Global protests over the death of George Floyd have sparked a sweeping movement across Britain to remove dozens of landmarks that honour the country’s long history of slave trading.
Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month has become a rallying cry to end years of indecision about what to do with memorials that many people say are offensive and glorify racism.
From London to Oxford, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, community groups and politicians have joined together in a rush to take down statues and rename streets that commemorate those who profited from slavery.
That’s what happened in Bristol last weekend when a group of protesters pulled down a 125-year-old statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist. The city had been debating the statue’s fate for 20 years, and while the actions of the demonstrators were condemned by many, few mourned the loss of the monument.
“What’s happened to the statue is now part of that statue’s story,” Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees told reporters. “People in Bristol came together and said: We don’t want that statue in the middle of the city.” He added that councillors will now decide what to do with the plinth, as well as several buildings and streets named after Colston.
Students at Oxford University have relaunched Rhodes Must Fall, a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. Rhodes, the founder of De Beers diamonds and creator of the scholarship that bears his name, has long been seen by many as an ardent imperialist and white supremacist. An earlier effort to get rid of the statue failed in 2016 when the university balked.
Now, in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Oxford Tuesday to call for the statue’s demise. They were backed by dozens of professors and most city councillors, who urged the college to “apply for planning permission to remove the statue.”
In a statement Tuesday, the college said it “abhors racism and discrimination in all forms” and it continues to “debate and discuss" issues raised by the Rhodes statue.
“It’s incredible to watch,” said Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, an Oxford doctoral candidate who helped start Rhodes Must Fall in 2015. “To see such a sea change in public opinion five years later … is a feeling of great vindication but also one of great excitement.”
Mr. Mpofu-Walsh, who lives in South Africa, said he and others were berated and threatened when they launched the campaign. “We never dreamed that it would resurrect. We’re all messaging each other now, just elated and shocked that it’s come back.”
Other cities, universities and companies have also bowed to the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests and announced statue removals and name changes.
In Cardiff, the head of the city council backed calls to take down a statue of Sir Thomas Picton, a military officer, slave merchant and governor of Trinidad who was convicted in 1806 of torturing 14-year-old Luisa Calderon. (The conviction was overturned, and Picton would die at the Battle of Waterloo.)
“The growing awareness and understanding of the brutal nature of his governorship of Trinidad and his involvement in slavery makes it, in my view, very difficult to reconcile his presence in City Hall,” lead councillor Hew Thomas said in an open letter.
Councillors in Edinburgh backed removing a statue of Henry Dundas, an 18th-century politician who prolonged slavery in the British colonies.
In Glasgow, Barclays confirmed plans to drop the name “Buchanan Wharf” for a new office complex after a public outcry over the fact it honoured Andrew Buchanan, an 18th-century tobacco merchant who profited from slavery. The bank said Tuesday that the building will be named Barclays Glasgow Campus.
And the University of Liverpool is stripping the name of Prime Minister William Gladstone from a building because of his views on slavery.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city will review all its street names, statues and plaques “to ensure the capital’s landmarks suitably reflect London’s achievements and diversity.” On Tuesday, Mr. Khan appointed a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm and said: “Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era.”
Within hours, Manchester’s city council announced a similar review, and officials in Plymouth stripped the name of slave trader Sir John Hawkins from a city square.
Not everyone supports the rush to discard statues and change street names. There have been concerns the effort could go too far and erase parts of the country’s history. Richard Eddy, a councillor in Bristol, said many people consider Colston a hero “whose wealth has continued to benefit the housing, education and health care of the citizens of this city.”
In a newspaper opinion piece Tuesday, Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage questioned whether all statues “commemorating historical figures who lived in the days of Empire” should be removed. “Perhaps Oliver Cromwell is next on the list because of his activities in Ireland in the 17th century?”
When Mr. Khan was asked by the BBC if he would remove a statue of Winston Churchill, who expressed racist views, he said he would not. “Nobody’s perfect, whether it’s Churchill, whether it’s [Mahatma] Gandhi, whether it’s Malcolm X,” he said. “But there are some statues that are quite clear cut.”
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