London/Washington: With a mix of pent-up fury and sudden elation, the protesters who toppled a bronze statue of the 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, in the UK’s Bristol, recalled the angry crowds that brought down statues of Saddam Hussain, Stalin and even King George III.
But when these demonstrators dumped the monument of Colston into Bristol Harbor with a splash, they also forced Britain to consider how to confront its racist history at a moment when many of the same questions are being asked in the US and elsewhere in Europe. So a more precise parallel to London’s events, perhaps, is not Saddam or Stalin, but the removal of statues of Confederate generals in city squares across the American South.
The toppling of Colston’s statue followed days of protest by thousands of people on the streets of European cities to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Images on social media show protesters appearing to kneel on the Colston statue’s neck, recalling the death of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25 that has sparked worldwide protests against racism and police violence. Floyd, a black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck even after he pleaded for air while lying handcuffed on the ground.
Protesters also defaced the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in central London, crossing out his last name and spray painting “was a racist” underneath, and also taped a Black Lives Matter sign around its mid-section.
While it’s a sad truth that much of London and the nation’s wealth was derived from slave trade, this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces.
In Brussels the same day, protesters clambered onto the statue of former King Leopold II and chanted “reparations,” according to video posted on social media. The word “shame” was also graffitied on the monument, reference perhaps to the fact that Leopold is said to have reigned over the mass death of 10 million Congolese.
The global protests on Black Lives Matter and the subsequent toppling of statues have for the past week shed a light on cities’ colonial or slave-owning history — and the figures that represent it. The incidents have also given a new urgency to the debate about how countries should confront some of the darkest chapters of their history.
“While it’s a sad truth that much of London and the nation’s wealth was derived from slave trade, this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan in a tweet. Earlier, Khan ordered a review of statues and street names across London, in response to mass protests in the city and elsewhere. “Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era,” said Khan.
Racist past comes back to haunt them
In the UK, Churchill for instance expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people. The debates in Britain echo controversies in the US, often focused on statues of confederate generals from the Civil War, and in South Africa, where Cape Town University removed a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes in 2015.
Cape Town’s successful “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign inspired a similar movement at Oriel College, part of Oxford University. But the college opted in 2016 to keep its statue of Rhodes, arguing that it was “an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today”.
Now, however, protesters are turning their sights on statues of Rhodes, an even more potent symbol of Britain’s racist colonial past. “For the last three years, we’ve all had this debate about statues in Britain,” said Afua Hirsch, a columnist who writes and speaks about race in Britain. “It feels as if now there is not even a debate - people are just acting. That is inspired by the movement we’re seeing in America.”
British merchants played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, the biggest deportation in known history. As many as 17 million African men, women and children were torn from their homes and shipped to the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries. Ships returned to Europe with sugar, cotton and tobacco cultivated by slaves on brutal plantations.
But Britain, historians said, has come to this debate more slowly than the US because the country’s legacy of racism largely occurred outside the country. There were no plantations with slaves-owning proprietors in England. Britain’s geographic distance from colonialism and the slave trade has allowed some Britons to claim their country is not, at heart, racist. But the removal of statues of Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee in the US has made those arguments harder to sustain.
“These monuments are put up to revere these figures, and if we say we want a nonracist society, of course we have to get rid of them,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. “Statues are not about history; statues are about a certain version of history.”
- With inputs from New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, AP & Washington Post
At a glance: Statues being toppled and defaced
A statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston has been beheaded, as calls to remove sculptures commemorating colonisers and slavers sweep America on the back of anti-racism protests. A Columbus statue was also vandalised in Richmond, Virginia. Italian explorer Columbus, long hailed by school textbooks as the discoverer of “The New World,” is considered by many to have spurred years of genocide against indigenous groups in the Americas. He is regularly denounced in a similar way to Civil War generals of the pro-slavery south. Dozens of American cities have over the years replaced “Columbus Day” in October - which became a federal holiday in 1937 - with a day of tribute to “indigenous peoples.” The statue - which stands on a plinth in the heart of Boston - has been controversial for years, like other Columbus statues across the US, and has been vandalised in the past.
Robert E. Lee
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last week ordered the removal of an iconic statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It is among five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, in the state capital Richmond, that have been marked with graffiti during the protests, including messages to “stop white supremacy”. Lee was a commander of the pro-slavery Confederate States Army, a coalition of southern states, in the US Civil War of 1861 to 1865. He also married into one of the wealthiest slaveholding families in Virginia and took leave from the army to run the family estate following his father-in-law’s death. Documents show that he encouraged severe beatings for those who tried to escape. He is also said to have broken up slave families. Many in the US view Lee as a symbol of the country’s history of slavery and racial oppression.
