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Tear them down! How do we deal with Britain’s colonial and slave-trading past?

Writing by Fairuz Farhoud. Illustration by Polly Burnay.

The tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston on the 7th of June in Bristol brought the issue of statues - especially of racist or historically contentious individuals - to worldwide status. Debate from across the political spectrum, from activists and academics alike, about whether we should remove these statues, protect them, or move them became a focus of the news for weeks. 

The issue most people have with statues of contentious figures is what ideals they represent and whether there is a place for them in modern society. In the case of Edward Colston, that figure was a slave trader responsible for the transportation of over 80,000 slaves to the Americas. In Edinburgh, the focus has been on the statue of Henry Dundas in St Andrews Square and the accompanying street names that dot the city. The growing Black Lives Matter movement has questioned who we are celebrating in society through statues, and what history we are choosing to glorify. Britain was specifically responsible for the movement of over 3 million slaves. This grotesque number is simply incomprehensible, and our public acknowledgement of our past should match the magnitude of the crimes we committed. 

A fundamental issue of statues is that the act of having them up in a public space glorifies the individual, no matter what plaque and information accompanies it. They put these people in larger-than-life forms and display them on plinths above the average height. The impact this has, of literally holding an individual at a higher level, is both conscious and unconscious. From a statue of a Roman Emperor to a British Prime Minister, statues serve to glorify and spread propaganda about those who society exults and who deserve immortalisation.

What to do with these statues? 

The question next is what to do with these statues? Bristol removed the statue of Colston from the harbour, waiting to move it to a museum. The advantage of this approach is that in a museum the appropriate context for Colston and his history can be created. The museum, although not a perfect institution, can acknowledge what Colston did to be torn down in 2020, explicitly highlighting his slave-trading past. There is no ambiguity like there is in a public space, which unconsciously suggests that slave traders deserve to be celebrated in public.

The removal of slave trader statues is a great start, but the movement should not end there. The energy that brought this conversation to light needs to be maintained. Major calls were made to reform education; a government petition which received over a quarter of a million signatures called for greater emphasis on colonial and slave-trading history in British schools. The government, however, rejected the calls of the petition, claiming that enough colonial history was on the school syllabus, and responsibility for any further education on the subject has been put on individual schools and teachers. This passing on of responsibility will lead to limited colonial education and in some instances education disparity between schools. The idea of reparations to those affected by British slavery both in Britain and abroad has always been a fringe idea. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement can finally give the push for a genuine conversation on reparations to happen. 

It is worth noting the speed at which measures were put up to protect statues of the likes of Winston Churchill. The same speed and energy needs to be applied to protecting BAME individuals in this country. From issues such as stop and search, economic inequality, and social disparity - these lives are worth more than a statue.

Should we replace these statues?

Following the removal of Colston's statue in Bristol, the next question was what to do with the space. The conversation needs to focus on how to address the specific grievances that surround Colston and the wider colonial legacy. The lasting impact of colonialism and slavery on this country has been social, political, and economic. It goes beyond the confines of bronze artistic depictions, and the reaction too should go beyond that.

Memorialising an individual will always have its limitations. Discussing who should replace the plinth of a toppled statue only continues a culture of heralding and glorifying individuals. Perhaps it makes more sense to memorialise a movement. The idea that history is led by specific great individuals is outdated. Our acknowledgement of history should take this into account, so if a monument is erected in the space of Colston, it should represent the movement rather than any individual. The impromptu erection of a statue to Jen Reid, a Black Lives Matter organiser, whilst better than a statue of Colston, ignores this. Furthermore, the sculptor of this statue was Mark Quinn. He is a problematic sculptor for the BLM movement for several reasons. Firstly, he is a wealthy white male, and voices of colour should be elevated during this movement. The role of white people during the movement is not to control the material but to engage with it respectfully. In addition, due to the colonial nature of the Colston statue plinth, it is easily understood why a statue sculpted by a white man is not appropriate, and even hints at artistic colonialism. Furthermore, Quinn was subject to controversy when in 2017 he used his then-girlfriend as a ‘muse’ for his Untrimmed exhibition. His ex-girlfriend, Jenny Bastet, is a black woman. She claimed that he exploited her and used her as an object for artistic gain. This suggests a history of Quinn using black women for artistic gains and public success, thus understandably raising issue with Quinn’s role, as a white man, in the BLM movement. Moreover, the statue failed to consider the environment and atmosphere of the protest that led to the toppling of Colston because a single individual can only represent so much. The future space should represent more than one organiser, and it should be decided by the people of Bristol - preferably the BAME citizens of Bristol, as BAME communities are still dealing with the legacy of slavery and colonialism.  

If cities and localities do decide to re-use the empty space of the toppled statues, a lesson can be learned from other memorials. Memorials to the dead from the World Wars and the Holocaust generally do not specify individuals. Slavery, like these other events, had a tremendous numbers of victims and any memorial needs to acknowledge this. If these spaces must be used, a specific memorial to the victims of Britain’s past should be erected, rather than further glorification of individuals. 

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