George Floyd protests spread worldwide causing UK's slave trader's statue outside London museum removed

The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan that sat outside the Museum of London Docklands was taken down yesterday by the authorities in Tower Hamlets after global anti-racism protests triggered a debate about how Britain commemorates its imperial past.
June 11, 2020 | 07:55
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Pulling down the statue of 18th century slave trader Robert Milligan

According to museumsassociation, this follows the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being pulled down and thrown into the harbour during an anti-racism protest in Bristol this weekend.

Milligan was a prominent British slave trader who, by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica. The statue, made by Richard Westmacott, was moved to West India Quay, opposite the Museum of London Docklands, in 1997.

uk removes slave traders statue from outside london museum
A statue of Robert Milligan is pictured being removed by workers outside the Museum of London Docklands near Canary Wharf, following the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis. London, Britain, June 9, 2020.John Sibley / Reuters

“The statue of Robert Milligan has stood uncomfortably outside the Museum of London Docklands for a long time, one of only three museums in the UK to address the history of the transatlantic slave trade,” said a Museum of London spokesperson.

“The Museum of London recognises that the monument is part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity.

"At the Museum of London we stand against upholding structures that reproduce violence, and have previously engaged in interventions that critically engage with pro-slavery lobbying.”

uk removes slave traders statue from outside london museum
The statue of Robert Milligan, a noted merchant, slaveholder and founder of London's global trade hub, West India Docks, stands covered in a sack-cloth and sign reading Black Lives Matter. Photo: Renee Bailey/PA via AP

The land where the statue of Milligan is located is owned by the Canal and River Trust. A statement from the charity read: “We recognise the wishes of the local community concerning the statue of Robert Milligan at London Docklands and are committed to working with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the Museum of London Docklands and partners at Canary Wharf to organise its safe removal as soon as possible.”

A number of other councils in England and Wales have announced that statues in their areas will be examined for links to slavery and plantation owners.

uk removes slave traders statue from outside london museum
Workers prepare to take down a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan, after a protest saw anti-racism campaigners tear down a statue of a slave trader in Bristol. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and, while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored. This cannot continue,” Khan said of his decision to launch the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm.

“We must ensure that we celebrate the achievements and diversity of all in our city, and that we commemorate those who have made London what it is – that includes questioning which legacies are being celebrated.

“The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape.”

uk removes slave traders statue from outside london museum
Workers prepare to take down a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan, after a protest saw anti-racism campaigners tear down a statue of a slave trader in Bristol. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

Launching review of other monuments

The news comes as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, unveiled the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which will make a series of recommendations on the future of the London landmarks, including murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials, euronews reported.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan commented on the statue's removal, writing that while "it's a sad truth that much of our city and nation's wealth was derived from the slave trade - this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces".

The Commission, which will consider murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials, will also "further the discussion into what legacies should be celebrated and make a series of recommendations".

uk removes slave traders statue from outside london museum
Workers take down a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan, after a protest saw anti-racism campaigners tear down a statue of a slave trader in Bristol. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

The debate is also particularly virulent in Belgium where activists have called for statues of colonial-era king, Leopold II, to be removed. Brussels' Heritage Minister, Pascale Smet, told Euronews on Tuesday that public debate on the issue should be held as quickly as possible. "You know it's a double debate. If you take the statue away, you will forget it, if you leave the statue, you have to contextualise it at a minimum," he said.

The orderly removal of the statue was in contrast to chaotic scenes in Bristol on Sunday.

Police there decided not to stop protesters from toppling a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston to avoid inflaming the situation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the felling of Colston’s statue was a criminal act, while interior minister Priti Patel called it “utterly disgraceful”.

Mayor Khan said a commission would review statues, plaques and street names which reflect the rapid expansion of London’s wealth and power at the height of Britain’s empire in the reign of Queen Victoria.

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