Campaigns to remove statues

There have been long-standing campaigns for the removal of statues, such as those of Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford. The campaigners have argued that the presence of such statues glorifies figures who perpetuated abuses and ignores negative aspects of the figures’ history.

On 7 June 2020, protestors pulled down a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and threw it in the city’s harbour. A month later, a statue of one of the protestors was put up in its place. This was removed by Bristol City Council. The city’s mayor, Marvin Rees, said that a permanent replacement for Colston’s statue must be decided on by the people of Bristol. He said any decision would be informed by the results of a commission investigating the city’s history:

As we learn this fuller history including the part played by Black people, women, the working class, trade unions, and children among others, we will be in a better position to understand who we are, how we got here and who we wish to honour. Crucial to our heritage has been the harbour and the docks, manufacturing and industry, research and innovation, transport, slum clearances, housing, modern gentrification and faith. As the commission shares this information, the city will decide on city memorials and the future of the plinth.

On 17 June 2020, Oriel College announced that its governing body had commissioned an inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue, and had expressed its wish that the statue be removed. It has been argued that statues of other historical figures should also be removed.

Such campaigns have not received universal support, however. Some have argued that removing such statues is an attempt to erase history. The classicist Mary Beard wrote that “much more important [than removing statues] is to look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it, and what we are actually beneficiaries of, not simply to photoshop the nasty bits out”.

Increasing representation of Black history

Many people have argued that increasing representation of Black history is more important than taking down statues of people with exploitative pasts. In a debate in the House of Lords in 2017, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oates argued for the creation of a memorial to enslaved African people in London’s Hyde Park. Following the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a commission to improve diversity in London’s memorials. His proposals include memorials to Stephen Lawrence and the Windrush generation, a National Slavery Museum or Memorial, and a National Sikh War Memorial.

In 2016, a statue of Mary Seacole was installed at St Thomas’s Hospital in London (cover image). This was the UK’s first statue in honour of a named Black woman. Mary Seacole was a Jamaican nurse who spent time in the UK at various points in her life. She funded her own trip to Crimea to nurse UK soldiers who had been injured in the Crimean War (1853–6) after her services were rejected by the War Office. After the war she returned to England, but she had little money and was in poor health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her. It was attended by over 80,000 people.

Beyond statues

How the history of Black people is represented and told in many other sectors is also the subject of debate.

Many universities have launched initiatives to overhaul curricula so that they include knowledge and narratives from non-White perspectives that were previously excluded. Writing for the National Union of Students, student Mariya Hussain argued:

In history classes the colonisation of India is taught through the lens of the business workings of the British, and the lives of the colonised are rarely mentioned; English literature focuses on pre-1800 White writing; philosophy and religion are drowned by White, largely male thinkers and a Eurocentric perspective.

Keele University states that such work aims not only to make curricula more accurate, but also to improve the engagement and attainment of Black and Asian students, and students from other ethnic minorities.

There have also been calls for the Government to make the teaching of Black history compulsory in schools. In response to a parliamentary question on the issue, Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, said:

As part of a broad and balanced curriculum, pupils should be taught about different societies, and how different groups have contributed to the development of Britain, and this can include the voices and experience of Black people. The flexibility within the history curriculum means that there is the opportunity for teachers to teach about Black history across the spectrum of themes and eras set out in the curriculum.

Some university libraries are considering how to increase diversity in their collections. Jos Damen, head of the Library and ICT Department at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands, highlights that the vast majority of books in many European universities are by western authors, published by western publishing houses. To remedy this, he advocates undertaking book-buying trips to under-represented countries.

Goldsmiths University Library has launched an initiative to diversify its collection, called “Liberate our degrees”. Students and staff can request books for purchase under this scheme, and the books are available to be searched as a collection.

Image of the statue of Mary Seacole in front of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, by Sumit Surai on Wikimedia.