London mayor unveils commission to examine city’s statues for links to slavery

Movements across Europe denounce monuments with links to slave trade, racism and imperialism

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The mayor of London has launched a commission to review the British capital's statues for links to slavery after the destruction of a monument to a 17th-century slave trader in western England.

The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during Sunday’s Black Live Matter protests gave momentum to movements across Europe demanding the removal of monuments deemed to glorify slavery and the continent’s colonial past.

On Tuesday, authorities in the Belgian city of Antwerp removed a statute of the country’s colonial-era leader King Leopold II. The monument, which was set on fire during the recent protests, will be put in a museum.

On Sunday, protesters climbed on a statue of the 19th-century king in Brussels, draping it in the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The former Belgian colony was the scene of some of the worst excesses of European colonialism.

At the same time, London mayor Sadiq Khan said landmarks including street names, statues, the names of public buildings, and plaques would be reviewed by the commission to reflect diversity in the city.

In a statement, the mayor of London’s office did not say which monuments and names were being targeted for change but said that despite London’s diversity, its statues, plaques and street names largely reflected Victorian Britain.

This disparity, it said, had been highlighted by the recent Black Lives Matter protest.

“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored,” Mr Khan said.

“The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape,” he added.

The Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, unveiled by Mr Khan, is to draw in arts, community and council leaders as well as historians as it makes its decisions.

The removal of Colston’s statue has already sparked heated debate on the future of Britain’s landmarks.

On Sunday, statues memorialising Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the leader of the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, were also defaced by protesters.

Mr Khan told the British media that figures would have to be studied “warts and all”, but there were clear examples of people who should not be celebrated and had been involved with the slave trade.

In the university city of Oxford, protesters took up the call for the removal of a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes. The British imperial leader was instrumental in exporting colonialism to Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2015, protesters launched a campaign for the statue’s removal after a memorial to Rhodes was taken down in Cape Town, South Africa. Oriel College in Oxford blocked the move.

European landmarks up for removal:

King Leopold II, Brussels, Belgium

The King Leopold II of Belgium statue is pictured during an anti-racism protest, in Brussels, on June 7, 2020, as part of a weekend of 'Black Lives Matter' worldwide protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed while apprehended by police in Minneapolis, US.   / AFP / Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD

After the removal of the statue of the Belgian king in Antwerp, protesters are targeting all statues of Belgium’s 19th-century monarch. King Leopold established his own colony in the Congo with the support of other colonial powers and ran the Congo Free State as a personal fief committing widespread atrocities.

Cecil Rhodes, Oxford, England

A statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes is seen on the side of Oriel College in Oxford, following the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Oxford, Britain, June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

The campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford took its cue from the Rhodes Must Fall movement that first advocated for the removal of his statue at the University of Cape Town. Rhodes was an arch-imperialist and white supremacist who lent his name to the southern African territory of Rhodesia, which he founded in modern day Zimbabwe.

Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain

Campaigners in the Spanish city of Barcelona have lobbied for the removal of Christopher Columbus’s statue after successfully removing a monument to slave trader Antonio Lopez in 2018. Christopher Columbus is credited with “discovering” the new world for Europeans but the cycle of violence he began with Native American peoples continued for centuries.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Hoorn, the Netherlands

Since 2011, local activists have petitioned for the removal of a statue to early Dutch colonialist Jan Pieterszoon Coen in his home town of Hoorn. Coen was the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company and instrumental in establishing Dutch colonial enterprise in South-East Asia. In the 17th century he carried out a genocide against native peoples in the Banda Islands of modern-day Indonesia.

Winston Churchill, London, England

Police stand around the Winston Churchill statue ahead of a rally at the Nelson Mandela statue in the square, to commemorate George Floyd, on the day of his funeral, in Parliament Square, London, Tuesday June 9, 2020. The recent death of George Floyd who died after a U.S. officer pressed his knee into his neck, has prompted investigations into the lorded promotion of many historical figures who gave money to philanthropic enterprises, gave their names to British city areas, statues and landmarks, but gained much of their wealth from the slave trade. (Jonathan Brady/PA via AP)

Wartime prime minister Winston Churchill is considered by many Britons as the country’s greatest hero. Churchill is best known for leading the UK against Nazi Germany. However, detractors point to his racist attitudes towards Africans and Native Americans and blame his policies for the 1943 famine in Bengal, in which three million people died.

The African Quarter, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s African Quarter is filled with street names recalling Germany’s imperial past. Attempts by campaigners in the German capital have sought to replace the names of colonial-era leaders with the names of their resistors in Africa. However, they have been repeatedly blocked by local residents and businessmen.

Sir John Cass, London, England

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: A statue of Sir John Cass is seen outside London Metropolitan University on June 08, 2020 in London, England. Aside from founding an educational charity, Sir John Cass was a major figure in the early development of the slave-trade and the Atlantic slave-economy, directly dealing with slave-agents in the African forts and in the Caribbean. Outside the Houses of Parliament, the statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was spray-painted with the words "was a racist" amid anti-racism protests over the weekend. In Bristol, protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave-trader, and tossed it into the harbour. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Sir John Cass’s statue stands at London Metropolitan University and the British capital’s Guildhall but as well as founding an educational charity, the merchant and 18th-century MP was one of the central British figures in the early development of the slave trade and the Atlantic slave economy, directly dealing with slave agents in African forts and in the Caribbean.

Rodolfo Graziani, Affile, Italy

Graziani, and Italian military officer and ardent fascist, was a pivotal figure in Italy’s annexation of Libya and Ethiopia in the 1930s. His brutal crackdown against rebels in eastern Libya earned him the name “Butcher of Fezzan”. His mausoleum was publicly condemned when it was built in Italy in 2012 and the local official responsible eventually received a jail sentence for building it. However, the monument still stands.

Henry Tate, London, England

FILE PHOTO: The view from a new viewing platform during the unveiling of the New Tate Modern in London, Britain, June 14, 2016.    REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo

The Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries take their name from the 19th-century sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, one of the founders of the Tate & Lyle sugar company. While both men were born in the years after the abolition of the slave trade, the sugar industry that made them rich was built on the legacy of the slave trade and prolonged the underdevelopment of Caribbean nations.

Colonial street names, Paris, France

Demonstrators hold placards as they attend a protest at the Place de la Republique square, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, in Paris France, June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Like most European capitals, Paris is replete with streets named after imperial heroes. Campaigners in France have listed the names of 200 places memorialising French conquests, empire builders or slave traders. They include Thomas Robert Bugeaud, France’s first governor-general of Algeria, who demolished villages and slaughtered resistance fighters during his subjugation of the country in the 19th century.

Henry Dundas, Edinburgh, Scotland

The Melville Monument in Edinburgh, which stands 45 metres tall, memorialises First Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas, a former British home secretary who is best known for delaying the abolition of slavery in the 18th century. Hundreds of campaigners have now signed a petition calling for the removal of the statue, which they say glorifies slavery.