How can we progress when our colonial past is celebrated in public squares?

CW: slavery

Our country is a trophy cabinet for colonial figures. 

As I walk through Edinburgh’s streets, the large stone men on top of horses and pillars loom across the skyscape. They are strikingly obvious. But their colonial histories aren’t. 

Edinburgh’s New Town was built from slave trade profits and is stuffed with statues honouring people who gained power from slavery. Most notable is the Melville Monument in St. Andrews Square of Henry Dundas. As Secretary of State at War to PM William Pitt, Dundas fought to expand the British empire, leading his forces to commit countless atrocities against slaves and indigenous groups. Dundas delayed the process of abolition by 15 years by inserting the word ‘gradual’ into William Wilberforce’s 1792 abolition bill. In this time more than half a million more slaves were transported to the Americas. PM William Pitt’s own statue is situated on George Street. There is also Dundas House, now a flashy RBS bank, that stands just off St. Andrews Square. Before it is the statue of John Hope, the fourth Earl of Hopetoun, who brutally suppressed the 1795 rebellion against British rule in Grenada. 

From Bute House to Bacclares Street, tributes to colonialism are rife in Edinburgh, as well as other towns and cities up and down the country. Much of the Georgian architecture celebrated around the UK was built from slave trade wealth. Yet there is a shocking lack of awareness surrounding our horrific colonial past and its link to our present urban landscape. The disturbing prominence of statues which revere colonial figures is disrespectful to the numerous people who suffered from colonial brutality. It reaffirms the trauma inflicted by colonialism and contradicts the purported progressiveness of our society. 

However, removing the statues feels a bit like washing the blood from our hands. Whilst they remain, we can perceive the extent to which we profited from slavery. Eliminating the visible indicators of our colonial past could allow our sinister history to sink further into ignorance and silence the histories of colonised people. 

There is no clear objective course of action to be taken. Whilst I rejoiced at the videos of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue being thrown into the harbour, the fate of colonial statues – and other commemorations of colonialism – should be chosen by the affected local communities. 

In 2021 a plaque was installed at the Melville Monument explaining Dundas’ slavery links. This received backlash. Edinburgh council, by consequence of a review led by Sir Geoff Palmer, will nevertheless ‘re-represent’ Edinburgh’s colonial statues, buildings and street names to call attention to their history and will issue a formal apology. It remains to be seen how publicly this will be carried out.

To move forward, we must make the harrowing impact of our colonial empire common knowledge. Towns, cities and historical sites should express their colonial ties. Schools need to provide sufficient education about our colonial past. It is not enough to feel sorry when awoken from ignorance. Our knowledge and understanding of history shapes our actions as a society.

Image “Melville Monument” by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.