(AFP) — The toppling of a statue of a slave trader has reignited demands for the removal of other monuments to Britain’s colonial past, with further protests planned on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged anger at racial injustice.
Calls have mounted across the country for a reassessment of the way historical figures are portrayed in public spaces, as part of a wider debate about inequality and prejudice.
Britain has seen days of protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the United States.
Johnson said he understood the “depth of emotion” triggered by Floyd’s death and the anger from black and ethnic minority groups about discrimination in education, employment and law.
“We who lead and who govern simply can’t ignore those feelings because in too many cases, I am afraid, they will be founded on a cold reality,” he said in a video message Monday.
But he warned he would not tolerate violence, after clashes in central London near his Downing Street office left 35 police officers injured and public monuments vandalised.
Instead, he urged those who wanted change to “stand for election, or vote for someone who will”.
On Sunday, protesters defaced a central London monument to World War II leader Winston Churchill, citing policies blamed for the death of millions during famine in the Indian state of Bengal in 1943.
In the southwestern city of Bristol, crowds toppled a statue of 17th century trader Edward Colston, who helped build the city but played a leading role in slavery.
Years of local debate over what to do with the statue came to an end when it was thrown in the harbour — an act that has stirred debate about other historical monuments.
In Glasgow, activists pasted the names of civil rights leaders and victims of racist attacks on streets named after tobacco and sugar traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In Edinburgh, graffiti was daubed on a 150-feet (45-metre) monument to 19th century politician Henry Dundas, who opposed the immediate abolition of slavery.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Tuesday announced a review of London’s landmarks and street names, saying many “reflect a bygone era”, and could better reflect the capital’s diversity.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade,” he said.
“While this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored.”
A protest is expected later Tuesday at Oxford University’s Oriel College, which has rejected calls to take down its statue of 19th-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
Oxford MP Layla Moran, from the opposition Liberal Democrats, said Rhodes was “a white supremacist who does not represent the values of Oxford in 2020”.
“It’s time for a frank national debate about colonialism’s legacy in Britain, engaging with local communities across the country,” she tweeted.
Campaigners in Wales also demanded the removal of memorials to Napoleonic war hero Thomas Picton, who was accused of cruelty while serving as a governor in Trinidad.
– Erasing history –
The protests have found widespread support, but some warned the removal of statues or street names could be counter-productive, and the lessons of the past needed to be learned.
“If you change the street names it’s easier to forget but it’s better to have signs underneath to talk about what these men did,” said student Kieran Weatherill, 24, at Sunday’s demonstration in Glasgow.
Johnson’s Conservatives have been embroiled in a number of scandals over its treatment of immigrants, and he has faced claims of racist language in his former newspaper career.
But he expressed pride in having the most diverse cabinet in British history, including interior minister Priti Patel, who on Monday told MPs how she had faced racial abuse as a child.