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All over the world, statues of racist historical figures are being toppled

Controversial effigies in the UK, USA and Belgium have fallen as countries reflect on their chequered histories

Huw Oliver
Written by
Huw Oliver

They began as a show of solidarity with Americans marching against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s violent killing. Now Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and Belgium have turned their sights on their own countries’ racist histories, with monuments of contentious historical figures becoming focal points of demonstrations. In some cases, they are even being toppled.

Yesterday, a 150-year-old statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II was taken down in the port city of Antwerp after it was covered in paint by anti-racism protesters last week. The authorities said the statue would not return to its pedestal and instead become part of the collection of nearby Middelheim Museum.

Statues of the nineteenth-century monarch have long been the target of protest over the country’s brutal regime in Belgium’s former African colonies. Although no official statistics are available, Leopold himself is thought to be responsible for the deaths of more than 10 million people in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – or around half the country’s population.

All over Belgium, streets and parks are still named after Leopold, and there are statues of him in many major squares. Last week another prominent effigy in the city of Ghent was daubed with red paint, while on Sunday protesters in the capital Brussels climbed on a statue of the former king and waved a huge flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, chanting ‘murderer’ and ‘reparations’.

A petition to remove all statues of Leopold II throughout the country has already gained nearly 70,000 signatures.

In the UK, meanwhile, a bronze statue of the seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston – responsible for transporting at least 80,000 people from West Africa to the Caribbean – was toppled by protesters and dumped in Bristol harbour on Sunday.

Many are also calling for the removal of Edinburgh’s Melville Monument, dedicated to Henry Dundas, who obstructed the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. And yesterday, a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was taken down by local authorities in London’s Docklands.

After the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, the Mayor of London said he had ordered a review of all of the capital’s statues and street names. Sadiq Khan said the report aimed to ensure all the city’s major monuments reflected its diversity, adding that any with links to slavery ‘should be taken down’.

A campaign to remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes – the architect of racial segregation in southern Africa – in Oxford has also gained traction in recent days. Rhodes Must Fall rallies have drawn protesters in their thousands to the Oxford college where he studied and where an effigy of Rhodes looms above its grand entrance.

It comes as protesters in US states including Alabama and Virginia are targeting surviving symbols of the Confederacy, spray-painting some statues and toppling others from their pedestals.

Many plaques, memorials and statues have already been challenged and taken down following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that opposed the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

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This week the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, said the city would finish dismantling a Confederate monument in Linn Park to ‘prevent more civil unrest’, while authorities in Richmond, Virginia, are expected to announce plans to take down a huge statue of Lee on the city’s Monument Avenue.

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