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From Black Lives Matter to Unite the Right: the statues that have fallen in the 21st century

The statue of confederate Robert E. Lee in Virginia is a divisive landmark for US citizens The statue of confederate Robert E. Lee in Virginia is a divisive landmark for US citizens
10 Jun
Following the toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue, Geographical looks back at other times when statues have been removed in condemnation of historic forces of oppression

On 25 May, a 46-year-old black man called George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The four officers involved were fired the following day. Chauvin was later charged with second-degree murder; the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. The events ignited widespread demonstrations and protests against police brutality and accountability in 75 US cities – galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The movement has united a global community against historic and systemic racism; citizens of London, Paris, and Sydney have all emerged onto streets to call for widespread reform against a legacy of racial bias. The movement has taken place on streets recently deserted due to the coronavirus pandemic – an ongoing public health crisis that has disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals.

Protests in the UK led to the toppling of a Bristol statue commemorating the slave trader Edward Colston. With a reckoning against the legacies of a colonial past, history is very much in-the-making. No more valuable time then, to look back at some of the statues that have fallen to the shifting political attitudes of the 21st century.

Edward Colston – Bristol, United Kingdom, 7 June 2020

On 7 June 2020, Black Lives Matters protestors toppled the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol City Centre. Since 1895, the 5.5 metre bronze statue had commemorated Colston’s philanthropic work for the city of Bristol – an avenue he pursued with the riches from a career selling tens of thousands of slaves. His works in the city included donations of money to sustain schools, almshouses and churches.

Campaigners argued for years that Colston’s connections with slavery compromise the value of his contributions to the city. Colston made the bulk of his fortune from the Royal African Company (RAC), believed to have sold around 100,000 African people in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689. In 2018, it was decided that the plaque on Colston’s statue should be changed to mention his slave-trading past, but a final wording was never agreed.

In the week leading up to the toppling, an online petition calling for the removal of the statue amassed 7,000 signatures. ‘Edward Colston was a Bristol-born English slave trader, merchant and Member of Parliament. Much of his wealth was acquired through the trade and exploitation of slaves. Yet we celebrate and commemorate him with a statue in our beloved city centre. He has no place there,’ read the petition. The statue was forcibly toppled by protestors three days later.

On 9 June 2020, mayor of London Sadiq Khan said that all statues in London will be examined, with a view to removing those with links to slavery and plantation owners. All of the city’s landmarks, including street names, the names of public buildings and commemorative plaques will be reviewed immediately by a commission. Khan said that he ‘did not condone breaking the law, and wanted there to be a proper process for the removal of any statues that do not reflect London’s values’. The statue of Robert Milligan – another prominent British slave trader – has already been removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands.

Confederate Monuments – Virginia, United States of America, August 2017

The violent rallies that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017 followed the announcement of the city’s plan to relocate a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On 12 August, white nationalists assembled in a movement termed ‘Unite the Right’, marching under Confederate and Revolutionary flags. Counterdemonstrators struck out to oppose them, which resulted in James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately driving his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.

The park where the Robert E. Lee statue still stands was previously called Lee Park, but was officially changed to Emancipation Park in June 2017. Virginia is still torn over the divisive movement in favour of removing Robert E. Lee’s statue. On 4 June 2020, Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced plans to finally remove the Robert E. Lee statue. ‘That statue has been there for a long time. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down,’ said Northam, during a news event in Richmond. However, on Monday 8 June, resident William Gregory filed a complaint arguing that the removal of the statue violates an 1890 deed, in which Virginia agreed to ‘faithfully guard and affectionately protect it’. A judge in Richmond has granted a 10-day injunction temporarily blocking the removal of the statue.

The Robert E. Lee statue was the first of five Confederate monuments to be erected on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. It was unveiled in 1890, when the American Civil War and Reconstruction were over and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were becoming entrenched. Many citizens of Virginia oppose the statue, seeing it as a glorification of slavery, the Civil War and a relic to the treatment of black Americans as second-class citizens.

