Racist Memorials In The City of London, Islington & Beyond

The effort to remove memorials celebrating slave traders, racists and colonialists, is part of a broader struggle against institutional racism. This struggle can’t be confined to one geographical area such as the City of London, even if the utterly corrupt square mile is the focus of this particular blog. Even if the City didn’t border Islington and share the EC1 postcode with this neighbour, we would have been dismayed when within four days of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being pulled down by activists in Bristol on 7 June 2020, Islington council had managed to issue the following hasty and disingenuous statement:

Following recent Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of statues in Bristol and Tower Hamlets, Islington Council’s Heritage Service has investigated the history and origins of all statues, artworks and heritage plaques across the borough.

The Council is determined to examine the legacy and history behind monuments in our borough to ensure they do not represent issues and events which go against Islington’s long history of equality and fairness. Initial searches, conducted by the Council, indicate that there are no memorials to slavers or the slave trade in Islington.

Statement from Islington Council on historic memorials and heritage within the borough, 11 June 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200630224108/https://www.islington.media/news/a-statement-from-islington-council-on-historic-memorials-and-heritage-within-the-borough

As is so often the case with council PR, this statement was picked up and reproduced uncritically in the local press. See Black Lives Matter: Islington ‘does not have any statues or memorials celebrating the slave trade’ by Lucas Cumiskey, Islington Gazette, 11 June 2020. Within Islington and not far from its boundary with the City of London is The Old Sessions House (22 Clerkenwell Green, London, EC1R 0NA) which has a relief portrait of George III above its front entrance. Like many monarchs, George III benefitted financially from the slave trade and he personally played a key role in delaying its abolition. Here is historian Brooke Newman’s analysis of George III’s thinking and policy making with regard to British colonies and slave trading:

Although Britain fought to retain control of the American colonies, the Calendar of George III underscores the economic and strategic importance of the British Caribbean islands throughout the American War of Independence. Defending Britain’s sugar-producing Caribbean colonies, which generated revenue vital to national security, took precedence over reclaiming the rebel territories. “Our Islands must be defended even at the risk of an Invasion of this Island,” George III stressed in a letter to Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, dated September 13, 1779; “if we lose our Sugar Islands it will be impossible to raise Money to continue the War and then no Peace can be obtained but such as one as He that gave one to Europe in 1763 can never subscribe to”. The Caribbean slave colonies, particularly Jamaica, powered the Atlantic trading system and served as the economic hub of the British Atlantic empire. Consequently, in the face of a Franco-Spanish-American alliance, the British leadership concentrated on defending territories in the Caribbean and strategizing to act decisively if the opportunity arose to capture the most valuable sugar-producing island in the region: French Saint-Domingue. “Troops must be sent sufficient to secure Jamaica and Barbados, the Capital Islands belonging to this Island,” George III wrote to Lord Sandwich. Indeed, “we must run any risks rather than not Secure them if in addition to this it can be found practicable to undertake any attack on St. Domingue it would be highly desirable.” After the American colonies declared independence from Britain in 1783, the Caribbean remained a region of vital significance to the Crown.

Uncovering Royal Perspectives on Slavery, Empire, and the Rights of Colonial Subjects by Brooke Newman. See: https://web.archive.org/web/20191120221742/https://georgianpapers.com/2019/01/21/uncovering-royal-perspectives-on-slavery-empire-and-the-rights-of-colonial-subjects/

Still in Islington but to the north of The Old Sessions House, there is a statue of Edmund Spenser on the exterior of Islington Central Library (2 Fieldway Cresent, Highbury East, London N5 1PF).  As we noted in our last post, Spenser was a key ideologist of early English (later British) colonialism:

…fulminations against the Irish, something common among London based literary apologists for colonialism in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras… perhaps found its most extreme expression in Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Irelande (1596). Spenser advocated a scorched earth policy in Ireland including the destruction of crops, animals and the Gaelic language, and alongside his literary peers and inheritors provided an ideological justification for Cromwell’s later massacres and the colonial barbarism that continued into the late twentieth-century with atrocities like Bloody Sunday (when on 30 January 1972 British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment fired upon unarmed civilians murdering thirteen of them immediately – another died later – and wounding even more in Derry’s Bogside, during a protest march against internment without trial).

List of Memorials in the City of London Linked to Slavery, Colonialism  & Racism by Reclaim EC1, 25 June 2020.

