LONDON — When Black Lives Matter protesters toppled a bronze statue of 17th-century British philanthropist, politician and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday, many cheered. Even the mayor of the city acknowledged that he had never liked its prominent placement, which he called "an affront."
For his wartime leadership, his role in the salvation of Britain and the defeat of the Nazis, Churchill remains, by popular acclaim, one of the greatest Britons of all time.
But his legacy is as complex and contradictory as it is sprawling. Born in 1874 during the height of the British Empire, Churchill is viewed as a villain by many in the former colonies, and his words and actions provide fodder for critics today to label him a racist.
As in the United States, a weekend of protests in Britain sparked by the death of George Floyd has forced the country to reckon with its troubled history of racism.
The 200 protests across Britain, involving 100,000 people, have been largely peaceful, but there was sporadic violence. Police said 35 officers were injured in bouts of street fighting.
Videos on social media showed protesters throwing glass bottles, fireworks and bicycles at the officers, who pushed demonstrators back by swinging batons.
On Sunday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the anti-racism demonstrations have been “subverted by thuggery.” A week earlier, President Trump on Twitter condemned demonstrators in Minneapolis, where Floyd died in police custody on May 25, as “THUGS.”
Johnson’s spokesman told reporters Monday that the prime minister’s words were directed not only at “the attacks against police officers” but also “acts of criminal damage” against the statues.
Johnson is an ardent fan — and some say imitator — of Churchill. While serving as London mayor, he wrote the 2014 biography “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History,” a work that the Observer newspaper called a “flawed but fascinating take on his hero.”
Many Britons were upset by the defacing of the Churchill statue.
The graffiti was scrawled during the same march in which a lone protester, just a block away, tried to burn the Union Flag flying at the Cenotaph, a memorial to Britain’s war dead.
Even some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement worried that the vandalism of the statue would only alienate Britons from the cause of social justice.
But others thought the graffiti was spot-on, seeing such acts as manifestations of justifiable rage.
On Sunday, Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News that the toppling of the Colston statue, which was later dumped into a harbor, was “utterly disgraceful.”
But one of Colston’s heirs tweeted that it was “cool.”
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees told the BBC, “I can’t and won’t pretend the statue of a slave trader in a city I was born and grew up in wasn’t an affront to me and people like me.”
Sajid Javid, a former finance minister in Johnson’s government, wrote: “I grew up in Bristol. I detest how Edward Colston profited from the slave trade. But, THIS IS NOT OK. If Bristolians want to remove a monument it should be done democratically — not by criminal damage.”
Asked Sunday on Sky News whether Britain is “a racist country,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said no but added that it continues to face the challenges of racism.
Pro-Brexit campaigner, radio personality and Trump ally Nigel Farage tweeted, “If Boris Johnson won’t lead and stand up for the country, as its symbols are trashed, then people will start taking it into their own hands.” He warned, “Full on race riots are now possible.”
Writing in the Daily Mail, columnist Dominic Lawson said the “most perplexing image for many of us” watching the weekend protests was the defaced statue of Churchill.
“For this was the exact anniversary, June 6, of the 1944 Normandy landings: the single day which perhaps best exemplifies the British people’s struggle against genocidal fascism — a six-year-long fight inspired and led by Churchill. Given the demonstrators are campaigners against racially-based oppression, this is, to put it politely, perverse.”
In the Independent, columnist Sean O’Grady observed that “in the big scheme of things, it’s a minor piece of vandalism, but an unfortunate one as, quite unlike the defenestration of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the wartime prime minister is an obviously revered national hero.”
But O’Grady continued on about Churchill, saying: “He was a racist, but also anti-fascist; he was fiercely anti-communist, yet carved Europe up and gifted much of it to Joseph Stalin. Many historians have tried to make sense of the man and his times.”
Charges of racism are nothing new when it comes to Churchill, with much scholarship expended on the matter.
In his book “Churchill, the Unexpected Hero,” historian Paul Addison writes: “On racial questions, Churchill was still a late Victorian.” Addison noted that when Churchill was asked about a visit to China, he replied: “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them — but I suppose it does no great harm to have a look at them.”
According to the BBC, Churchill once 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.”
Richard Toye, a British historian and co-author of the upcoming book “The Churchill Myths,” told The Washington Post that Churchill had a long career and that his views shifted over time. But, Addison, said, “it’s quite straightforward to say he was a racist.”
The historian noted that Churchill’s comments on the people of the Indian subcontinent, whom he called “a beastly people with a beastly religion,” were particularly virulent.
Churchill loathed the Indian independence movement and described Mohandas Gandhi as “half-naked” and a “seditious fakir.” Churchill has also been criticized for his indifference to the Bengal famine in 1943, when more than 3 million people died.
In his book on Churchill, Johnson tried to split the difference, observing, “He did have what is now considered to be a racist interpretation of the difference between one society and another; but he hated the mistreatment of anyone of any race.”
Other scholars were more robust in their defense of the wartime prime minister.
Andrew Roberts, author of “Churchill: Walking With Destiny,” said in an interview that his remarks need to be viewed in context.
Roberts said that Churchill was “the greatest anti-fascist in history, and that without him, a true racist, Adolf Hitler, might have killed many more people on racial grounds than he did anyhow.”