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Black Britons voice need for education to deal with colonial past after Colston statue toppled

Britain continues to re-examine its colonial history
WATCH: Britain continues to re-examine its colonial history

The toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was a moment made for social media.

The violent thud of the bronze monument onto the ground, followed by protesters symbolically kneeling on its neck and throwing it into Bristol Harbour made for a powerful piece of Twitter video.

READ MORE: Statue of slave trader torn down, thrown into river by U.K. protesters

British TV presenter Piers Morgan compared it to the felling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, but beneath the surface, the events have a distinct difference.

Hussein’s statue was only erected a year before it fell, and its demise was ultimately almost meaningless in the context of the disastrous war that followed.

Colston’s statue had stood in the centre of the former slave port of the Bristol for 125 years — a city with a significant Afro-Caribbean population.

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U.K. anti-racism protesters topple slave trader statue
U.K. anti-racism protesters topple slave trader statue

For years, campaigners had asked for it to be removed or for the plaque at its base to acknowledge Colston’s slave business.

Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Bristol, England, Sunday, June 7, 2020, in response to the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, which has led to protests in many countries and across the U.S. (Ben Birchall/PA via AP)
Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Bristol, England, Sunday, June 7, 2020, in response to the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, which has led to protests in many countries and across the U.S. (Ben Birchall/PA via AP). Ben Birchall/PA via AP

For Black Bristolians, the toppling of Colston’s statue was hugely symbolic.

For Britain in general, the dumping of Colston into Bristol Harbour is already proving to be a turning point in a country whose prominent global profile is built on riches amassed during its colonial history.

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Within two days, a London borough council removed the statue of 18th-century slave trader Robert Milligan from a plinth outside the Museum of London Docklands.

George Floyd protests: Statue of British slave trader Robert Milligan removed in East London
George Floyd protests: Statue of British slave trader Robert Milligan removed in East London

London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a diversity commission to see which other statues might be removed and how they could be replaced with monuments that better represent and respect the city’s racial diversity.

And in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, the city council said a new plaque will finally be installed at the base of the statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.

The name of the powerful politician — who helped delay the end of Britain’s slave trade — is familiar to many Canadians.

Dundas, Ont., and Dundas Street in Toronto were named after the former British home secretary.

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READ MORE: George Floyd protests reignite push to remove problematic statues in Canada

“I don’t think historical buildings, plaques or street names should be removed,” said Jamaican-born Sir Geoff Palmer, professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

“I think that we should put up a plaque with narrative on it, outlining, especially, the things that were done to human beings.”

Palmer has been campaigning for years to get a new plaque that would acknowledge Dundas’s role in delaying abolition, but the installation of a new plaque had also been delayed over a dispute regarding the exact wording.

Palmer believes that keeping such monuments in place, alongside better historical information, is important in improving the level of awareness about Britain’s colonial past.

“In Scotland, and in a lot of other countries, you hear more about abolition than slavery itself,” he said.

“You hear more about (abolitionist William) Wilberforce than the slave rebellions or that Britain had 800,000 slaves at the end of slavery.”

The Churchill problem

Protesters and police gather around Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in London, Sunday, June 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Protesters and police gather around Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in London, Sunday, June 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein).

These moves to address Britain’s past are generally being welcomed, but as Palmer suggests, the way in which the Colston statue was taken down doesn’t sit well with everyone.

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It’s partly because it amounted to an act of criminal damage but also because it happened on the same day that a Black Lives Matter protester sprayed “was a racist” on the plinth of the Sir Winston Churchill statue in London.

The concern for Black rights activists is that the two events have been conflated, with the unashamedly patriotic Daily Mail newspaper putting the two images side by side on its front page.

READ MORE: Christopher Columbus statues beheaded, toppled, burned, thrown in lake

“I think it’s a false equivalence, and I think that’s a dangerous one, actually,” said Juliet Gilkes Romero, a playwright who recently wrote a play The Whip about the end of British slavery.

“Winston Churchill was not a slave-holder. You know, some 20,000 people didn’t die on his vehicles, transporting slaves from one end of the globe to the other.”

Churchill’s views on race were controversial and complex, and some of his statements would certainly be deemed racist in 2020, but he remains a widely respected national hero who led the country to victory in the Second World War.

Churchill was voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002 television poll, although the same poll saw Diana, Princess of Wales finish ahead of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton.

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The knowledge gap

Stowage of an 18th-century British slave ship / United States Library of Congress
Stowage of an 18th-century British slave ship / United States Library of Congress. United States Library of Congress

Like Palmer, Gilkes Romero believes that education is key to bringing about change in how the country moves forward and how the past is remembered.

Her play, The Whip, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, details the compromises made to achieve abolition and the staggering fortunes paid by the British government to private slave owners in 1830s.

The bailout to buy the slaves’ freedom was 40 per cent of the national budget and the equivalent of $34 billion in today’s money.

Few people were aware of its scale until the debt was finally paid off in 2015.

“How is it that the British public did not know that every person, every working person was paying their taxes towards the bailouts of British slave owners? But if the general public don’t know, they won’t understand why people are fighting for their rights, fighting for a voice,” said Gilkes Romero.

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“Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The philosophy of the school (room) in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.'”

READ MORE: Statues of Confederate leaders torn down, beheaded in 2 Virginia cities

Alongside Bristol, Liverpool was another hub for the transatlantic slave triangle.

The three-way clockwise trade route saw textiles and arms sent from Britain to West Africa, human beings shipped from Africa to the Americas and cotton, sugar and rum sent back across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain.

Today, Liverpool is home to the International Slavery Museum, an institution that aims to fill a knowledge gap in public awareness of slavery and its legacy on the lives of Black people.

“We will firmly say that many of the issues that are happening right now are related to the end of the transatlantic slave trade,” said museum director Richard Benjamin.

“A lot of people don’t like us making that point.”

Benjamin understands the criticism of what happened in Bristol but says the feelings of those upset by the presence of Colston’s statue were ignored for too long.

“Where were those voices (criticizing protesters) when people were being offended?” he said.

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“A lot of people are coming up saying, ‘It’s a disgrace.’ Now, let’s put it in a bigger picture. Colston was someone who profited from the enslavement and death of enslaved Africans.”

READ MORE: Montreal petition to take down John A. Macdonald statue gains traction

Many Liverpool streets have names associated with slavery.

Benjamin says his museum is currently involved in discussions on how to add public information signs to those streets.

He and other Black Britons like Gilkes Romero have been waiting a long time for a moment like this.

She hopes the future direction of this former colonial power can be informed by a fuller understanding of its past.

“I’m hoping that this is different because this is not a divisive issue,” said Gilkes Romero.

“This is not just about Black people demanding their rights or demanding a voice. This is about a rainbow coalition of people which cuts across class, colour and religion.”