Incredibly we’ve found no mention of these two Islington monuments to date in the debates that flared up after the council announced its initial and clearly dubious findings about memorials linked to slave trading. We’d suspect about as much effort went into researching slave trading and colonialist memorials in the borough as the ‘attempt’ to locate the plaque that went missing from the Finsbury Leisure Centre in Norman Street (London EC1V 3PU) during a refurbishment a decade ago – as far as we know the plaque is still missing. Likewise the plaque for the Clerkenwell Explosion in Corporation Row (EC1R 0BE) appears to have been removed. Islington seems to be rather careless with its memorials and its records of them. And so inevitably, a day after the council press release quoted above, the Camden New Journal ran a story saying that street names required investigation and that one of several Boer War (1st 1880-1881; 2nd 1899-1902) memorials in Islington might be problematic:

Cllr (Richard) Watts told the Tribune: “We don’t believe we have any memorials to slavers in Islington. I completely support what Tower Hamlets did to remove the statue to the slaver in West India Docks.

“Had we had any similar memorial we would be rapidly removing them as well.”

He added: “We need a wider conversation about how we recognise the wrongs of our imperial past and how London largely as a city was built on wealth generated by the slave trade. It was an imperial slave industry city.”

The review will run through the list of street names in the borough, which often used historical figures.

Napier Terrace in Angel is named after General Charles Napier, who was a Victorian general who has been accused of being in charge when atrocities when colonial forces (sic) moved into India.

The Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg faced a furious backlash when he tried to defend him in a book published last year.

There is a statue of Napier in Trafalgar Square which is on list of monuments across the UK drawn up by a group called Topple the Racists.

It is estimated that 10,000 Indians were killed in the war in Northern India which resulted in Napier becoming the Colonial Governor of the Sindh province.

There is also a memorial statue to the Boer War in Highbury Fields.

The conflict was fought in the late 1800s when the British Army defeated a group of Dutch farmers in South Africa with the use of concentration camps.

Cllr Watts said: “Genuinely we are open to suggestions for what we can do to recognise Britain’s colonial past in our street names and monuments….”

Heritage review begins into borough’s street names to make sure none honour slave trade. Islington Council confident that there are no monuments to slavers but wants ‘wider conversation’ about city’s past by Calum Fraser, Camden New Journal, 12 June 2020: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/heritage-review-begins-into-boroughs-street-names-to-make-sure-none-honour-slave-trade

It’s also clear that plaques ought to provide more issues for Islington to ponder as regards racism, slavery and colonialism. For example on the house at 71 Amwell Street (London, EC1R 1UT) there is a plaque for for George Cruikshank. As we noted with regard to the Cruikshank memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral in City of London in our last post:

Cruikshank’s The New Union Club (1819) enjoys an unsavoury reputation as one of the most repugnant popular prints of the nineteenth-century due to its stereotypically racist depiction of those of African descent. Likewise, Cruikshank’s hatred of those who valiantly resisted British imperialism and the crude racism accompanying it is evident in his lurid illustrations commissioned for William Maxwell’s History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 (1845), where Irish anti-colonialists are characterised by their simian-like portrayal. Cruikshank also produced anti-Chinese racist caricatures.

If Islington is able to overlook memorials to the likes of George III, George Cruikshank and Edmund Spenser, that so obviously connect to slavery and colonialism, then the finance industry focussed City of London council is likely to pass over without comment most of its greater number of equally problematic tributes of this type. As if setting out to confirm this, City of London council boss Catherine McGuinness wrote in a recent column for a square mile paper:

One practical outcome that has emerged from discussions is a decision to set up a new body to explore these challenges. The Tackling Racism Working Party will consider what the City Corporation currently does to tackle racism in all its forms, but more importantly assess whether any further action can be undertaken to promote economic, educational, and social inclusion through our activities.

This will include discussions about any historical issues with a view as to how we might respond to them, and will no doubt touch on the various statues and monuments across the City that have been at the forefront of many media stories as of late.

In the face of racism, we all need to stand up and play our role by Catherine McGuinness, City Matters,  22 June 2020: https://web.archive.org/web/20200701002557/https://www.citymatters.london/face-racism-need-stand-play-role/

Here McGuinness is glib about the most visible forms of institutional racism (memorials to colonialists, racists and slave traders) with her comment about discussions that ‘will no doubt touch on the various statues and monuments across the City that have been at the forefront of many media stories as of late.’ Our view is McGuinness would prefer to brush aside this issue rather than address it with the seriousness it merits. As we observed in our last post:

…we are not convinced the Tackling Racism Working Party announced by the City of London council on 11 June 2020 will deal effectively with this aspect of its remit (memorials)… Our lack of confidence is based on the council’s past record and its failure to get to grips with issues like the business vote or ongoing complaints from its residents about its so-called standards committee – and in particular the ongoing refusal of Edward Lord as chair of the Establishment Committee to seriously address glass ceiling issues at the council.

List of Memorials in the City of London Linked to Slavery, Colonialism  & Racism by Reclaim EC1, 25 June 2020.

