Decolonising public space?

Following the American example, historical statues in Britain have become the center of a debate about racism. The statue of the colonialist and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was knocked down and pushed into the harbour by anti-racist protesters. Fearing these protests might spread, the statue of Winston Churchill in front of the British Parliament in London has been covered as a precautionary measure to protect it from potential harm by demonstrators.

The empty pedestal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol after the sculpture had been toppled by protestors. © CC BY 3.0

All over the globe feuilletons are now discussing whether toppling statues can combat the structural racism against which protestors take to the streets. The broad media interest in the debate is started in 2015 with the “Rhodes must fall”-protest asking for the removal of statues of the ardent British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the universities of Cape Town and Oxford. It was revived in 2017, when several thousand far-right activists violently demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, against the planned removal of the statue of the confederate General Robert E. Lee. However, it is often not mentioned, or only marginally, that the political debates about statues celebrating the colonial past date back much further. Winston Churchill was already controversial during his lifetime. Especially his colonial policy, including his leading role in the Bengal famine of 1943 which killed up to 3 million people or the exclusion of democratic rights for colonial territories in the Atlantic charter were sharply criticized.[1]

Criticism of Churchill, and later, his statue in Westminster Square, continued to live on throughout the second half of the 20th century, both among the societies of the former colonial territories and among the British left, which had in many ways allied itself with BAME-activists.[2] In Bristol, petitions have been submitted by citizens’ groups demanding the removal of the statue of Edward Colston since the 1990s, leading to an extended debate within the city’s communities.[3] The authorities ignored these discussions. Thus, the anger about certain statues did not spontaneously evolve out of a vacuum, it has been building up for many years.

There are several ways to deal with the problematic heritage of historical characters. Overturning them is probably the most radical. It is a symbolic act that does not undo racism. But it draws attention to the problem and is therefore powerful. There is a variety of possible solutions for how to deal with historic statues that do not represent the views of today’s society anymore. Proposals are being discussed to put plaques on statues detailing the controversy of their historical role, to move them away into museums where their history can be contextualized more critically than in open-air display, or symbolically turn them on their head, as German anti-racism group “Berlin Postkolonial” proposed. It is crucial that we now consider what to do with this historical legacy. There must be a wide-ranging historical debate on the legacy of colonialism in Europe.

These discussions must particularly take place in those institutions that are dedicated to the production of knowledge, culture and history – in other words, universities and schools are spaces where the decolonisation of education should take place.[4] But theatres, museums, and other cultural institutions can also contribute, by including other perspectives and experiences than the narrative of heroes and the history of great men, like the museum of London docklands, who has dedicated the beginning of its exhibition about the former port area of London to an introduction about British colonialism and slavery. This narrative no longer fits the present day, not least because it ignores the problems of slavery and racism. Storming the statues makes sense, then, if it is not the goal but the instrument for fundamental structural reforms.


[1] For the Bengal famine see Mukherjee, Janam: Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire, Oxford, 2015; for the protest against Churchill’s colonial policies in Britain see Gopal, Priyamvada: Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, London, 2019.

[2] See e.g. Howe, Stephen: The Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire, Oxford, 1993.

[3] BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. For a brief resumee of community protest against Edward Colston’s Statue in Bristol see Hochschild, Adam: Bury the Chains, New York, 2015, p. 15.

[4] For a historical studies on the subject of statues, memory and colonialism see e.g. Aldrich, Robert: Colonial Museums in a Postcolonial Europe, in: African and Black Diaspora, Vol.2 (2), 2009, p.137-56; Henneberg, Krystyna von: Monuments, Space, and the Memory of Empire in Modern Italy, in: History and Memory, Vol.16 (1), 2004, p. 37-85; Schilling, Britta: Postcolonial Germany: Memories of Empire in a Decolonized Nation, Oxford, 2019.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search