Questioning Our Monuments

After Edward Colston’s statue was thrown in the Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest, there have been debates over statues, memorials and monuments to those who profited from the slave trade and colonialism. In London and across the British Isles the commemoration of these men in public places where the descendants of slaves and those subjected to colonialism is being slowly addressed, bringing hidden injustices to light. Since 2015 there has been the odd removal of such monuments globally, but recently there have been renewed calls for their removal. The Mayor of London has ordered a review of all commemorations in the capital and as assessment of their links to slavery. Local Councils are undertaking their own enquiries, such as Haringey Council who have asked local residents which street and building names they would like to see changed. Hackney council have sculptures celebrating the contribution of the Windrush generation which will be unveiled later this year, part of a move to hear the stories of those who had been silenced and to balance the discrepancy with those whose stories are well known.


HMT Empire Windrush. Image released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.


On the 9th June 2020 the statue of Robert Milligan was removed from out the front of the Museum of London Docklands by local authorities after many years of this being requested. The future of this statue is still being discussed. The Museum of London Docklands are in the old sugar warehouses that made up part of the West India Dock complex built to facilitate ships within the West India trade, which was made up of slave produced commodities and used as a port for ships used in the Atlantic slave trade. The idea of the docks was of George Hibbert and Robert Milligan, and there are several memorials and monuments outside the museum to them. Milligan owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica, Hibbert also made his fortune from the slave trade. There is a gateway outside the museum, which was the entrance to the docks, dedicated to Hibbert, topped by a model of one of his ships; an ornamental plaque on the side of the museum is dedicated to the two of them and their contribution to British commerce and links are recognised inside the museum too. The centrality to London’s history and the slave trade is lost on the uncritical commemorations and lack of information on wealth gained by slavers and nothing on the enslaved. Improved signage on these symbols outside the museum are under discussion, there is clarification once you go inside the museum, particularly if you go through the London Sugar and Slavery Gallery. The area of the docklands is very much twinned with the history of the slave trade.


On the left: Statue of Robert Milligan in front of the Museum in Docklands. Image by Anne & David, marked with CC PDM 1.0. On the right, Jamaica map of 1773 where the small dots, not tightly clustered, are “sugar works”, which were at in that century almost exclusively worked by slaves (public domain)


Sir John Cass was an 18th century English merchant who made money from the slave trade. His name was removed last year from London’s City University who believed it was not compatible with their values of diversity and inclusion. His statue in Stepney Green has been removed as has his bust in St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate. There have been apologies for the years celebrating the legacy of someone whose source of wealth from slavery had not been understood.


Not everyone feels the same.  The statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, who became wealthy from the slave trade, outside the Museum of Home in Shoreditch is to remain. Despite much local opposition and a majority of respondents wanting its removal, the board of trustees for the museum said the complex debate and its issues “should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change”, and that the statue was remaining where it was.

Façade of the Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum. Image by Chang Yisheng, under license CC BY 2.0


In the forecourt of Guys Hospital is the statue of its founder Thomas Guy, who had shares in the South Sea Company when it started trading in 1711 with slaves sold to the Spanish colonies. He was a 17th century bookseller mainly concerned with the printing of Bibles which made him a fortune. As a British philanthropist it is important to know the good and bad about the people we commemorate.


Monuments are an important way of remembering the past, and now there will be monuments to those who were enslaved, perhaps soon some very prominent ones. Britain has important links to its wealth from the slave trade, the deaths of millions of Africans over more than two centuries, and this is an unpleasant truth that can no longer be ignored. The cultural legacies of slavery are all over the capital. Parts of the past that have been ignored, in particular regarding enslaved people and what they contributed to the nation, is on the path of being rectified, but also the contribution made by black people in Britain since Roman times. Most of the first Africans that came to Britain were not slaves, but free traders, emissaries, interpreters, musicians, soldiers and other roles. A visit to the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square, Brixton highlights how Black history contributed and is a part of British history.


Featured image: It’s No Game, licensed under CC BY 2.0


About the author:
Maria Perri has worked in tourism for over 35 years. She is a London Blue Badge Guide and also does tours in the UK and Europe. She enjoys historic houses and gardens, literature and art. She loves guiding and the people she meets. You can contact her through the number  +44 07768-126028 or through her Guild profile. Contact her at mariaperri for a bespoke tour to suit you.