Tuesday. 21.05.2024

British police have guarded a landmark statue of British wartime leader Winston Churchill statue since it became one of dozens of targets for anti-racism activists demanding the end of public honours for people who played leading roles in slave-trading and imperialism.

Churchill seems safe for now but many other famous names could join 18th century slave trader Edward Colston and Robert Milligan, a slave owner who founded a global trade hub in London's West India Docks, in losing their commemorative places in British cities.

Churchill is seen by many - including Prime Minister Boris Johnson - as a hero who stood up to Nazi Germany and made historic speeches to the nation at pivotal moments in World War II.

Churchill is also accused of holding white supremacist views and overseeing brutal policies in India, the "jewel in the crown" of the former British empire.

Many other prominent figures from British history have similarly mixed legacies, including monarchs. Colston joined and invested in the Royal African Company, which was granted a monopoly over Britain's slave trade.


A backlash against the demands of Black Lives Matter and other groups is also growing. Right-wingers have staged counter-protests while conservative scholars and politicians have defended Churchill, Colston and other controversial figures.

Colston's statue was tipped into a harbour in the south-western city of Bristol, one of Britain's main slave-trading ports.

"I think the protesters in Bristol have set a precedent that should see us all questioning our understanding of history, and how our monuments and architecture is tied up with colonialism," said Remi Joseph-Salisbury, a sociologist specializing in race at Manchester University.

"For the large part, this country is in denial about its history," Joseph-Salisbury told. "[But now] people are learning for the first time about some of the atrocities of the British empire."

In a bid to appease petitioners, the southern city of Plymouth promised to add "a narrative referring to [his] role in the slave trade" to a famous statue of 16th century seafarer Francis Drake.

Drake, credited with helping to defeat the Spanish Armada for Queen Elizabeth I in 1588, was a pioneer of the British slave trade.

George Floyd

Mobilized following the death of African-American George Floyd in police custody in the United States, British protesters initially focussed on police racism and brutality.

Leading black British celebrities including actor John Boyega, motor-racing world champion Lewis Hamilton and footballer Raheem Sterling, strongly backed the campaign.

As numbers increased, with protests in more cities, many turned their ire on wider problems of racism in Britain, including the country's controversial history.

"The sheer number of protesters turning out has been quite striking, as have the range of locations - both in the UK and internationally. The crowds seem to be incredibly diverse," Joseph-Salisbury said.

"It has been heart-warming to see the number of young people turning out, and it seems like these protests are potentially emboldening a new generation of activists."

A challenge to Britain's past

Jacqueline Jenkinson, a historian from the University of Stirling in Scotland, also sees a potential paradigm shift resulting from the protests.

"The direct action taken against the statue of Edward Colston and call for action on other statues represents a challenge to the accepted and broadly unchanging narrative of Britain’s imperial past," Jenkinson told.

The main challenge to the British empire from the late 19th century to the late 20th century came from "colonial peoples seeking self-rule and independence," she said, partially supported by "politicians and activists on the left in British politics."

"The campaigns and protests of recent weeks have now moved such criticism from historical to contemporary and from radical activity into the mainstream, so much so that Colston is now described as the 'slaver Colston' and Rhodes as the 'imperialist Rhodes' on the BBC news," Jenkinson said.

Joseph-Salisbury cautioned that toppling statues and renaming streets and buildings should not be seen as an end-point for the movement.

"Whilst symbolically important, there is much more to be done and it's necessary for us to embed anti-racism in our education system, and this involves teaching about the abhorrence of Britain's colonial past," he said.

Joseph-Salisbury said Britain's black communities may have become more willing to protest because the disproportionate impact of coronavirus deaths has "intensified [their] sense of disenfranchisement and frustration."

"In every area of British society, black communities and communities of colour are disadvantaged," he said. People are saying enough is enough."

British colonialism 'heroes' expelled by anti-racism protesters