Robert Milligan statue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Robert Milligan statue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The growing campaign to remove racist iconography takes us nearer a progressive and decolonised curriculum for future generations argues Sean Ledwith

The American Revolution of the 1770s is often said to have been started by ‘the shot that rang around the world’. It might be little exaggeration to say the toppling of the statue of the seventeenth-century Bristolian slave trader, Edward Colston, has had a similar electrifying effect on the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Last Sunday’s spectacular relocation of a hated icon to the local harbour has triggered a wave of similar demands and events not just in the UK but also around the world. Colston’s downfall has also triggered a febrile debate about the role such iconography plays in our society and about how the history it represents should be taught in classrooms.

The effect of the direct action in Bristol was immediate. A local school named after Colston removed a bust of its eponymous founder from a stairwell. The day after, the statue of another slaveholder, Robert Milligan, was removed from outside London’s Museum of the Docklands; this time not by mass mobilisation but on the initiative of the institution itself. Edinburgh Council today announced the Henry Dundas Monument in Edinburgh is now to be re-dedicated to the victims of the slave trade.

As Home Secretary in the 1820s, Dundas played a shameful role in deferring abolition, an act that condemned thousands to death who might otherwise have been saved. Outside the UK, the Belgian government has removed a statue of King Leopold II, the nineteenth century monarch whose brutalisation of the Congo cost an estimated 10 million lives. In the US, cradle of the Black Lives Matter campaign, one of the most striking images of last weekend was two African American ballerinas standing on a memorial to the Confederate general, Robert Lee, with clenched fists demanding its demolition.

Rhodes Must Fall

On Tuesday, about 4000 people demonstrated in Oxford calling for the removal of an image of the arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, from its plinth above Oriel College. Rhodes ruthlessly exploited African labour in the nineteenth century in his pursuit of a British Empire stretching ‘from the Cape to Cairo’. His exploitation of Southern Africa’s diamonds reserves inflated his ego to the extent that he named a country after himself-former Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced he will be creating a diversity commission to investigate the possibility of other statues and monuments associated with Britain’s imperial past being removed in the near future. Similarly, Labour will be asking all its local councils to examine historical links between slavers and plantation owners in their areas. This prompt response makes a mockery of Keir Starmer’s initial response to the Bristol incident that direct action was ‘completely wrong’ and that Colston’s statue should have been ‘brought down properly with consent’! Like many others who have denounced the act, Starmer is oblivious to the fact that Bristolians have been calling for Colston’s removal for decades and have persistently been fobbed off with delays and obfuscation. This mirrors the situation in Oxford where the first official suggestion that ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ was made in 1906!

Another politician made to look foolish over the protests was Home Secretary Priti Patel who lived down to her already blighted reputation in the Commons the day after. We were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the first Asian woman to hold that office defending the existence of a statue to a slave trader in a major British city in the 21st century. Her boss, Boris Johnson, was even forced to make one of his increasingly rare appearances on television on Monday, implausibly saying that Britain is a ‘much less racist society than we were’. Unfortunately, for Johnson this was the same day it emerged during the Downing Street briefing that the government has redacted a key part of its own investigation into Covid 19 deaths among BME groups. The non-redacted parts explicitly acknowledge the risk of fatal infection for minorities is up to 50% higher than for white people.

Blood-soaked legacy

These conversations on racism and the legacy of empire are only happening because courageous protestors of all colours decided to take to the streets in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The dunking of Colston in particular has forced the British state to participate in public discussion of its complicity in the horrors of imperialism for the first time on mainstream radio and television. A survey earlier this year indicated that a quarter of British people would still like to have an empire and a third believed that colonies benefitted from imperial rule. Such misplaced notions can only reflect the absence of serious examination of empire in the modern History schools curriculum (oddly enough, supervised by Gove and Cummings!). Most people’s astonishment that the Bristol statue even existed is another symptom of insufficient attention to the crimes of Colston, Milligan, Rhodes and many others in what the government chooses to teach our children.

Progressive educators have called over many years for a decolonised curriculum that properly covers not just the appalling exploitation of the slave trade but the many others atrocities of the British Empire such as the Irish famine of the 1840s, the Bengal famine of the 1940s and the vital suppression of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Forcing the British ruling class to confront its own blood-soaked record takes us one step nearer throwing the whole lot into the dustbin of history.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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