How statues of controversial colonial figures became targets across the world

Monuments to controversial colonial figures around the world have become the focus of renewed scrutiny after anti-racism protesters in the UK tore down a statue honouring a slave trader.

Hundreds of people cheered as the bronze figure of Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour during Black Lives Matter demonstrations last weekend.

As the incident made global news, citizens of other countries – largely former colonies or former colonial powers – spoke out about statues they believe should no longer be on public display, or took direct action to remove them.

Sky News looks at some of the countries having to rethink some of their monuments.

The Colston statue is retrieved from Bristol Harbour

Slaver statue pulled from harbour

New Zealand

Hamilton, New Zealand‘s fourth biggest city, took down a statue of the British naval officer after whom it is named on Friday.

While the city was originally called Kirikiriroa by the Maori, it was renamed after Captain John Hamilton – a British officer who was killed in the infamous Gate Pa battle in the city of Tauranga.

More from Black Lives Matter

  • Black Lives Matter: Premier League players to have ‘Black Lives Matter’ replacing names on shirts

  • Maggie Alphonsi says RFU is working hard to improve diversity but still has ‘a lot to do’

  • Black Lives Matter: Elderly protester suffers brain injury after being shoved to the ground by US police officers

  • Premier League players will have George Floyd on their minds, says psychologist Steven Sylvester

  • Black Lives Matter: Monty Panesar says England should hold minute’s silence againt West Indies to support movement

  • Black Lives Matter: Fresh protests as Churchill statue boarded up

Hamilton was a captain during a series of bloody battles between British and Maori forces amid the New Zealand wars of the 1800s.

While historians have suggested he never actually set foot in the city that went on to be named after him, he is accused of killing indigenous Maori people in the 1860s.

Workers remove a controversial statue of Captain John Hamilton from Civic Square in Hamilton , New Zealand
Image:Workers remove a controversial statue of Captain John Hamilton in the city named after him

The statue was gifted to the city in 2013, but Maori elder Taitimu Maipi had said he planned to tear it down himself.

He said Hamilton was being represented as a hero when he was “murderous” and a “monster.”

Mayor Paula Southgate said an increasing number of people found the statue personally and culturally offensive.

“We can’t ignore what is happening all over the world and nor should we,” she said.

“At a time when we are trying to build tolerance and understanding between cultures and in the community, I don’t think the statue helps us to bridge those gaps.”

Hamilton's statue stood in the city's Civic Square
Image:Hamilton’s statue stood in the city’s Civic Square

Belgium

A longstanding movement in Belgium has demanded monuments celebrating Leopold II be removed from public places.

Statues and busts of the 19th century king have been defaced in half a dozen cities since global protests began in the wake of George Floyd‘s killing in the US.

Demonstrators stand on the statue of Leopold II, in central Brussels
Image:Demonstrators stand on the statue of Leopold II, in central Brussels

He was in charge of the Congo Free State he founded between 1885 and 1908, during which time his administration was responsible for between one million and 15 million deaths

His regime was characterised by systematic brutality, which involved murder, torture and atrocities.

He oversaw the use of forced labour to plunder the country’s natural supply of rubber, with children among those who had their hands amputated if quotas were not met.

Leopold II is said to have objected to this form of punishment on the grounds it affected productivity, reputedly saying: “Cut off hands? That’s idiotic. I’d cut off all the rest of them, but not hands. That’s the one thing I need in the Congo.”

The vandalised statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, in Brussels
Image:The vandalised statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, in Brussels

Australia

Campaigners in Australia have targeted a number of statues that celebrated colonisers, including those of figures such as Captain James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie.

But perhaps the most widely reviled subject of monuments in the country is Charles Cameron Kingston, a representation of whom features prominently in Adelaide.

Activists draw up hit list of UK statues they want removed

Activists draw up hit list of UK statues they want removed

:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

The head of South Australia’s government from 1893 until 1899, he is considered by some historians to be the architect of the so-called “White Australia policy”.

This referred to a set of policies designed to prevent people of non-European ethnic origin – particularly people of colour from Asia and the Pacific islands – from moving to Australia.

He has, however, been lauded by others for his role in measures such as the first law to give votes to women in Australia – only the second of its kind in the world after New Zealand.

Charles Cameron Kingston, sitting centre, in around 1896. Pic: Slate Library of South Australia
Image:Charles Cameron Kingston, sitting centre, in around 1896. Pic: Slate Library of South Australia

Kenya

The East African country, along with others on the continent, was something of a forerunner in the movement to get rid of statues providing a legacy to a colonial past.

In 2015, a statue of Queen Victoria that had sat in Nairobi for more than a century was beheaded and thrown into bush.

This act was considered to be a rejection of a symbol of Britain’s rule over Kenya, which began during her reign in 1895, lasting until 1963.

Its removal was celebrated this week, with one resident reportedly saying citizens “do not want to be reminded of slavery, colonialism and the suffering it brought”.

Queen Victoria
Image:Queen Victoria

In South Africa, repeated attacks at the University of Cape Town on a statue of Cecil Rhodes – seen by many as an architect of apartheid – saw it eventually covered up and moved to a military base in 2015.

And many decades before Belgian activists began attacking monuments to Leopold II, people in Congo took down statues of the man some historians have accused of overseeing genocide in the country.

statue removed in london

Should these statues be taken down?

US

Along with statues of Confederate leaders, others of explorer Christopher Columbus were torn down or effectively destroyed in parts of the US.

In Richmond, Virginia, one was pulled down, set alight and thrown into a lake on Wednesday. And in Boston, a statue of the Italian-born figure was beheaded, while another was toppled in St Paul, Minnesota.

Living from 1451 to 1506, his voyages are credited in history textbooks as being instrumental in the discovery of the New World and eventual European colonisation of the Americas.

A statue of Christopher Columbus, which was toppled to the ground by protesters in St Paul, Minnesota
Image:A statue of Christopher Columbus, which was toppled to the ground by protesters in St Paul, Minnesota

However, those opposing his commemoration claim he was a key agent of genocide of indigenous people due to his “cruel policies”.

His two-year stint as governor of Haiti saw around half the native Arawak population die due to fighting with Columbus’s men, forced labour and mass suicide and infanticide, as a result of desperation caused by his policies.

A separate statue of him in Mexico City has been surrounded with boards to protect it from activists.

The plinth of a Christopher Columbus statue defaced with paint from ongoing protests in Byrd Park, Richmond, Virginia
Image:The plinth of a Christopher Columbus statue defaced with paint from ongoing protests in Byrd Park, Richmond, Virginia

Race and Revolution: Is Change Going to Come?

Sky News will broadcast a global debate show on Tuesday night at 8pm – looking at the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests, and examining institutional racism and how we fix it.

If you would like to be part of our virtual audience, and have a chance of putting a question to our panel, please send your name, location and question to newsdebates@sky.uk

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *