A statue of Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into a river at a rally in memory of an American man killed by a US police officer.
Thousands of anti-racism demonstrators in the UK took to the streets of Bristol over the weekend tearing down the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, before dragging it several hundred metres and throwing it into a river.
The dramatic moments, reminiscent of the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in 2003, saw protesters tying a rope around the statue before collectively pulling it down.
Activists then proceeded to jump on the statue as some held their knee on Colston’s throat in memory of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a US police officer, an incident that has sparked unrest across the US and several other countries.
Colston hailed from southwest England and largely made his fortune from the slave trade in the late 1600s. He was deputy governor in the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly in the British trade of African slaves.
The incident highlighted the debate that has emerged in the UK over the last few years about how to remember historical figures with controversial pasts.
As early as 2018 there have been calls for the statue to be removed and to the annoyance of many anti-racism activists, there has been little progress.
“Bristol's been debating #EdwardColston for years and wasn't getting anywhere,” said British historian, Professor Kate Williams.
People who say - authorities should take statues down after discussion. Yes. But it isn't happening. Bristol'sbeen debating #EdwardColston for years and wasn't getting anywhere. In 2018, it was agreed that statue would bear a plaque noting his involvement in the slave trade. BUT— Prof Kate Williams (@KateWilliamsme) June 7, 2020
A new plaque on his statute was discussed in 2018 which would bare the following inscription: “As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died.”
That wording, however, was not approved by the local council and the controversy has rumbled on since then.
In 2017 the city was accused of being “wilfully blind to its history.”
Given Colston is far from the only British figure with a dubious past, which other statues could fall and why?
In 2002, the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was voted as the “greatest Briton.”
Churchill’s past, however, has in recent years been increasingly under the spotlight.
Churchill’s memoirs proudly recount his time in Afghanistan as the British Empire was waging a war against any form of resistance by locals in stark terms: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
Such actions would have resulted in the collective punishment of men, women and children and almost certain death.
Amongst many other controversies that Churchill stands accused of is the Bengal Famine of 1943, which resulted in up to 3 million people dying from starvation.
The British Army shipped millions of tons of rice out of India, which was then a British colonial possession, and when Churchill found that his policies were resulting in hundreds of thousands dying his response was simply that they should stop “breeding like rabbits.”
Churchill's views on race and eugenics have also emerged including the denial of any rights for the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Americas.
In 1937, he told the Palestine Royal Commission "I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."
A campaign to remove the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University has been ongoing since 2015.
The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign began in South Africa and after a student campaign, the controversial statue in South Africa was taken down, but the one in Oxford remains.
Rhodes’ statue was seen by many South Africans as the glorification of someone "who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people."
No exaggeration but Cecil Rhodes was one of the grimmest most vile bastards in British history and openly revelled at being an imperialist white supremacist. If any statue needs to be smashed into a million pieces it’s his pic.twitter.com/GRnancRxre— Josh Jackson (@JoshuaYJackson) June 7, 2020
Black activists and politicians described the monument as part of the colonial legacy that has scarred many African countries saying, "It is that statue that continues to inspire [white people] to think that they are a superior race."
Activists are once again calling on Oxford University to reconsider their decision to remove the statue with one online user saying, “If any statue needs to be smashed into a million pieces it’s his.”
Rhodes has been widely accused of setting out the foundations for apartheid in South Africa.
An avid imperialist, Herbert Kitchener, gained notoriety during the Second Boer War of 1899–1902 for his scorched earth policy and the first systemic modern use of concentration camps.
At the time the British Empire was attempting to quell several rebellions in South Africa, the concentration camps resulted in almost 28,000 deaths of men, women and children.
Born in Jamaica, Beckford inherited a slave plantation that had 3,000 black Africans. His immense wealth largely stemmed from the slave workers. He became a well respected and powerful politician in the UK.
Today his statue is located at the Guildhall in London having been elected as a member of parliament for the powerful City of London, which has operated as the financial centre of the UK for hundreds of years.