Black Lives Matter

The place of public statues

The video taped killing of Afro-American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer in June 2020 has triggered anti-racist protests and demonstrations in many parts of the world. It has also led to debate about statues of once famous men whose career involved directly or indirectly the oppression of black people.  During demonstrations in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston, a local seventeenth century Atlantic slave trader and local philanthropist, was removed from its pedestal and dumped in the harbour.

Oriel College, Oxford, has now agreed to remove from its facade the statue of Cecil Rhodes, an alumnus, who made his fortune as director of De Beers diamond mining company and was founder of Rhodesia in East Africa. Statues of other famous men, notably Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement, have had temporarily to be boarded up to avoid defacement.

The over 500 slaves owned by Scottish merchant and slave trader Robert Milligan, whose statue outside the London Docklands Museum was taken down on June 9, contributed to the founding of London's West India Dock. 

Is removing or defacing statues of people whose lives included or may have included actions and behaviour acceptable or at least tolerated at the time they took place, but now seen to be contrary to our values and our view of human rights, an effective way of registering protest or campaigning for racial justice and equality?  

And what should we do with these statues?  Put them in a museum where they can trigger debate and provide a focus for teaching history? 

The same event has triggered a debate about black history and the need to decolonise the curriculum which is seen in some cases to stress the dominance of white people. How do we get started with this?

November 13, 2020