The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, erected in 1895. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Poll: should statues of slave trade profiteers be removed?

Jonathan Knott, 30.08.2017
Vote in the poll and have your say
The controversy over monuments to confederate general Robert E Lee in the US has helped push statues up the political agenda in the UK.

Patrick Harvie, the co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, was recently quoted in the Times saying that he would like to see statues of slave trade profiteers removed. 

Harvie said: “This is never about erasing history. It’s about putting slavery into a proper context.

“I would be far more in favour of people seeing statues in a museum rather than raised on pedestals. And we should look at the people who built great places and cities such as Glasgow and say something meaningful about the whole context.”

He added: “Huge numbers of people had an economic interest in the slave trade and you can trace a lot of our current economic inequality back to the extraordinary compensation.”

“It is absolutely right that Scotland should have public museum space looking at the slave trade, particularly in the cities that benefited.”

But Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP, said: “This is shameless opportunism from someone always desperate to jump on a ‘right on’ bandwagon. There will be little public support for this stunt and the Greens should start focusing on things people actually care about.”

A recent focus of debate in Scotland is a monument to Henry Dundas, a merchant and politician who delayed the abolition of slavery and became Viscount Melville, which stands in Edinburgh city centre.

And statues of people with strong links to the slave trade in other UK cities are also the subject of increasing controversy. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was recently adorned with an “unauthorised” inscription highlighting Bristol’s key role in the slave trade.

Writing in the Guardian, the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga said that the growing debate over statues, could have a positive effect by bringing previously hidden histories to light. "We are growing more sophisticated as we come to understand that not all monuments were created equal and that some were erected for cynical reasons that have little to do with history or heritage," wrote Olusoga, who will be a keynote speaker at the Museums Association Conference in November.

And also in the Guardian, Afua Hirsch has argued that there should be more questioning of monuments such as those to Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose statue stands in London’s Trafalgar Square, and who “vigorously defended” the slave trade.

Regardless of what happens to them afterwards, should statues of people who profited from the slave trade be taken down?


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14.09.2017, 13:03
You can take every argument to its logical extreme. The other extreme is that every cheap statue flung up in haste must be preserved, and that our cities worldwide must passively accrete monuments to Nazis and dictators. No matter that space is precious and finite in cities and could be used for something else. no matter what the people who have to look at them every day might think and feel.
14.09.2017, 12:53
As Jonathan says, "Statues come and go as reputations rise and Fall." If it is accepted that there should be no statues to anyone who has profited from slavery, should all statues of classical Egyptians, Romans and Greeks -- almost all of whom owned slaves -- be removed from all places of public display? Is there a statute of limitations? -- would be acceptable to display statues of classical individuals even though they owned slaves, but not those from later times? What would be the cut-off date?

For example, there is a statue of Boudicca on the Thames Embankment. The Britons kept slaves, so should her statue be removed? Or do we accept that slavery, irrespective of how vile we view the subject today, has to be viewed according to the norms of the time?

The discussion of the slave trade tend to focus almost exclusively on the 17th-19th-century African-American activities, the effects of which we are still living through. As I have pointed out, there is the potential for the discussion to spiral still further.
Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
08.09.2017, 23:42
Statues come and go as reputations rise and fall. If you have visited anywhere in Europe east of Vienna in the past thirty years you will have seen how quickly statues can be toppled, though you would be very naive to think that history has been erased.
Anyone who is on a pedestal runs the risk of being knocked off it sooner than their supporters could have imagined. This can happen for political reasons or just vandalism. A local artist erected two public statues in Wrexham to the mining community in early 2016; one lasted just long enough for me to photograph it for an exhibition and the other succumbed a few days ago.
07.09.2017, 19:16
I am working with the papers of a slave trade profiteer, who later left his entire fortune to found a charity that still provides benefits to individuals today. I'm not so sure that he has a statue, but if he did, should it be removed?
Luanne Meehitiya
Interpretation consultant, Birmingham Museums Trust
05.09.2017, 14:35