Kate Byng-Hall investigates the recent developments of anti-racism demonstrations and some of the flash points involving some of the UK's controversial sites and monuments.
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
On the 7th of June, a 125-year-old statue of wealthy slave-trader Edward Colston was pulled from its plinth by protestors on Colston Avenue, Bristol, and thrown into the harbour where his boats used to dock.
The act, hailed by some and condemned by others, occurred during one of the Black Lives Matter protests which have been taking place across the UK after the death of black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the 25th of May.
During the incident, Avon and Somerset Police made the decision not to intervene in order to avoid a “very violent confrontation”, and allowed protestors to roll the statue through the streets before pushing it into the water.
The Home Secretary Priti Patel has responded to the statue’s removal by calling it “utterly disgraceful”, stating that “it's not for mobs to tear down statues”. Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer has also said that protestors pulling down the statue was “completely wrong”, but said that it should have been officially removed “a long, long time ago”.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in, tweeting that the protests had been “subverted by thuggery” through non-peaceful behaviour such as the statue being torn down, saying that it is a “betrayal of the cause they purport to serve”.
This symbolic event, whether orderly or not, has kickstarted a movement campaigning for the dismantling of statues and monuments commemorating Britain’s imperial and colonial past across the UK for good.
From the mid-17th century until the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was signed in 1807, Britain used slavery as a means to build its Empire and wealth, making it one of the leading traders in the world. The trade impacted all aspects of the country, and this is reflected in the naming of streets and buildings, as well as various monuments
commemorating key figures who pioneered the industry. This trend is now being criticised for applauding rather than denouncing Britain’s imperial past.
Road names around Britain are a reminder of imperialism, with Penny Lane in Liverpool, made famous by the Beatles’ song, being originally named after slave ship owner James Penny. The namesake of Cochrane Street, one of the main roads in Glasgow, is Andrew Cochrane, a tobacco magnate who made his fortune thanks to the slave trade, but BLM protestors have informally renamed it Sheku Bayoh Street after a black man who died in police custody in 2015.
There are also several statues across the country dedicated to men whose achievements were facilitated by slavery, such as one depicting Cecil Rhodes, a well-known imperialist, at Oriel College in Oxford which campaigners have been trying to get removed for years. The college has justified keeping the statue erect by saying that the figure “was a reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism” in Britain.
The New Britain
Despite some protestation, the remnants of imperialism and colonialism in the country are beginning to be acknowledged, and in some cases, erased.
After protestors pulled down the Edward Colston statue, a nearby school named after him, Colston Girls’ School, has removed a statue of him, and is considering changing its name entirely. Colston Music Hall in the city has also announced that it will switch to a new name in the autumn in order to disassociate it from the slave trade.
After the incident in Bristol, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has proved that the issue must be taken seriously. He has launched the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to review the diversity and propriety of the capital’s monuments, as he has said that statues and street names which commemorate slave traders “should be taken down”.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade. While this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored” – Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London
One such monument has already been removed, as the statue of slave-trader Robert Milligan was pulled down from its plinth outside the Museum of London on the 10th of June. If this trend continues, many more will follow across the country.
Khan has additionally pledged that new memorials will be erected to reflect the multiculturalism of the UK, such as ones for Stephen Lawrence, the Windrush generation and a National Sikh War Memorial.
Meanwhile, replacements for the Edward Colston statue are already being proposed, with over 18,000 locals suggesting that a memorial be unveiled of Paul Stephenson, the black man who organised the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 to protest the ban on ethnic minorities working on the city’s buses, and Banksy proposing that the original statue be replaced with the addition of a number of protestors tearing it down.
Whatever changes are made, it is imperative that the UK recognises the aggressively racist flaws in its past, and holds itself accountable rather than brushing such flaws under the carpet once again.Britain is a rich and diverse nation, and there is no longer a place for affirmation of discrimination here.