London Plans to Remove Slave Trade-Linked Statues, but the UK Government Might Refuse

The UK government recently introduced new laws intended to protect monuments, which would prevent the removal of controversial statues.

A statue of English merchant and slave trader Sir John Cass in central London on June 10, 2020. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Last year, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global reckoning with systemic and historically reinforced racism manifested itself in several striking and ongoing ways. Around the world, protesters began tearing down statues of figures associated with colonialism and the slave trade: one of the most striking incidents went down in Bristol, England, when a crowd of jubilant demonstrators ripped a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and threw it into the harbor. Furthering this trend, this week, the City of London Corporation voted to remove two statues of British politicians, William Beckford and Sir John Cass, who were linked to the transatlantic slave trade.

Beckford held African slaves personally in the 1700s, and also profited from Jamaican plantations and twice served as the Mayor of London. Similarly, Cass profited directly from the slave trade. Reportedly, the City of London plans to re-site the Beckford statue and replace it with a new work, and to return the Cass statue to the Sir John Cass Foundation. However, the planned removal of the statues of Beckford and Cass is directly at odds with new laws issued by the UK government intended to protect and safeguard historic monuments throughout England. These laws will take effect in March, and in general, senior governmental figures in Britain have said that statues of controversial figures should be “retained and explained” so that future generations can learn from them.

Unlike with the rebellious removal of the Edward Colston statue, which led to four people being charged with criminal damage, the City of London Corporation is attempting to go about its statue removals methodically and lawfully, but the group still may run into opposition from the British political figures. Nevertheless, the organization is determined to get it done. “This decision is the culmination of months of valuable work by the Tackling Racism taskforce, which has taken a comprehensive approach to addressing injustice and inequality,” Catherine McGuinness, the City of London Corporation Policy Chair, said in a statement. “The view of members was that removing and re-siting statues linked to slavery is an important milestone in our journey towards a more inclusive and diverse City.”

London Plans to Remove Slave Trade-Linked Statues, but the UK Government Might Refuse