The reckoning: the toppling of monuments to slavery in the UK

The toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was a bittersweet moment for 23-year-old Nasra Ayub.

The community activist, who has always called the city home, remembers the long-standing campaigns to remove iconography of Colston in schools, public buildings and spaces. She graduated from the University of Bristol feeling disheartened by how little movement there was to remove tributes to those involved with slavery.

Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, 7 June 2020.
Protesters throw a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in June. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Then the Colston statue fell during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and institutions and the local council finally acted.

Nasra Ayub at a protest on College Green, Bristol in June.
Nasra Ayub at a protest on College Green, Bristol, in June: ‘It’s taken a long time.’ Photograph: @pit_lad

The University of Bristol announced a review of buildings linked with slavers, and investigated its own crest; Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe church removed stained glass windows of Colston; the Colston statue at Colston’s girls’ school was removed and the school was renamed Montpelier high school; the Colston Tower was renamed Beacon Tower; and Colston Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon.

It wasn’t just Bristol that experienced an unprecedented public reckoning with monuments to slavers and colonialists. Guardian analysis suggests that across the UK about 70 tributes have been removed or are in the process of being removed.

“It’s taken a long time; it took people risking their lives and risking criminal status in order for this to happen when it didn’t need to,” Ayub said. While she is pleased how quickly things have changed in the city, she said: “It proves that everyone has been sitting on their hands.”

In Birmingham, the city council said it was reviewing the “appropriateness of local monuments and statues” on land under council control. In December, the council announced six new names, including Respect Way, Humanity Close and Inspire Avenue, to better reflect the community.

Nikhwat Marawat
Nikhwat Marawat: ‘You need to have this dialogue.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Nikhwat Marawat, the co-founder of The Delicate Mind in Birmingham, a community organisation that works with the Muslim diaspora to reshape perspectives on mental illnesses, believes without proper historical interrogation, the removal of statues will feed into a “culture war”.

“There are people on the left and the right who will want to solidify their position,” he said. “You need to meet in the middle. You need to have this dialogue, and lexicon of understanding, to know why this history took place and look into how we can bring people together.”

Residing in Birmingham for most of his life, Marawat, 28, only recently understood how slavery had shaped his home: “Whenever I saw these names like James Watt and Matthew Bolton, I didn’t know about the long-term effects that they’d had on people who were slaves, or colonisation.

“As you’re growing up, I think a lot of British history isn’t well interrogated in the curriculum, so we’re not really taught about the good and the bad that has happened in our country.”

Municipal workers remove the statue of slave-owner and slave merchant Robert Milligan after a petition in West India Quay district of London
Municipal workers remove the statue of slave-owner and slave merchant Robert Milligan after a petition in West India Quay, London. Photograph: Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

He notes British identity has evolved into a “constant state of flux”, citing how British rule in India led to a steady migration of many classes of south Asians to Britain in the 17th century: “You have to interrogate and look at your history properly.”

But Marawat disagrees with comments on “censorship” made by Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, in relation to the removal of statues. “It’s complete nonsense to say you’re being censored because you are writing in a national newspaper, you’re a member of parliament, you have media opportunities. So don’t talk to me about being censored. It’s just a complete fallacy.”

Two days after the Colston statue was brought down, a statue of Robert Milligan was removed from the Docklands in east London. A couple of days later, the University of East London, where 49-year-old Kellie Golbourne is a full-time student, removed a statue of Sir John Cass. The university later announced it was also renaming the Cass School of Education and Communities.

Kellie Golbourne, photographed in Victoria Park, east London. 27 January 2021
Kellie Golbourne: ‘This is about change.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“For me, this is about change. Something that you think was a permanent fixture has had some movement, and that makes me feel that more can be moved,” Golbourne said.

Golbourne, who grew up in Bristol and has lived in east London for 20 years, remembers performing at Colston Hall as a little girl and seeing his name everywhere. Despite this, “Colston never came up in my history teaching. I would have never known and I didn’t know who Colston was until the statue came down.”

The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, quickly announced a city-wide review of all landmarks associated with slavery or colonialism after Colston fell, while many Labour-led boroughs also announced reviews and consultations.

Ayub said anti-racism must not end with the toppling of statues. She welcomed organisations announcing plans to address structural inequalities, but said there was still a long way to go before the UK was a more equal society.

She added that the protests, and the movement they sparked, spoke to “the power of protests”. “People try to tell me what’s the point of protesting? What’s the point of taking direct action? Well, here you go.”