UK debates removal of statues: erasing or exposing history?

The killing of George Floyd by police officers sparked worldwide protests for social justice and racial equality. In the UK, those demonstrations have involved calls to tear down the monuments to the country’s colonial past. NHK World’s James McGuirk spoke to experts about how we can evaluate and re-contextualize history.

Statue under attack

On June 7, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of local slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into the waters of a nearby harbor. The statue was erected over 100 years ago in honor of Colston’s philanthropic contributions to the Bristol community.

But in recent years, his reputation has been called into question, with many pointing out that he built his wealth in the Atlantic slave trade. His ships are estimated to have carried more than 80,000 slaves to America in the 17th century.

Two days after the Colston statue was brought down, members of a campaign group called Rhodes Must Fall gathered outside Oxford University’s Oriel College, calling for the removal of a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes.

These days, Rhodes’ name is most closely associated with the scholarship set up in his honor. A wildly successful mining tycoon in southern Africa, Rhodes left a fortune to Oriel College. But he has increasingly been the target of critics who say his fortune was built by exploiting natural resources and local labor, and that his colonialist legacy should not be celebrated.

Oriel College later issued a statement saying it has voted in favor of moving the statue and that it will launch a commission to investigate the issue.

Protesters gather in front of the Rhodes statue (top center) at Oriel College, calling for its removal.

Black Lives Matter in the UK

Rhodes Must Fall was founded in Oxford in 2015 after a similar movement succeeded in getting a Rhodes statue removed at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Oxford PhD student and Rhodes Must Fall founding member Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh told NHK that the group’s initial aim was to start a debate on the statue’s place at Oriel College and highlight how its presence contributed to the sense of alienation that Black students feel on campus. Black students make up 22.1% of all British students admitted to Oxford, but the percentage is much lower at certain colleges, such as Oriel.

Education is just one aspect of UK society which BLM says is rife with racial inequality. And the extent to which similar problems persist in areas such as housing, employment, and healthcare has been made tragically evident in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are overrepresented in jobs classified as “essential”, and as a result have faced far greater infection rates.

Erasing history, or healthy debate?

The toppling of the Colston statue has sparked debate over whether the removal of monuments is a long overdue step for a country attempting to confront its imperial past or simply amounts to the erasure of history.

Sir Geoff Palmer, who was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK in 1955 at the age of fifteen, is Scotland’s first ever black university professor. He speaks openly about the racism he has faced over the course of his life. But he says the removal of statues is misguided.

“If you start taking historical monuments down, you are removing part of the context of history,” Palmer told NHK. “If it’s taken down by a group of people who nobody knows, you are then leaving a very difficult situation for the future.”

Sir Geoff Palmer, professor emeritus at Herriot-Watt University, says statues should remain in their places, serving as reminders of history.

But others argue that the historical significance of these figures is made irrelevant by the context in which their statues were erected. Rhodes Must Fall protester Laura Stewart says that the only reason the Rhodes statue exists is “because Cecil John Rhodes had an incredible amount of money, and was able to buy part of a building to put his face on.”

Politicians have weighed in, with Prime Minister—and Oxford graduate—Boris Johnson saying, “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. Those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.”

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer was critical of the manner in which the Colston statue was brought down, but was quick to add, “We can’t, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue.”

National hero revisited

The conversation has now come to include arguably Britain’s most famous political figure—Sir Winston Churchill.

During a recent demonstration in London, protesters scribbled “racist” on the statue of Churchill that stands in front of parliament.

Many politicians condemned the act. But as news of the graffiti spread online, so did information about Churchill’s beliefs. A quote in which he compared the Indian people to animals went viral. Posts detailing the 1943 Bengal famine, which historians say was caused by the Churchill administration exporting food away from the subcontinent, were widely shared on social media.

A statue of Sir Winston Churchill in front of parliament was graffitied during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Changing nature of history

Some say that what lies at the heart of this debate is a discrepancy over how British and Commonwealth history is meant to be taught in schools, and how teachers actually go about doing so.

Dr Peter Brooke, a lecturer in African History at Oxford University and former secondary school teacher, says that although Britain’s colonial past is a mandatory part of the national curriculum, many teachers adopt a Eurocentric approach to the material, rarely looking at the history from the perspectives of the colonized nations.

Brooke also says he hopes that the statue debate leads to wider public interest in history in general, saying it is the job of historians to constantly reevaluate contexts and legacies based on new evidence.

“We are always finding new sources, new evidence coming to light about periods of history,” he told NHK. “So I find the idea of erasing or changing history, well, in fact that's what our profession does.”

Recently, Prince Harry made headlines with comments on the UK’s colonial past during an online meeting with members of Black Lives Matter.

“There is no way we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it needs to be done.”

Such comments would have been unthinkable from a British royal even a year ago, and serve to show just how far the conversation has come in a such a short time. And as long as statues of figures like Rhodes and Churchill continue to adorn buildings and public spaces throughout the country, the debate will surely carry on.