Protesters tore down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis along Richmond, Virginia’s famed Monument Avenue this week. The protesters dismantled the monument one piece at a time as a marching band played in the streets and other protesters danced. Davis, who served as the president of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865, employed slave labour as a plantation owner and supported slavery. He is widely viewed as an ineffective wartime leader, and after the war, he contributed to reconciliation of the South with the North but remained a symbol for Southern pride.
Other Confederate statues
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi renewed a years-long quest to remove the remaining Confederate statues from the US Capitol as calls to erase monuments to the Confederacy increase amid the nation’s reckoning with its racist past. There are, according to Pelosi’s letter, 11 Confederate statutes, including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America, respectively. Some states have taken it upon themselves to remove statues honouring those who sided with the Confederacy. In 2019, Arkansas replaced two figures from the Civil War with statues of music legend Johnny Cash and civil rights icon Daisy Lee Gatson Bates.
The city of Philadelphia took a step to heal a notable scar from its past this week by quietly removing the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo, who took a confrontational approach to black and gay people as police commissioner in the 1960s and ‘70s. “This is the beginning of the healing process in our city,” Mayor Jim Kenney said as he stood near the empty space where the statue had been. “This is not the end of the process. Taking the statue down is not the be-all and end-all of where we need to go.”
The Carolina Panthers have removed the statue of former owner Jerry Richardson from outside their stadium, two years after the tycoon sold the team in disgrace following allegations of racism. The Panthers said in a statement the statue of Richardson outside its Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, was being removed on safety grounds. Former Panthers owner Richardson, 83, sold the franchise in 2018 following allegations he had engaged in sexual and racial misconduct. The allegations included a claim he had used a racial slur when speaking to an African-American scout. An NFL investigation later ruled the claims against Richardson were substantiated and fined him $2.75 million.
A statue in London of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was vandalised with graffiti declaring him a “racist”. Churchill is lauded for leading Britain to victory in World War Two, but for some he remains a deeply controversial figure, in part because of his views on race. In 1937, Churchill told the Palestine Royal Commission: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Churchill has also faced criticism over his remarks on Jews and Islam, and his actions, or lack thereof, in the 1943 Bengal famine, which killed more than two million people.
A local authority in southern England said it would remove a statue of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide scouting movement. Poole council said the statue of Baden-Powell, a British Boer War hero, would now be moved from its location on the quayside of the seaside town. “Whilst famed for the creation of the Scouts, we also recognise that there are some aspects of Robert Baden-Powell’s life that are considered less worthy of commemoration,” council leader Vikki Slade said. While Baden-Powell, who in 2007 was voted the 13th most influential person in the United Kingdom in the 20th century, was hailed as far-sighted for setting up the scouts, critics said he held racist views and was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and fascism.
A statue of Robert Milligan, an 18th century slave trader, was removed from its plinth outside a London museum after officials decided it was no longer acceptable to the local community. The previously obscure statue, which stands in front of the Museum of London Docklands, came into focus after demonstrators taking part in a global anti-racism protest movement tore down the statue of a slave trader in Bristol, southwest England.
More than 1,000 protesters converged on a college at Oxford University this week, chanting “take it down” and “shame on you” to demand the removal of a statue of 19th century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes. “Rhodes represents such a violent legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, particularly in southern Africa,” said protester Morategi Kale, a South African graduate student at Oxford. A mining magnate, Rhodes was a central figure in Britain’s colonial project in southern Africa, giving his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe, and founding the De Beers diamond empire. He made his fortune from the exploitation of African miners, secured power through bloody imperial wars and paved the way to apartheid with his beliefs and measures on racial segregation.
A monument in the Scottish capital Edinburgh commemorating a politician who delayed the abolition of slavery has been spray-painted with the words “George Floyd” and “BLM” (for Black Lives Matters). The 150ft (46m) tall Melville Monument, in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square, was erected in 1823 in memory of Henry Dundas. Dundas put forward an amendment to a bill which would have abolished slavery in 1792, opting for a more “gradual” approach. This allowed the practice to continue for 15 years longer than it otherwise would have done.
King Leopold II
A 150-year-old statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, whose forces seized Congo in the late 19th century, was removed from a public square in Antwerp. Until 1908, Leopold ran Congo as a venture for personal profit. Using a private army that included Congolese orphans, the king and his agents drained the land of resources, killing elephants for ivory and tapping trees for rubber. Congolese families were forcibly moved and their members separated and enslaved, leaving as many as 10 million dead. For decades, many Belgians were taught that the country had brought “civilisation” to the African region, and some have defended Leopold as a foundational figure. Yet there has been growing pressure in recent years, particularly from younger Belgians, to confront the country’s legacy in central Africa. More than 65,000 people had signed a petition to remove all statues of Leopold II from across Belgium.