The empty pedestal where a statue of slave trader Edward Colston stood before it was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, England, on June 7. Photo: Lee Thomas/Alamy Stock Photo.

Statues of Colonial Figures Come Down in UK and Belgium

An eighteen-foot-tall statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century slave trader, which has stood on its pedestal in Bristol, England, for 125 years, was toppled by a group of people protesting racial injustice on Sunday and thrown into Bristol Harbor. The guerilla act was carried out by demonstrators emboldened by the removal of Confederate monuments in cities across the United States. Outrage over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, has led to protests internationally, including in Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and has also reignited the furor over public statues of controversial historic figures.

The UK’s conservative interior minister, Priti Patel, condemned the felling of the bronze sculpture of Colston—who, according to Time, transported around 84,500 enslaved Africans on ships of the Royal African Company between 1680 and 1692 and bequeathed the equivalent of $10 million to various Bristol charities when he died in 1721—as “utterly shameful” and announced that those responsible would be held accountable. The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, however, expressed he does not regret its dismantling. Rees called the statue “an affront to humanity,” but said that he would have preferred to have had the monument taken down through the political process. He told The Times that he expects the work will be fished out of the harbor, eventually, and moved to a museum.

The campus of Oxford University has also become a flashpoint for activists who want the UK to reckon with its colonial past. On Tuesday, June 9, thousands of protesters gathered outside Oriel College to demand the removal of the statue commemorating imperialist Cecil Rhodes. People participating in the action chanted phrases such as “Rhodes Must Fall” and had a moment of silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the length of time that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck during his arrest. Like the city of Bristol, Oxford also erected the effigy of Rhodes after he left money to Oriel College in his will.

In an open letter to the university’s vice chancellor Louise Richardson, educators, alumni, and student groups said the institution must make “upholding anti-racist values a reality.” Oxford city councilors are also supporting the campaign to take down the statue, and city council leader Susan Brown encouraged the college to have it relocated. In response, Oriel College issued a statement saying that it “abhors racism and discrimination in all its forms.” It also said, “as a college, we continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes.”

The movement to purge the UK of its visible links to slavery has also gained traction with London lawmakers. London mayor Sadiq Khan announced on Tuesday that all statues, markers, and street names with links to slavery will be reviewed and may be taken down to ensure heritage sites “suitably reflect London’s achievements and diversity.” That same day, the Museum of London Docklands, the Canal and River Trust, and the local authorities worked together to remove a statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan, who owned two sugar plantations in Jamaica as well as more than five hundred slaves, in “recognition of the wishes of the community.”

Meanwhile, in Antwerp, protesters set fire to a monument memorializing King Leopold II of Belgium, who is notorious for his brutality in the Congo, where his regime stripped the land of its resources and led to the death of some ten million people. A statue of the king in Ghent was defaced and splashed with red paint, and another in Brussels served as the site where ten thousand people held a rally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The fire-damaged King Leopold II statue will be moved to the Middelheim Museum, where it will undergo restoration, and will not return to the public square it overlooked for 150 years. 

“Taking down statues is important on the symbolic level, but it is just the beginning,” Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, a spokeswoman for the Belgian Network for Black Lives, told the New York Times. “Those monuments are present not just in public space, but also in people’s mentalities.” At the time of publication, a petition demanding that all monuments of King Leopold II be removed in the country had nearly seventy thousand signatures.