On the 7th of June, amid nationwide anti-racism protests, protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of 18th Century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbour — an act described by home secretary Priti Patel as, ‘utterly disgraceful’.
The statue of the slave trader had been a source of controversy in Bristol for many years, along with numerous locations named after Colston across the city owing to the money he left when he died. But the local council has failed to address these concerns, leaving protesters no choice but to take the matter into their own hands. The toppling of the statue was widely reported and has triggered a cultural revolution of sorts, forcing the country to reevaluate how we represent and commemorate our history.
In the days following the removal of the statue in Bristol, the University of Liverpool agreed to rename a building named after former Prime Minister William Gladstone, due to his support of the slave trade. Similarly, a statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan was removed from outside the museum of London Docklands in what the Canal and River Trust said was in line with the, ‘wishes of the community’. Thousands more have been peacefully protesting in Oxford, calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the university campus.
In solidarity, Sadiq Khan has announced a review of all statues and street names in London; going on to say that:
‘It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade’.
Towing the line, all Labour councils have pledged to review their statues and monuments to address the concerns of the public in the commemoration of figures who took part in the atrocities of the slave trade.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in London on the same day, Colston’s statue was toppled. The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament square was tagged with the claim that he ‘was a racist’ — leading to much condemnation from the media and Conservative politicians who may be worried that the statue could face a similar fate to that of Colston’s if it is not protected.
While it is very unlikely that the statue of the former Prime Minister, who many feel led Britain to victory in the Second World War through his rhetoric and leadership, would be removed; the graffiti has certainly reinvigorated the important debate around Churchill’s character. This debate has led to questions of why we have continued to laud over a character who is widely documented as having held white supremacist views, and who’s policies led to the 1943 Bengal famine in India — whose citizens, incidentally, he described as ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’.
Some commentators see the removal of statues as an effort to erase history. However, the removal of these statues and the renaming of locations to better reflect today’s society is history in itself and does not amount to censorship, as some have suggested. Instead, these acts are a reorientation of a British culture which is deeply rooted in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. This is not to say that the statues of Colston, Milligan and Rhodes should be destroyed. Rather, they ought to be put into museums and the context explained. In this case, owing to the fact that they served as a constant reminder to black people in their communities of the atrocities that happened to their ancestors in the name of the slave trade, which these figures represent.
Churchill was a complex figure, as were those whose statues likewise stand in Parliament Square — such as Oliver Cromwell and Mahatma Gandhi. However, a monument should act as a vessel to bring people together through shared memories and cultures, rather than divide them. And there should certainly be discussions between politicians and the public on how this can best be realised in the future.
The protesters in Bristol showed that direct action is sometimes necessary when politicians refuse to listen to people’s concerns. Churchill’s statue will see police protection as protests continue in central London. But it is worth questioning why so much value and police time are being put into an inanimate statue of a very divisive figure when there are much bigger issues to tackle. One of them is the systematic prejudice that some feel figures like Churchill represent. Figures that underplayed the role of black and minority ethnic soldiers from British colonies in helping to win the war.
Khan’s review of monuments in London is certainly a welcome step in moving forward towards more inclusive forms of commemoration. For this reason, it is only right that Winston Churchill should be at the top of the list of monuments that could be conceived as divisive.