In solidarity with counterdemonstrators against the Unite the Right rally, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu wrote an open letter on 23 May 2017, detailing intentions to remove four Confederate monuments – to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Generals P.G.T Beauregard and Robert E. Lee. The letter read ‘these statues were a part of terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city’.

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Cecil John Rhodes – Cape Town, South Africa, 9 March 2015

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement kicked off with protests at the University of Cape Town on 9 March 2015. The statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed on Thursday 9 April 2015 – just one month after the campaign began. On the statue’s removal, Sandile Memela, spokesman for the arts and culture ministry of South Africa told the Guardian ‘it marks a significant shift where the country deals with its ugly past in a positive and constructive way’.

Cecil John Rhodes was a prominent imperialist operating in the 19th century. In 1889, Rhodes’ company, British South Africa Company (BSAC) was chartered to promote colonisation and economic exploitation across south-central Africa. Within two years, BSAC had annexed most of present-day Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia). BSAC intended to bring Zimbabwe, and parts of Zambia and Malawi under its control, allowing for British occupation.

Demonstrations against structural racism across the world have spurred renewed calls to remove the statue of the imperialist from Oxford’s Oriel College. The Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign group have charged the university with ‘failing to address its institutional racism’. An open letter written by 26 Oxford legal councillors on 9 June read: ‘Cecil Rhodes was a white supremacist who believed in brutal colonial rule and subjugation across Africa and the world […] we call on Oriel College to immediately remove the Cecil Rhodes statue and associated plaque.’

Christopher Columbus – Caracas, Venezuela, 12 October 2004

On 12 October 2004, protestors tore down the statue of 15th century explorer Christopher Columbus that had gazed over downtown Caracas. The statue was removed on the day previously known as ‘Columbus Day’, which was renamed the ‘Day of Indigenous Resistance’ in 2002. Columbus’ statue was dragged down the Caracas streets to the Teresa Carreño theatre. Here, hundreds of indigenous peoples held a symbolic trial of Columbus – the verdict was ‘guilty’, and the statue was later hung upside down from a tree. On 13 October 2015, President Nicolas Maduro replaced Columbus’ statue with one honouring Guaicaipuro, the indigenous chief who led the resistance against Spanish colonialism 500 years ago.

Columbus set foot on the American mainland for the first time at the Paria Peninsula in present-day Venezuela in 1498. Through the enslavement of indigenous peoples, early colonists extracted huge amounts of once-abundant pearl oysters. Later in the 16th and 17th centuries, colonists of the Spanish Empire set up lucrative and slave-driven economies from gold mining and livestock farming. The ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus has been called ‘the worst demographic catastrophe of human history’, with 95 per cent of the indigenous population killed in the first 130 years after colonisation.

Angela Montiel, a member of the Organization of Indigenous Youth of Venezuela, told Venezuelan reporters that the statue of Columbus symbolised colonialism on the continent: ‘it represented invasion and genocide in our land,’ she said.


Saddam Hussein – Baghdad, Iraq, 9 April 2003

The destruction of the Firdos Square statue of dictator Saddam Hussein, on 9 April 2003 marked the symbolic end of the Battle for Baghdad. In the afternoon, Iraqi civilians began attacking the statue, before the United States Marine Corps arrived to secure the area. The statue was toppled using a steel rope attached to an M88 armoured recovery vehicle.

Saddam Hussein was the fifth president of Iraq, ruling from16 July 1979 to 9 April 2003. His politics were of a repressive dictatorship. The total number of Iraqi’s killed by the security services of his government in purges and genocides have been conservatively estimated at 250,000. Hussein’s invasion of Iran and Kuwait resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. In 2003, Hussein’s Ba’ath party was disbanded. Hussein was captured on 13 December 2003, and was later convicted by an Iraqi court of crimes against humanity on 5 November 2006 – a crime that would see to his eventual hanging, on 30 December 2006. 

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