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Year 12 Historians Debate

In order to support our Year 12 historians to reflect on Britain's links to slavery we staged an in-class debate on the following question:

"Should we tear down all statues of historical figures with ties to slavery"

Here's what they had to say.

“I believe that we should tear down all statues of historical figures with ties to slavery. This is because statues are used to commemorate great acts people have done in their past. Even though statues give us an insight into what these figures have done to develop or improve the country, this should not take away the fact that they significantly harmed many people in the past - which is still a big part of people’s lives to this day. For example, some may view Edward Colston as a philanthropist for distributing his wealth between charities and good causes. This explains why his statue was mounted in 1895. However, recently more people have become aware of his involvement in the slave trade, highlighted by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Edward Colston had an active role in the slave trade as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. This involved hundreds of enslaved people, from West Africa, who were closely shackled together in their own filth and disease, being herded onto boats for a six to eight-week journey to the Americas. Therefore, we should tear these statues down as society has now developed and realised that slavery is unethical as it exploits and degrades humans. Taking down these statues would mean ‘erasing the past’, but doing so would show that society is acknowledging the wrongdoings of these people and that what they have contributed in the slave trade is not to be celebrated.

A solution to this would be moving them to museums. Moving statues, like Edward Colston’s, to a museum would still give us an insight into what these figures’ lives were like in the past. This should include these historical figures’ roles within slavery and not solely highlight the positive aspects of their lives. Whilst these statues would have been transferred from their pedestals, they can still be drawn upon for historical purposes and people can still learn about how they have impacted the lives of others, during the time they lived.”

“Edward Colston was a Tory Member of parliament who was recognised for his role as a philanthropist, however it would later be known that he played a role in the Atlantic slave trade for which he received much criticism. Colson’s statue was found in Bristol before it was torn down as a direct opposition to George Floyd’s death during the Black Lives Matter movement. Overall, for me the tearing down of the statue was justified as people do not want to celebrate Colston, his beliefs and actions. They argued ‘it’s not right a slave trader should be celebrated this way’ (Source: Newsround). In pulling down the statue was right since no person should be racially discriminated against due to the colour of their skin and everyone should be seen as equal. Keeping up the statues could signify that there is still support for their actions/beliefs which are quite different to those commonly held in contemporary society.”

“I believe historical statues show importance, diversity, culture and change in society and should not be taken down. Taking down monumental statues is like erasing and deteriorating history. Many statues today are from a time back when ethnic minorities were fighting for civil rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to basic everyday things. Many statues show young individuals today the history of our strong ethnic minorities fighting for their basic rights and eventually after many protests and hard work, finally achieving them.”

“Allowing statues of slave owners to stand in a changing political and social environment speaks to the hypocrisy of the authorities, allowing them to be celebrated as heroes who have benefited the world when, as historian professor David Olusoga states, 'they are slave traders and murderers…The impact these men have created will never be and can never be forgotten. By tearing down these statues we are reinforcing the idea that today you will not be glorified. Tearing down the statues doesn't eradicate hundreds of years of slavery, but it shows we don't stand with and won't tolerate the racism that went unquestioned for centuries.' "

“The Minister of Culture, Matt Warman told MPs the UK’s heritage should not be removed from view, after the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue and others raised a massive debate within parliament. Not just him, but many others have also argued against the removal of these statues. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel referred to the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful” and “completely unacceptable”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that these statues are historical and accused the Labour Party of trying to re-write this history. However, not all people shared this same view towards the removal of Edward Colston’s statue and others. The Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees “felt no sense of loss” by the statue’s removal, whilst historian and TV presenter David Olusoga commented that the statue should have been taken down earlier, saying “Statues are supposed to resemble that this man did great things, but that is not true – this man was a slave trader and a murderer.” I believe that it is not necessarily right to vandalise and destroy these statues. I also believe that it is important to recontextualise the symbolism of these statues in a different light as they should not be glorifying such an event in which countless people suffered relentlessly.”

I believe we should tear down figures tied to slavery, but we should first look at both sides of the argument to consider the pros and con because we must remember that all people do wrong. A lot of great leaders have done questionable things in the past, yet we still actively encourage statues of them.

Looking it the life of Edward Colston, we can see that he did help build hospitals, schools, and churches for the community. He could even be considered a philanthropist. But it was his actions towards the 80,000 Africans that warrants the condemnation for his transgressions.”

“Although Colston holds the title of a philanthropist due to his generous contributions to sustaining schools and churches, it could be argued that he definitely does not deserve a title of a humanitarian as his involvement as a slave trader clearly contradicts the actual definition of philanthropist. Edward Colston does not deserve to be praised, nor given the status of a philanthropist, especially because he continued to privately trade slaves after leaving the Royal African Company. Those who defend his reputation fail to even slightly understand the overt racism. It is ludicrous to justify the actions of Colston. I believe It was right to take down his statue, without a doubt. However, the methods used were not appropriate as the violent approach give the racists a reason to justify the racist Edward Colston.”

“Overall, there are two notable views on the topic of tearing down statues with ties to slavery. Some MPs have argued that “Our collective past is going be just torn away, slowly, piece by piece”. Others have argued that tearing down these statues will be like erasing the past and the successes Britain has gained from these 'controversial' figures. Contrastingly, others dispute that these questionable figures should be acknowledged for the evil they have done to gain benefit for the British at the demise of black individuals. For instance, Mr Rees said that Edward Colston was not simply controversial, but “evil” and believed that the statues were “an affront to me”. Moreover, he argued that the presence of contested statues, “is an ongoing message to some people that they do not matter”. Ultimately, I believe statues to commend those with ties to the slave trade should be taken down however, that does not mean that they should not be remembered for things they have done to aid British society unless it was offensive to any ethnic groups.”

Well done Year for your insightful and lively debate.

Ms Amelia Collins

Director of Learning Humanities

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