From Churchill to Colston, UK grapples with colonial past during George Floyd protests

It is a history with a lot of open wounds

uk-protests-ap Police disperse protesters during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in London, Sunday, June 7, 2020 | AP

The George Floyd protests in the United States, sparked by the custodial killing of an African American in Minneapolis—with the police kneeling on his neck—sparked an unprecedented reckoning with the country's history of slavery. Prominent monuments of Confederate leaders like General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were taken down, as leaders promised they would listen to the "voices of anger and anguish, testament to centuries of racism directed at Black Americans".

The protests had spread worldwide, across Australia, Asia and Europe, with massive crowds taking over cities like London; For the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, a major target was Edward Colston, a 17th century slaver who remains, to this day, a prominent figure in southwest England. On Sunday, Colston's statue was toppled in Bristol, with demonstrators attaching ropes before pulling it down. Footage of the incident showed great shouts of cheer, followed by the protesters then kneeling on the neck of the statue for eight minutes, recalling how George Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25. The statue was then rolled into the waters in the nearby Bristol Harbour.

The symbolism of the statue's demise can't be overstated, not least because the bridge overlooking its new resting place is named Pero's Bridge, after Pero Jones, an enslaved man who lived and died in the city in the latter part of the 18th century.

Britain formally abolished the slave trade in 1807 by an act of Parliament but slavery itself was only formally outlawed in British territories in 1834. Overall, more than 12 million Africans are estimated to have been exported across the Atlantic, of whom around two million are believed to have perished en route.

It is a history with open wounds still. UK Secretary of Health Matt Hancock came under fire for claiming that the protests in the country were against racism in the US and not "homegrown" incidents. The Independent reported Diane Abbott, the former Labour shadow home secretary, as saying: “Hancock is completely wrong. Events in America have triggered the protests. But, they are overwhelmingly a response to a long-standing issue about police brutality here.”

Who was Colston, and why is the move controversial?

Colston, who was born in 1636 to a wealthy merchant family, became prominently involved in England's sole official slaving company at the time, the Royal African Company, and Bristol was at the heart of it. The company transported tens of thousands of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean, mainly to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean and cultivate the tobacco fields that were burgeoning in the new North American colony of Virginia.

Each enslaved person had the company's initials branded onto their chest.

Bristol, as an international port, was at the center of the slave trade and benefitted not just shipbuilders and slavers, but also investors like Colston, who would buy a stake in the triangular slave voyage between England, West Africa and the Caribbean.

The bronze memorial, which had been in place since 1895, had been the subject of an 11,000-strong petition to have it removed. The city's majority community hails from the Caribbean. Colston has been a figure of huge controversy in Bristol with attempts made to rename Colston Hall, the biggest music venue in the city among many efforts to decolonise the city. Colston gave a lot of money to local charities and that helps explain why his name dons so many public buildings in the city, including educational and economic institutions.

The Guardian reported that, in Bristol, apart from the statue, there is an independent school named after him, along with a concert hall, a high-rise office office block, Colston Street and Colston Avenue. 

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees called the removal of the statue as one that would "divide opinion". The Bristol Museum website says that even though "Colston was an active member of the governing body of the RAC which traded in enslaved Africans", he never "as far as we know, traded in enslaved Africans on his own account". 

Police said officers have launched an investigation and are looking for those who committed the act of "criminal damage".

Churchill statue goes down

In London, reports claimed that a Winston Churchill (former prime minister and one of the country's tallest leaders) statue was defaced with graffiti of "racist" scrawled on it. Churchill is a much-lionised figure in the West and among Western leaders for his steadfast stand against Hitler's Germany; he is hailed as Britain's "saviour" during the Second World War. 

However, in the British colonies in Asia and Africa, the opinion of him is radically different. He called Indians "a beastly people with a beastly religion", Africans as "savages", and Palestinians as "barbarians who ate camel dung". He referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir", and it was during Churchill's reign that three million Indians died in the induced Bengal famine. 

Expectedly, there was outrage over the defacement of his statue. The Daily Mail, in an op-ed, condemned the incident. "They intensely dislike the fact that such a defender of the British Empire is still so much admired by so many. Even now, opinion polls suggest that he is the best regarded of British prime ministers."

British broadcaster Piers Morgan called the vandalism "disgusting" and said that "Churchill saved this country from the worst racist [Hitler] in history". 

-Inputs from PTI via AP