The toppling by anti-racism protesters of a statue of a slave trader in the English port city of Bristol has given new urgency to a debate about how Britain should confront some of the darkest chapters of its history.
The statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from trading in West African slaves, was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour on Sunday by a group of demonstrators taking part in a worldwide wave of protests.
Statues of figures from Britain’s imperialist past have in recent years become the subject of controversies between those who argue that such monuments merely reflect history and those who say they glorify racism.
Colston donated widely to charitable causes across his home city of Bristol, which named a street and several buildings after him. A campaign to remove the statue had gathered momentum in recent years, but had failed to persuade the authorities.
By taking matters into their own hands, the protesters raised the temperature of a debate that had previously remained confined to the realms of marches, petitions and newspaper columns.
Opinions were sharply divided as to whether their message justified their means.
Interior minister Priti Patel called the felling of the statue an “utterly disgraceful” distraction from the protesters’ cause, while policing minister Kit Malthouse denounced “mobs just turning up and deciding to do whatever they like”.
The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said on Channel 4 television he did not support social disorder, but the community was navigating complex issues that had no binary solutions.
“I would never pretend that the statue of a slaver in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up, and someone who may well have owned one of my ancestors, was anything other than a personal affront to me,” said Rees, who has Jamaican roots.
Bristol police said they made a tactical decision not to intervene because that could have caused worse disorder.
“Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic,” police chief Andy Bennett said on BBC television.
Even Britain’s wartime hero, Winston Churchill, was under renewed scrutiny: a statue of him on Parliament Square in London was sprayed on Sunday with graffiti that read “Churchill was a racist”.
Churchill expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people. Some Britons have long felt that the darker sides of his legacy should be given greater prominence.
These debates in Britain echo controversies in the United States, often focused on statues of confederate generals from the Civil War, and in South Africa, where Cape Town University removed a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes in 2015.
Cape Town’s successful “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign inspired a similar movement at Oriel College, part of Oxford University. But the college opted in 2016 to keep its statue of Rhodes, arguing that it was “an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today”.