To illustrate the scope of memorials linked to slavery, colonialism and racism in the City of London, we will invoke the List of individuals involved in military and administrative colonial activities memorialised in St Paul’s Cathedral in our last post. This was compiled to demonstrate the sheer range of material we were unable to address relating to City of London memorials in a reasonably lengthy – more than 5000 words – post. To do this we included a list of names without details of the colonial crimes that we could have attached to them if we’d been writing a book rather than a post. This list was for just one ecclesiastical building in the City and there are many such buildings. Charles Napier who appears in the citation from the Camden New Journal above was one of our name only entries for St Paul’s. Another was Sir John Alexander MacDonald. There is a long history of struggle against MacDonald’s memorialisation in Canada, to the extent that the Scottish government took this issue on board a couple of years ago, even if little has yet been done about his memorials in London, England (there is a MacDonald plaque in Westminster Abbey as well as his bust in St Paul’s Cathedral in the City):

As Canada continues to wrestle with the controversial legacy of its first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the country where he was born is distancing itself from him by removing all references to the polarizing figure on its government websites.

On Thursday, the Scottish government acknowledged in a statement to CTV News that it had removed articles about Macdonald’s legacy from Scotland.org, a government-run promotional website, following the “legitimate concerns” raised by Canadian Indigenous groups.

“While we want to celebrate the very positive contributions Scottish people have made across the world, we also want to present a balanced assessment of their role and are reviewing the wording of these articles in that light,” the statement read…

Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815. He immigrated to Britain’s North American colonies when he was five years old and became Canada’s first prime minister in 1867. He has long been praised for his leading role in joining the three provinces in Confederation and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Despite his role in the country’s formation, Macdonald’s government was responsible for the introduction of the residential school system that saw nearly 150,000 Indigenous children taken from their homes and forced into state-funded boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their languages or observe their cultures. Many children suffered abuse and some died during their time in the school system.

In 1879, Macdonald was quoted as saying that children should be isolated from their parents and placed into industrial schools in order to “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

The legacy of the residential school system continues to be a sore spot in relations between Canada’s Indigenous population and the government as well as a major impediment to reconciliation efforts.

Concerns about Macdonald’s questionable treatment of First Nations have resurfaced in recent weeks following the City of Victoria’s decision to remove a bronze statue of him from the steps of city hall earlier this month.

The monument was removed as part of the city’s reconciliation efforts with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

“Family members and other Indigenous peoples do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence each time they enter the doors of their municipal government,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps wrote in a blog post justifying the city’s move.

Victoria is not the only place grappling with how to respect Indigenous concerns about Macdonald’s legacy without erasing the past. In recent years, there have been growing calls to remove other statues of him across the country along with his name from buildings, such as schools.

A statue of Macdonald in Montreal has been repeatedly vandalized by groups calling him a “white supremacist” and the temporary plaque replacing the Victoria statue was spray painted a day after it was installed…

For their part, Glasgow city officials approved the demolition of the building presumed to be Macdonald’s birthplace in 2017 to make way for a condo development.

Sir John A. Macdonald scrubbed from Scottish government websites by Jackie Dunham, CTVNews, 23 August 2018: https://web.archive.org/web/20180824112212/https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/sir-john-a-macdonald-scrubbed-from-scottish-government-websites-1.4065107

To merely ‘touch on’ these memorials as City of London council boss Catherine McGuinness snidely suggests will be the case for her Tackling Racism Working Party simply isn’t good enough. Such phraseology makes it is clear neither McGuinness nor the City of London take this matter at all seriously. They are happy enough handing out a Freedom of the City of London award to Justin Onuekwusi for his inclusion work, but they have done nothing to posthumously strip the same award from the hundreds – possibly thousands – of slave traders who were given this ‘honour’ in previous centuries. The City prefers to spend its time and the interest from the huge sovereign wealth fund it has expropriated (from the people of London and elsewhere) on lobbying for neo-liberal policies around the world that serve to channel wealth away from the many to a tiny elite. The City of London council as it currently operates is a major cause of inequality – and consequently a lack of diversity – not just in the UK but globally. As we’ve said before, McGuinness Must Go!

Onuekwusi1stTweetImmediately above Justin Onuekwusi tweets about being awarded his City ‘Freedom’. Having looked through his Twitter feed we very much doubt he realises that in the past this award was given to a huge number of slave traders. In a pervious post we explicitly mentioned George Villiers as a slave trading recipient of this award but all the slave trading City grandees mentioned in that piece will have received the ‘honour’, alongside many more who were involved in the slave trade. The City’s Freedom award has also been given to paedophiles such as Hubert Chesshyre and Keith Harding – and divisive politicians like Ian Paisley Jr.

Header shows a statue of Sir John Alexander MacDonald that has been splattered with red paint to symbolise his genocidal colonial crimes. Below an infographic about MacDonald being circulated by activists in Canada.JohnAMacDonald
Below: memorial bust of Sir John Alexander MacDonald in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is a colonialist inscription beneath the bust of Canada’s first prime minister: “A British subject I was born / A British subject I will die.”
MacdonaldStPauls

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