In the aftermath of the removal of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the future of other sculptures, buildings and street names across the country is the subject of increasingly heated debate.
On Tuesday, a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed at West India Quay in London by landowners the Canal and River Trust. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of all statues in London, while Labour councils across the country committed to similar studies in their areas.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 protesters in Oxford renewed a prominent 2016 campaign for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century businessman and politician who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa, from Oriel College – and drew the support of the local council leader.
With petitions and social media campaigns proliferating, activists put together a website, Topple the Racists, compiling more than 60 of the proposed removals. They range from acknowledged slave traders such as Elihu Yale to more controversial inclusions such as Robert Peel, viewed as the founder of modern policing in Britain.
Dr Philip Ward-Jackson, a historian of public sculpture and former Conway librarian at the Courtauld Institute, said that he was not aware of a previous period where the UK’s statuary had been under such scrutiny. “In Britain we have kept everything regardless of whether we approve of it,” he said, adding that he did not support the removal of statues on the basis of the moral standing of their subjects. “Things have come down occasionally, but by and large unless it was because they were in such awful condition they have tended to remain.”
The list below details some of the historical figures commemorated through statues, street names and public buildings now under debate.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign – which launched the debate over memorialising figures with links to racism in 2016 – was reignited in Oxford this week when activists again demanded the removal of a statue at the university’s Oriel College. Rhodes, a leading colonial businessman and politician, was responsible for apartheid policies in southern Africa. He was also co-founder of the De Beers mining company and firmly believed in the superiority of the English over other nations. His defenders have pointed to the establishment in his will of the Rhodes scholarships – whose alumni include the former US president Bill Clinton and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – at Oxford.
The Oxford campaign now has the backing of the local council, while Oriel College says that it “continues to debate and discuss the issues”. A campaign group has also formed in Bishop’s Stortford, gaining thousands of signatures for petitions calling for the Rhodes Art Complex and Rhodes Avenue to be renamed.
Sir Francis Drake
Drake, the famed Elizabethan explorer, and a vice-admiral in the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, was also a slave trader, making three voyages to Guinea and Sierra Leone that enslaved between 1,200 and 1,400 Africans between 1562 and 1567 – a figure that probably meant the deaths of around three times as many, according to contemporary estimates.
A petition calling for the removal of statues in his honour in Tavistock and Plymouth, and demanding that schools better reflect his role in the slave trade, has gained more than 1,400 signatures. The local councils have stopped short of agreeing that the statues should be removed but both issued statements acknowledging “the great wrongs of the past”. Plymouth’s council leader, Tudor Evans, promised to ensure the monument was accompanied by information about Drake’s role in the slave trade.
Described by the historian William Dalrymple as an “unstable sociopath”, Clive of India was the first British governor of Bengal. Widely viewed as one of the key figures in Britain’s exertion of control over India, his tenure in Bengal was tainted by corruption, and critics say his policies led to mass famine – killing around 10 million – even as he extracted huge taxes that made him a fortune.
He is memorialised with statues in Shrewsbury and London. A petition calling for the removal of the Shrewsbury statue has attracted more than 7,000 signatures, prompting the council to say it will discuss the issue. The London monument will fall under the terms of a review of the city’s statuary ordered by the mayor.
Widely regarded as the founding father of modern policing, Robert Peel is memorialised in statues all over the UK, including in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Tamworth, Preston, Bury and Glasgow. Some campaigners have called for the removal of statues on that basis, with the Topple the Racists site arguing that he “created the modern concept of policing, which has disproportionately targeted the poor and ethnic minorities worldwide for centuries” – even as others say that his “policing by consent” model should not be linked to current anger at police.
Other demands have confused Peel with his father of the same name, who opposed the abolition of the slave trade. Some councils have promised to review the issue while others have pointed to that confusion and suggested that no change is needed.
Buller was memorialised in a 1905 statue in Exeter because of stunning successes as a military leader during the second Boer war. But he also suffered stinging defeats, leading to the nickname “Reverse Buller” and prompting one caustic verdict: “An admirable captain, an adequate major, a barely satisfactory colonel and a disastrous general.” Disputed allegations that he played a part in the use of concentration camps have led to his statue being vandalised, with the local council leader now backing a review.
Sir Thomas Picton
Picton, a 19th-century slave owner, was remembered in the UK for his military successes before his death at the Battle of Waterloo. But he was branded “the Tyrant of Trinidad” because of his brutal policies as governor of the island, where he made vast sums from the slave trade. He also admitted to ordering the torture of a 14-year-old girl, but his conviction was overturned.
His statue now looks likely to be removed from City Hall in Cardiff after the council leader agreed with the lord mayor’s request to remove it as it was an “affront” to black people. Another monument in Carmarthen is the subject of a petition with more than 1,000 names. The council leader, Emlyn Dole, has promised a council debate and subsequent decision.
Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, is memorialised at the 45-metre (150ft) Melville monument in Edinburgh, as well as by Dundas Street in the city. He was a prominent Scottish politician, holding roles including home secretary and war secretary. But even at the time of its creation in 1821, the statue was described in the Scotsman as a “monument to servility”. And it is now widely accepted that as home secretary Dundas played a key role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade by around 15 years – keeping 630,000 people in servitude.
Campaigners have painted graffiti on the monument and signage on Dundas Street, while a statue of his son Robert Dundas was also defaced. The council has already agreed to put a plaque on the base of the Melville monument noting his role in the slave trade. But more than 6,000 people view that step as inadequate and have called for the statue to be removed as well as streets named in his honour and the former RBS headquarters Dundas House to be renamed (though the latter belonged to another family member, Lawrence Dundas).
A founder of Guy’s hospital in south London, he made his fortune through owning a large number of shares in the South Sea Company, whose main purpose was to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies.
A statue to Guy stands by the hospital and is owned by the hospital’s charitable arm. Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS trust ruled out any renaming but said it would discuss the sculpture’s future as part of Khan’s review, adding: “We recognise and understand the anger felt by the black community, and are fully committed to playing our part in ending racism, discrimination and inequality.”
• This article was amended on 12 & 16 June 2020. Henry Dundas is commemorated by the Melville monument and Dundas Street in Edinburgh, but not by “street names and public buildings” as we said. He played a key role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade, rather than the abolition of slavery itself. Meanwhile the original ownership of Dundas House in the city has been clarified; as has the position taken by Dr Philip Ward-Jackson.