This weekend saw the statue of slave trader Edward Colston removed from its plinth in Bristol and dumped in the River Avon by a group of protesters.
The protests were in reaction to the death of George Floyd and were part of the sweeping Black Lives Matter movement that has been taking over the world since his murder.
The removal of the statue has caused some great controversy within political movements, but it’s clear that many in Bristol believed the statue to be a stain on their city, but little was done to remove it or even add an additional inscription to explain the man’s history and involvement in the slave trade.
So, do we need to have a look at the statues in Manchester and make a decision about whether they should still be up in the 21st Century? Should we still celebrate these people now?
Well, judging by the list below – we certainly need to re-visit and re-evaluate just exactly who we’re celebrating.
Our Spotlight on Statues series was always something that we decided would not be about “all of the horrible, boring men” that are celebrated in bronze and stone throughout the city. Therefore, most of these have never been touched upon before – so here goes…
Sir Robert Peel
A lot has been written about Robert Peel over the last few days in light of the events in Bristol and there are statues of the man in both the city centre and his hometown of Bury.
He is regarded as the father of modern British policing, owing to the fact that he founded the Metropolitan Police Service all the way back in 1829.
Now I have no qualms when admitting that I’m mistaken and I’ve been quickly corrected on who THIS Robert Peel is in the statues and where his links with slavery emanate. There has been a lot of confusion over this in the last few days and it’s all because he shared his name with his father, who was also made a Sir by the realm.
It was in fact his father who was a strong opponent to the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill, seeing as he saw it as a major threat to the cotton industry in the area. He also went so far as to raising a petition highlighting the risk it presented to merchants and business owners.
So this is a statue of that man’s son. A man who was Prime Minister of the UK twice and as mentioned – started the Met Police service. Should the statue be up though owing to the links with his father and his father’s views and actions?
Duke of Wellington
Much has been written and put to film about the victories of the Duke of Wellington over Napoleon in the 19th Century, I mean, even ABBA wrote a song about it!
Of course, his conquests on the field of battle against an invading adversary should be commended, but what about the man as a politician and indeed – a tool of Empire?
Well, alongside his many campaigns in foreign lands, securing territories for the Empire and the subsequent oppression of the natives, his career as a politician reveals a few damning views and opinions.
He approved of Catholic Emancipation, giving more rights to the Catholic population of the country, however he opposed the Reform Act of 1832, one that was set to give more people the vote, as well as opposing the emancipation of Jews in England. He was a big believer in England being a Christian country and therefore opposed the integration of pretty much all religions and ethnicities.
The Scottish inventor is immortalised in Piccadilly Gardens, likely due to his enormous contribution to the steam engine and therefore the growth of the city during the Industrial Revolution. There’s a wealth of information written about his work and life, however there is surprisingly little mentioned about his links to slavery.
The only resource I could find is from his own university in Glasgow, who released a report back in 2018 about his newly discovered links to the trade, mainly revolving around his family profiteering from the trade of slave-produced goods (such as sugar, rum and cotton from Antigua and other Caribbean islands) as well as being actively involved in the movement of people.
In his later years he was producing machinery for businesses in the Caribbean which owned slaves, and thus was certainly not only complicit in the slave trade, but also benefited from the profits generated from it.
It is worth noting though that during the Haitian Revolution in 1791, Watt is on record for cancelling an order placed by a French company for a steam engine intended for a colony. He wrote; “We sincerely condole with the unhappy sufferers, though we heartily pray that the system of slavery so disgraceful to humanity were abolished by prudent though progressive measures.”
St Ann’s Square
This fella was a manufacturer, statesman and someone who was actively involved in free trade campaigns in the 19th Century.
He founded the Anti-Corn Law League which looked at abolishing the unpopular Corn Laws, which was finally achieved in 1846, meaning landowners couldn’t add extra tax on imported wheat – ensuring food became much more affordable and cheaper for millions of people throughout the country.
He was also a staunch non-interventionalist and fully opposed the British Empire and the actions our imperialism was responsible for. He opposed the highly immoral Opium Wars at the time, arguing that just as “in the slave trade we [the British] had surpassed in guilt the world, so in foreign wars we have the most aggressive, quarelsome, warlike and bloody nation under the sun.”
He believed that the British were “the greatest blood-shedders of all“.
