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The fall of slavery: statues, symbols and social contention


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The removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday 7 June 2020 has been followed by a wave of activity around other memorials to participants in or beneficiaries of slavery. This includes the decision led by the Museum of London to dismantle the statue of Robert Milligan at West India Dock Quay, announced (and indeed completed) on 9 June. Memorials to figures involved in the wider colonial project are also under renewed scrutiny, most prominently the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, which on the 9 June the City Council invited the college to remove. On the same day, Plymouth Council announced it was to change the name of Sir John Hawkins Square, and Labour councils nationally initiated reviews of memorials in their own jurisdictions. There are many constituencies engaged in this signal moment, of whom historians are only one, and probably not among the most important. But does this stunning series of events represent success or failure for historians who have worked to (re)inscribe slavery in British history?

The significance in social and historical memory of physical representations, not only statues but also plaques, friezes, inscriptions and street names, has long been understood.  These memorials, signaling official sanction and recognition of distinction, encode a version of history that is permanently present, reproduced in the everyday.  In the context of slavery, the physical environment in Britain has worked to elide slavery and to privilege abolition. Memorials to those who participated in slave-trading or slave-ownership celebrate their activities in other spheres but remain silent on their connections with slavery, while numerous statues commemorate the abolitionists and their gift of freedom to captured Africans.

There were different ways to respond to this. One was to do nothing – the chosen path in fact for most of the memorials. The second was to modify statues, to provide a new context for them, potentially using established methods such as audio and newer technologies such as QR codes. The third was to build new memorials to the victims of slavery, to create counter-narratives that reflected a fuller account of our histories.

What is happening now reflects the fact that neither of the alternatives to the default of doing nothing was implemented. Unofficial modification of public memorials has often happened – the traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow, for example.  Official modification has often been temporary – Robert Milligan was hooded at the opening of the new London Sugar and Slavery gallery at the museum of Docklands in 2007. Modification through additional descriptive plaques was planned in Bristol for Colston and in Edinburgh for the statue of Henry Dundas on the Melville Memorial, but neither ever happened. Several new memorials have been built – the Captured African Sculpture at St George’s Quay in Lancaster, or Pero’s Bridge in Bristol. But for many years the English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme failed to mark a single site in London as the home of an enslaved person or an abolitionist of African descent: the plaque for Mary Prince on Senate House was erected by the community organization Nubian Jak in conjunction with Camden Council. Olaudah Equiano has a Westminster council plaque at 73 Riding Street and in March 2020 the installation of a plaque at 37 Tottenham Street by the Equiano Society was scheduled: English Heritage had decided in 2007 that no site for Equiano met its own criteria. The long-running campaign to erect a memorial to the victims of slavery in Hyde Park by Memorial2007 remains unfulfilled, frustrated by the refusal of public money for the project.

This was not only the result of inertia, but of active resistance to change. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign was opposed by Oriel in 2016. The failure to develop agreed wording for statues was driven by contention between competing versions of history. For Richard Eddy, the former leader of Bristol City Council, ‘Edward Colston to me and generations of Bristolians stands out as a hero whose wealth has continued to benefit the housing, education and healthcare of the citizens of this city.’ In Ashbourne in Derbyshire on 8 June, in order to prevent the local council seizing it, residents removed the caricature head mounted on the Green Man and Black’s Head hotel, with the support of Thomas Donnelly, a Conservative councilor who said: ‘It’s the people of Ashbourne who should decide, not Germany or France or the Netherlands.’

Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power. In the decade since 2007, we have worked especially to put slavery back into British history. We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided.

Now the campaign for removal has apparently irresistible momentum, and new risks have arisen for historians and to history itself. The empirical background of the figures involved is in danger of being blurred. Henry Tate, whose bust in Brixton is under threat through a reflexive association with the slave trade and slavery, was not born when the slave trade was abolished, and he was a child when slavery itself was ended in the British colonies. Yet the raw material supply on which he drew and the market for the sugar he sold had both been established by slavery. John Julius Angerstein, whose collection was the foundation of the National Gallery, was a trustee of estates and enslaved people in Grenada and Antigua; his second wife had a life interest in her first husband’s estates and enslaved people in St Kitts; and Angerstein’s early wealth flowed from broking and underwriting in marine insurance, of which an unknown proportion was in slave ships and West India vessels bringing to Britain tropical produce grown by enslaved people. But there is no evidence that he himself was a slave-trader or slave-owner.

As institutions and cities now respond to the unfolding crisis of memorialisation, historians can seek to contribute by providing the historical evidence for such connections. These connections will in some cases be complex, contradictory and possibly thereby unsatisfactory for some of the constituencies involved. But we cannot afford a second failure, a failure to engage and to insist on the importance of evidence, of the archives, of the historical facts.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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