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?


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Malcolm J Watkins
Director, Heritage Matters
12.10.2017, 14:19
I am not surprised by the claims in current debate. There is a growing 'holier-than-thou' attitude that is frankly sickening. The actions of our forebears may or may not have been despicable, but they created the world from which we currently benefit, like it or lump it. Whites were transporting slaves from their own communities long before they founded the African slave trade, but this is seldom acknowledged. The readers of this may well be wearing clothing made by people in effectively slave conditions, (but they were cheap and we can change fashions easily). The towns and cities and communities we enjoy today are the result of such previous activity. There is nothing to be gained by pretending that it did not happen and less to be gained by trying to erase the respect originally offered to those people responsible. It is madness. If they are visible it is possible to consider them and place them in context. Remove them and that contextualization and even possibly condemnations becomes less likely. Women’s roles in society were made invisible, and we all know the result.
Worse than that, though, the wider responsibility/guilt is dissipated. We all pretend that Nazism was linked to a specific group of thoroughly obnoxious people, but conveniently overlook the millions of others across the world who supported them through fighting or supplying or whatever, let alone admit that there but for the grace of God we might go.
The newest such idea is the ban on all ivory trading proposed by the Government. Ultimately it will not stop the killing of elephants, but it will probably lead to the destruction of tons of items made from ivory such as chess pieces, other games pieces, jewellery, and the like. As museum people we should be protecting such material, but I can hear the cries of 'about time too' from those who would welcome such an illogical ban.
It is a pity more people cannot put more effort into positive rather than negative activity, but it is always easier to blame someone else and claim the high ground than to admit that maybe, just maybe, your situation is better than it might or would have been because of those who went (and indeed suffered) before.
12.10.2017, 13:57
I haven't done this poll because I think it's a bit simplistic to give a yes or no answer to this. I think you could only judge each case individually. The societies of ancient Greeks and Romans were completely dependent on slavery - the Spartans had an entire race, the Messenians, enslaved in their state, but does one remove classical statues for this reason? No, because the issue isn't a live one any more, a modern day racist wouldn't rally behind a statue of Julius Caesar or whoever. But were they right in Charlottesville to want to remove the statue of Robert E Lee from where it was - yes, absolutely. They don't need to destroy it completely - they can put him in a museum and explain the context, but at the same time they shouldn't leave something like that where Nazi demonstrators have the excuse to hold him up as a hero.
10.10.2017, 11:18
The problem with removing artefacts which serve as emotional reminders of cruel or wicked acts is that this erases collective memory of the very acts which society would never wish to be repeated, such as the transport of african slaves in terrible conditions for forced labour in the West Indies. The preservation of concentration camps is a recognition of this fact. The very destruction of statues and other emotion memory triggers is also a recognition of their power. It is a sign of maturity in society that they be preserved as a reminder, not just of what evil acts were performed, but of the fact that they were overcome. My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look upon my works ye mighty and despair.
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