Another statesman, John Bright was also a big fan of free trade and helped Richard Cobden with the abolition of the Corn Laws. Like Cobden he was also a serious anti-imperialist and used the events of his day to try to distance Britain from their colonies and reduce ensuing atrocities.
He is noted as doing more than any other man to prevent the intervention of Britain on the side of the South during the American Civil War – therefore helping to ensure the victory of the North and the abolition of slavery in the country.
A quick search online and you’ll quickly find that Oliver Heywood, a local banker and philanthropist, was a staunch supporter of the Anti-Slavery movement.
If you were living at the time it wouldn’t be uncommon to see Heywood at an anti-slavery meeting in the city and he was an integral in the efforts in stopping the trade of humans from Africa to the US and other colonies.
However, a little deeper digging uncovers a darker history, one associated with his family back in the 1700s. Although there’s nothing he can do about his own history, and it seems he tried to actively participate against the trade, the Heywood family fortune had very close ties with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Heywood’s were based in Liverpool and owned a shipping company that would transport goods intended for plantations as well as actually participating in the transportation of slaves from West Africa to Barbados, and the subsequent return of sugar and cotton.
Much has been written about Queen Victoria, and as our once-longest reigning monarch, much of it is positive. I’m not here to tell you that she was a nasty piece of work and was horrible to her kids and actively apathetic to many of the issues that faced Britain at the time but… actually, yes, I am.
Many people mistakenly believe that the abolition of slavery in the UK came into force during Victoria’s reign and that she was a major player in it – well, that’s not true. The abolition came in just before her coronation and she has been noted as having very little interest in the issue at all.
In fact, her reign is noted for being the height of the British Empire, a time when the sun never set on all she ruled over, and it’s precisely this fact which makes her reign one of the most disruptive and racist of all. The abolition of the slave trade, although good and just, also gave the British Empire free reign on conquered colonies, and our treatment of natives was invariably much worse.
The British (and Victoria) viewed the Empire to be a force of good in the world, bringing ‘civilisation’ to the colonies, and with the abolition of slavery, the British were able to take the moral high ground on this matter and claim ‘cultural superiority’ over other empires.
The British believed the Empire was different from past and existing empires in that there was a concern shown for native peoples that had not previously existed amongst powers. Something we now know to be absolute bollocks and the root cause of many of the world’s problems today.
Billy Gladstone’s views on slavery are well documented. They followed that of his dads, who was one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies and someone who he relied on for pocket money throughout his life.
His dad was a real piece of work, actively helping slave owners receive compensation when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833.
Billy himself then later defended British plantation owners when he opposed the abolition of buying slave-grown sugar. By the 1850s his views on the matter revolved around using discussion, rather than force, to end the slave trade and the reluctance in starting an anti-slavery crusade in Africa which was a hot topic at the time.
The Last Shot
St Ann’s Square
The inscription on this large statue in St Ann’s Square says:
‘To the memory of the following officers, non-commissioned officers, and men who fell in the war in South Africa, 1899-1902/ (names)/ and others whose names cannot be ascertained’.
Okay, so this is a memorial for those who died during a war in South Africa, a war that is commonly known at the Second Boer War. The war was fought between the British and the South African Republic and the Orange Free State over the Empire’s influence, in response to vast deposits of diamonds and gold found in the area.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see how the commemoration and celebration of this war could be seen as problematic for the majority of people.
Sure, it’s not nice that people died in the service of their country, and those people do deserve a memorial somewhere, but the glorification of such a conflict and its ensuing impact on a country should not be encouraged.
The repercussions of the British Empire’s involvement in South Africa is still being felt to this day, and will probably be felt for generations to come.
Didn’t Abraham Lincoln fight against the South during the American Civil War, thus ending slavery within the United States? So, he should be celebrated, right?
Well, he’s certainly an American hero and considered to be the father of modern democracy, however his views on racial equality are actually rather more complicated than many think.
He considered slavery to be morally wrong, however, he wasn’t actually an abolitionist, insofar that he didn’t actually believe that “all men are created equal”.
In a series of debates in 1858, an opponent accused him of supporting “negro equality”, a fact that Lincoln decided to make his position clear on shortly after. He said “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
He opposed giving black people the right to vote, hold office, serve on juries and to marry white people. He also believed that the best way to confront the problem of slavery was for the African American population to leave the US and colonise and settle in Africa or Central America.