Robert Milligan: Workers remove statue of slave trader in London

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  • June 9, 2020
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A statue of a slave owner has been removed by a local authority in London after Labour councils pledged to begin reviewing such monuments in their areas amid anti-racism protests across the country.

The figure of Robert Milligan was taken down from its plinth at West India Quay in the Docklands on Tuesday evening, two days after campaigners tore down a statue of a slave trader in Bristol.

The removal of the Milligan statue paves the way for a “wider conversation about confronting this part of our history and the symbols that represent it”, the Tower Hamlets mayor said.

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Earlier on Tuesday the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Labour group said that after consulting with all Labour council leaders there was “overwhelming agreement” to listen to and work with local communities “to review the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property”.

It followed a similar decision by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, after his office announced that the newly formed Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm will review landmarks in the capital, including murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials.

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Tweeting a video of the moment the Milligan statue was taken down, Mr Khan said: “It’s a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade – but this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces.”

The removal came after the Canal and River Trust charity, which owns the land where the statue was located, said it would organise its “safe removal” following a petition launched by local Labour councillor Ehtasham Haque.

The borough’s mayor John Biggs said: “I know the strength of feeling about this following the removal of a similar statue in Bristol, and we’ve acted quickly to both ensure public safety and respond to the concerns of our residents, which I share.

“The East End has a proud history of fighting intolerance. We now need a wider conversation about confronting this part of our history and the symbols that represent it.”

The statue of the noted West Indian merchant, slaveholder and founder of London’s global trade hub, West India Docks, had stood outside the Museum of London Docklands.

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He owned 526 enslaved Africans who were forced to work on his family’s plantation in Jamaica, according to the museum, before his death in 1809.

With the growing surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked global protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a number of petitions have emerged demanding controversial monuments in the UK are taken down.

One is calling on Manchester City Council to remove a statue of two-time British prime minister Sir Robert Peel in Piccadilly Gardens.

The petition organiser Sami Pinarbasi described the statesman, who founded the Metropolitan Police Service, as an “icon of hate and racism”.

Similar petitions with the hashtag £RepealPeel have been launched to remove statues in Leeds and Bradford.

Luthfur Rahman, from Manchester City Council, said there should be a city-wide review of statues and urged the public to come forward with their thoughts about who is not being celebrated but should be.

He said “particular thought” must be given to representing “the proud BAME history of Manchester and help to reflect the shared story of our diverse and multicultural city”.

The petitions have drawn inspiration from an anti-racism demonstration in Bristol on Sunday, which saw protesters topple the statue of slave trader Edward Colston before throwing it into the harbour.

There have also been renewed calls for a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be taken down from Oriel College at the University of Oxford.

Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council has invited the college to make a planning request to remove the statue, which has been at the centre of a long-running row.

The college said it continues to “debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes”.

Press Association