UK Statues: Keep, Move or Scrap?
Should statues of racist people or those associated with the slave trade be left where they are, moved to museums or scrapped?
The issue regarding certain statues has been in the news recently, even though some have been discussed many times before. However, it seems to have taken the actual toppling of one such statue in Bristol to really highlight how strongly people feel about these issues.
The statue which was pulled down, covered in graffiti and then pushed into Bristol harbour was that of Edward Colston. He was born in Bristol in 1636 and spent his early childhood there, before moving to London. After being apprenticed to the Mercers Company, he became a merchant in 1672. He gradually built up a trade dealing in textiles, oils and wines, with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa.
In 1680 he became a member of the Royal African Company which traded with countries on the west coast of Africa, dealing in gold, silver, ivory and eventually slaves. Colston was deputy governor between 1689 to 1690, but left in 1692. He continued to trade in slaves as a private venture before retiring in 1708. He became an MP for Bristol in 1710.
As a wealthy man with no heirs, Colston gave a lot of money to charities and supported numerous good causes. He funded various schools, hospitals and churches, and his name appears on many buildings across Bristol. He died in 1721 in London and was buried at All Saints’ Church in Bristol.
The bronze statue of Edward Colston was erected in Bristol in 1895, created by an Irish sculptor called John Cassidy. It sat on top of a tall plinth made from Portland stone. In 1977 it was designated a Grade II listed structure.
In 1920 Colston’s slave trading activities were uncovered, and since that time his statue gradually became more controversial. Towards the end of the 20th century people were asking for it’s removal, or at least the addition of a plaque to help explain what he did to become so wealthy.
In 2014 just over half the voters of a poll said the statue should stay. Many people asked for a plaque to honour the victims of slavery. In 2017 an unofficial plaque was fixed to the plinth, but it was removed later the same year. In October 2018 an art installation was set up in front of the statue to mark Anti-Slavery Day.
Bristol City Council made a planning application for a second plaque in 2018. Their aim was to help the public understand Colston’s philanthropy and involvement in slave trading. However, even after the wording had been changed three times, it’s installation was vetoed by Bristol’s mayor in 2019.
On the 25th May, 2020, a black man named George Floyd was killed while being arrested in Minneapolis, in the state of Minnesota in the USA. A white police officer had knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, even though he was already in handcuffs. Local unrest and small protests quickly evolved into demonstrations, first across the United States and then in numerous countries around the world. One phrase which quickly became the main slogan for the protesters was “Black Lives Matter” (BLM).
During protests in the UK in support of George Floyd and BLM, protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of Edward Colston. It was then rolled down a road before being pushed into the harbour. A few days later it was recovered by Bristol City Council. They plan to clean off the mud to prevent corrosion, but leave the ropes and graffiti on, and will probably put it into a museum. Various politicians commented that although they understood why it had been pulled down, they could not condone such acts of vandalism.
Following the toppling of the statue in Bristol, more than 50 others were listed by anti-racism protesters as possible targets. These included Robert Miligan, Robert Baden-Powell, Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill. Some local authorities have decided to remove their statues or board them up, while discussions are taking place on what to do next.
One argument, which is not popular with the protesters, is to leave the statues where they are. The people behind this choice say history can’t be changed or erased. They think that the addition of a new plaque could be used to explain the negative and positive attributes of the person.
However, opponents state that statues are generally used to commemorate great people for doing great things. They don’t think anyone who was racist or had involvement in the slave trade should be celebrated, even if they did do some good.
This idea is popular with a lot of the protesters, but also seems a sensible solution to many historians, politicians and the general public. If the statues are removed from their current locations, they will not be visible to upset shoppers, students and tourists walking through city centres. Moving them to museums means they will still be accessible to students and historians, and can be viewed as an educational exhibit.
Some of the more extreme anti-racist protesters believe all statues which commemorate people connected to the slave trade, or were racist in any way should be scrapped altogether.
This viewpoint is obviously opposed by many, because once a bronze sculpture is melted down, or a concrete one is broken up, there is no way to replace them.
Statues are the current target for the protesters, but what next? There are many buildings in lots of British cities which were funded by, or named after people associated with slavery or who were racist. Then there are streets, roads, parks, gardens and housing estates. Is it practical to change all the visible names and remove any coats of arms so people aren’t offended? It is a debate that will go on for some time.
Local councils and authorities are keen to be seen to be doing something, but they still need to follow democratic procedures. The government is obviously concerned councils will be pressurised into removing statues and memorials, as they have given Robert Jenrick (housing secretary), power of veto. This means he will have the final say on what stays or goes. It will be interesting to see how many are removed and how many will remain.