For the first time since the 1950s and 1960s, black people around the world are voicing at the same time their indignation with their countries’ long histories of participation in the Atlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism. Coming to terms with the legacies of these past atrocities is not only an American problem. Slavery and imperialism oppressed millions of people globally. Recognizing that cultural representations matter, protesters have targeted these monuments because they are tools that allow the past of racial oppression to remain alive now across the globe.
Take the example of Britain. The nation transported the second-largest number of enslaved Africans to the Americas, after Portugal and Brazil. Britain was also a leading colonial power with tentacles in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
During the era of the Atlantic slave trade, Bristol was the second-largest British slave port. Nearly 2,000 slave ships left Bristol for the African continent, and from there, these vessels transported more than half a million enslaved Africans to the Americas. Like other slave port cities, Bristol’s wealth was built on the backs of enslaved Africans brought to the British colonies in the West Indies, where Bristolian elites owned sugar plantations and thousands of enslaved men, women and children.
Descendants of enslaved peoples and of people who lived in British colonies have resided in British cities for centuries, where they have often remained marginalized and victims of racism. The fight to recognize Bristol’s slave-trading past is linked to the city’s racial inequalities and persisting anti-black racism. In fact, in 1980, after police raided a cafe whose customers were mostly black residents of Caribbean descent and left several of them injured, concerned citizens, black activists and academics started debating the links between Bristol’s slave-trading past, Caribbean slavery and the persistence of racism.
Over the next decade, they attempted to make Bristol’s uncomfortable past visible in the city. In 1997, the residence of the slave owner John Pinney (that houses the Georgian House Museum) unveiled a small exhibition explaining his involvement in the slave trade. A bridge in the Bristol docks area was named after Pero Jones, an enslaved man owned by Pinney. The plaque honoring Jones remains at the bridge’s entrance. Thanks to concerned black citizens who organized meetings and put pressure on local authorities, several other initiatives highlighting Bristol’s slave-trading past emerged.
This did not erase the past. It expanded our knowledge of it.
But these efforts were limited. In fact, all over the city, buildings, streets and schools carried the name of Edward Colston. A Bristolian born in the 17th century, he became a member of the court of assistants of the Royal African Company responsible for transporting more than half a million African captives to the Americas. Historians found documents showing Colston’s participation in meetings that organized the trade of Africans to the West Indies.
Because Colston contributed to charitable causes, he became considered Bristol’s father over the years. A bronze statue honoring him was unveiled in the city in 1895, more than a century after his death at the height of British colonial rule in Africa. Despite evidence of his involvement with the infamous trade and numerous campaigns to remove his monument or to contextualize it with the addition of a plaque, there was no concrete outcome.
Eventually, on June 7, 2020, U.K. activists of Black Lives Matter toppled the monument and threw it in a channel of the Avon River. A few days later, the statue was removed from the harbor. Bristol Museums will preserve the painted graffiti on the monument and display it in one of the city’s museums. The goal? To make Bristol’s history and its enduring legacies for the city’s black residents more visible.
In another recent example, in the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Ghent, protesters painted statues of King Leopold II, the infamous ruler who owned the Congo Free State, where African men, women and children were submitted to forced labor and torture.
Approximately 10 million to 15 million Africans were killed during Leopold II’s rule over Congo (today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Although Belgium has attempted to come to terms with its brutal colonial past, its recently refurbished Africa Museum outside Brussels was the object of a lot of criticism. A monument to Leopold II in the gardens of the museum was also defaced in recent days.
For the past decade, political leaders in European and U.S. cities have had conversations about the need to remove or contextualize contentious monuments before demonstrators decided to take them down on their own. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan acknowledged that statues honoring slave traders should be removed. For example, in 1813, a statue of Robert Milligan, a British slave merchant, planter and owner of nearly 500 enslaved individuals, was placed in front of an old sugar warehouse of the West India Docks in Canary Wharf, now the location of the Museum of London Docklands. But the museum and the municipality failed to add a plaque to the monument telling visitors that Milligan was a slave trader.
Protests today are demanding a faster pace. On June 9, 2020, the city of London moved fast to remove Milligan’s statue from its plinth. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool offered to house the statue and other monuments to former slave traders.
In the United States, conversations about Confederate monuments have also accelerated in the past several years. Several monuments were toppled or removed. Now, protesters are taking action to take down those that remain. Other statues are also being targeted. In Boston, a statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded, while another one in Richmond was thrown in a lake. And for the first time, statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were taken down in Portland, Ore.
Of course, each statue has its own history. Each monument is linked to the context of the country and city where it was created. Yet, what these monuments have in common is that they symbolize white men associated with the long legacy of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, whose ghosts still haunt cities such as Richmond, Charlottesville, Charleston, New York, Paris, Nantes, London, Bristol and Brussels.
Efforts to contest proslavery and pro-colonial statues also have something in common: Historical research has greatly informed the work of black and Native American activists and their allies who demanded to contextualize or remove these monuments from public sight. Yet public authorities in countries such as the United States, Britain and Belgium have failed to provide a satisfactory response to the demands by black and brown citizens for removing or reinterpreting these public markers. And so, demonstrators have taken the matter in their own hands, forcing today’s global reckoning.
Of course, the fall of monuments to men who promoted slavery and colonialism alone will not settle the long history of racism and white supremacy. The removal of statues will not appease the continuous and systemic violence against black men, women and children.
But our public spaces need monuments and memorials that pay homage to black and indigenous peoples. Museums and school curriculums should tell the history of slavery and colonialism and its violent legacies today. Removing symbols of white supremacy is part of this work and a critical step to remaking public memory and public spaces.
Toppled, removed, dismantled or incorporated into museums, it’s time for these monuments to go.