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Bristol statue’s toppling sparks action over tributes to controversial figures

The city that sparked a nationwide re-examination of memorials to figures linked to the slave trade has committed to “learning the truth” about its complicated history.

Since the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday, authorities across the country have faced calls to remove other tributes to controversial figures.

On Wednesday, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees announced that a new research commission would provide “more accuracy” to the city’s history, including the impact of “wars, protests, slavery and freedom”.

Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees (Bristol City Council)
Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees (Bristol City Council)

Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University said it has dropped the name of 17th century merchant Sir John Cass from its Art, Architecture and Design School in recognition of “the enormous pain he caused as a major figure in the early development of the slave trade”.

Campaigners have also called on Newcastle University to change the name of one its buildings named after Victorian industrialist Lord Armstrong who sold weapons to both sides in the US Civil War.

He has been accused of supporting white supremacy by arming the Confederates as well as the Unionists.

Over in Chatham, Kent, intensive care nurse Jacqui Berry has started a petition to get a statue of Lord Kitchener on horseback pulled down.

She argued the “racist” memorial to Kitchener, who was appointed Secretary of State for War when the First World War broke out, should be removed due to use of scorched earth policy and concentration camps while serving as an army officer in Sudan and South Africa.

It follows the local authority-approved removal of the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan in London’s Docklands on Tuesday evening and a wave of online petitions targeting other controversial figures.

This includes 19th century slave owner Sir Thomas Picton, 18th century colonialist trader Robert Clive and 17th century merchant Elihu Yale who had links to the slave trade.

Campaigners have also challenged memorials to Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Met Police in London and former prime minister William Gladstone.

Many feature on the “topple the racists” website, created by campaigners from the Stop Trump Coalition, to list around 60 statues and memorials across the UK they argue should be taken down, because they “celebrate slavery and racism”.

It provoked Middlesbrough mayor Andy Preston to say it would be a “travesty” if statues of 18th century explorer Captain James Cook, also featuring on the website, were removed from display in places such as Great Ayton and Whitby.

He called on Teesside politicians to say they would “not support the whitewashing of Cook’s name from the history books” who he argued was a “hero”.

In Leeds on Wednesday, vandals were criticised for daubing graffiti on a monument to Queen Victoria on Woodhouse Moor that included the words “murderer” and “slave owner”.

Council workers clean graffiti from a statue of Queen Victoria in Woodhouse Moor in Leeds (Danny Lawson/PA)
Council workers clean graffiti from a statue of Queen Victoria in Woodhouse Moor in Leeds (Danny Lawson/PA)

Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake said there was also a “real element of misogyny” in the graffiti comments.

She said the council was setting up a review of its statues, adding that the move was “absolutely no attempt to erase history”.

Queen Victoria came to the throne after the slave trade was formally outlawed, but ruled over an expansion of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, the University of Liverpool has confirmed that a “democratic process” will be used to select a new name for a hall named after William Gladstone, after students pointed out he had defended the rights of owners of slave-run plantations, such as his father.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Wednesday that the UK should be able to examine its history “warts and all” without a feeling of “self-loathing” and forgetting “the good things we’ve done”.

He argued that the priority should be on improving the opportunities for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, with people deciding how political leaders respond via “the ballot box”.

A debate has also erupted over the legacy of 19th century prime minister Sir Robert Peel after those calling for his statues to be removed were accused of targeting the wrong man.

A statue of two-time British prime minister Sir Robert Peel in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA)
A statue of two-time British prime minister Sir Robert Peel in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA)

Sir Robert is honoured by statues in Leeds, Glasgow, Bury, Manchester and Preston, some of which targeted on the “topple the racists” website.

But some suggest campaigners have the wrong target, confusing Sir Robert with his similarly named father who was a vocal opponent of the abolition of slavery

One entry pinpointing a statue of the former prime minister on Pershore Road in Edgbaston claims that policing has “disproportionately targeted the poor and ethnic minorities worldwide for centuries”.

Labour-led councils across England and Wales have agreed to work with their local communities to look at the “appropriateness” of certain monuments and statues on public land and council property.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has also announced a new commission to review the capital’s landmarks.

In London, campaigners have targeted a statue of Thomas Guy outside the London hospital he founded and is named after him, because he made his fortune from a company that sold slaves.

A spokesman for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said it would work with Mr Khan’s commission to “consider the right way forward”, adding that it is “fully committed to playing our part in ending racism, discrimination and inequality”.

The trust confirmed it had no plans to change the name of Guy’s Hospital.

Brighton and Hove City Council, Durham County Council, Newcastle City Council, Oldham Council, Cheshire West and Chester Council, Cheltenham Borough Council and Camden and Hackney councils in London all confirmed to the PA news agency they were reviewing their statues, monuments and historical symbols.

Tudor Evans, leader of Plymouth City Council, said on Tuesday it will rename a square named after 16th century slave trader Sir John Hawkins.

But it will not be removing a statue of Elizabethan sailor Sir Francis Drake on Plymouth Hoe, who played a role in the slave trade, with it instead creating a new memorial to honour slavery victims.

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