal was criticised more than the motives of the protesters who carried out the act.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes voiced the feelings of many in saying that while she had no quarrel with Colston’s “terribly symbolic” tumbling into Bristol Harbour, a more orderly approach would have been preferable.

“If we’re going to remove these historic artefacts then we should do it carefully,” she told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “We should have a discussion about what happens to them next, how can we continue to learn from that history.”

Now, that discussion is in full swing.

More than 100 Labour councils have pledged to review the “appropriateness” of monuments in their areas, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan launching a “diversity commission” in the capital. And local Conservative leaders are under growing pressure to follow their lead.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters have drawn up a “target list” of 60 statues across the UK, on a Topple the Racists website, the Daily Mail reports.

“Among them are leaders who held undeniably racist views and others who performed evil acts against people of colour,” says the newspaper. “But others also played a leading role shaping the cities and institutions that form modern-day Britain.”

For Alex Massie in The Times, the stumbling block is that there are “so many candidates” for removal. “Our great cities are stuffed with monuments to imperial conquest and many of our finest streets were built from the proceeds of exploitation and misery,” he points out.

Despite the toppling of Colston’s statue, the former slave trader “still has a significant presence” in Bristol, where “several buildings, schools and organisations are named after him”, says The Voice’s Vic Motune. 

Yet total erasure is no solution, says Massie.

“Tear it down completely and you wipe it from the record,” he argues. Instead, we should build a “long overdue” Museum of Empire, to provide a new home for old statues, and an “unflinching yet dispassionate” look at Britain’s imperial past.

Historian David Olusoga agrees. A public monument says “this man was a great man who did great things”, he told the BBC. Statues like those of Colston should now be “put in a museum which is where, after all, we remember history properly”.

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Three monumental arguments
Robert Milligan

A statue of Milligan, “who owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica” when he died in 1809, was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands building on Tuesday, the BBC reports.

Museum bosses said the monument was “part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity”.

However, the removal has proved controversial, with critics calling for a boycott of Sainsbury’s, following reports that the supermarket chain funds the museum and “was responsible for the decision” to axe Milligan, says the London Evening Standard.

Cecil Rhodes

Oxford University’s Oriel College is resisting renewed demands to take down a statue of imperialist Rhodes (pictured above), who has long been a target of campaigners. As prime minister of the Cape Colony in what is now South Africa, Rhodes presided over an explicitly racist government.

Oxford City Council has now written to the university “inviting” it to apply for permission to get rid of the statue. And on Tuesday night, “about 1,000 people gathered outside the college to demand its removal”, The Times reports.

But Oxford vice-chancellor Chris Patten has defended the monument. “If it’s good enough for [Nelson] Mandela, it’s good enough for me,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

In 2003, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa merged his charitable activities with those of Rhodes’ estate to form the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. It was, Mandela said, “a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle”.

William Gladstone

Liverpool University yesterday removed the name of 19th century PM Gladstone from a student halls of residence.

Although “Gladstone is best known for his support for free trade and for home rule for Ireland”, his merchant father owned 2,500 slaves at the time of abolition in 1833, reports the Liverpool Echo

In a letter to the university’s vice-chancellor, students said that the former British leader’s “views on slavery followed in continuity with the views of his father”.

However, The Guardian writer Patrick Wintour insists that Gladstone’s attitudes to slavery evolved. “By 1850 he said slave trade was by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind,” Wintour tweeted on Tuesday night. 

The late Liberal statesman has also found an ally in Conservative MP Bim Afolami, who said the renaming decision was “completely nuts”.

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