To lie about History – Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gabriel Burne, an MA History of Art student, discusses the legacy of the historical figures whose statues have been removed and how the current debates around these monuments should encourage deeper discussion about Britain’s violent and racist past. 

“The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe.” Allegedly this was said during the trial of Shanley v. Harvey, a case where a British man, Shanley, was attempting to recoup a substantial sum of money given to Harvey by Shanley’s niece on her death bed. The basis of the claim was that Shanley had bought Harvey as a child slave to England some 12 years earlier and given him to his now deceased niece. I heard it quoted during my undergraduate degree in History in a debate about the role that slavery played in the UK economy. Even though many slaves were bought, sold and owned on the British Isles, the quote was employed as evidence of Britain’s relationship to slavery being distinct from that of the United States. Whilst the quote was likely never uttered, and the sentiment it reflected false, its popularisation reflects this Island’s complex and unresolved relationship to its violent and racist past. Much of Britain’s history of racial violence is hidden, existing only as ghosts haunting the otherwise heroic narrative of Britain and its heroes. When I embarked on a Master’s degree at Birkbeck in History of Art, it was these ghosts I wanted to know more about, in an effort to reinsert the lives and horrors which these spectres recall back into popular British history.

For many of us in Britain, our understanding of racism is taught from the perspective of the United States. The civil rights movement – Martin Luther King, the KKK, Malcolm X and segregation – are all things many in the UK have an understanding of. They are core aspects of our national curriculum and whilst they teach us important lessons on white supremacy, they create a sense of separation from the problems that exist here in Britain. To learn more about how we honour and adulate those who created this system of white supremacy in the UK, I took a module called “Slavery and its Cultural Legacies.” My reading for the course took me to some of the black theorists writing in the US currently – particularly Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. Whilst their writing was specifically speaking to an American experience, I felt there was a lot to be learned from their ideas here in the UK. Sharpe and Hartman speak of “the wake” and “the afterlife” of slavery respectively. Slavery’s violence lives on in white supremacy, a condition which is constitutive of contemporary Britain. The Research Project that I am currently writing examines the British monuments that often honour and/or neglect to acknowledge racial violence as part of the individual championed legacy.

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

In February this year, I went to the London Docklands Museum organised as part of the module. We were taken through the museum’s exhibition on slavery – London, Sugar & Slavery. The exhibition itself speaks of the ubiquity and brutality of the slave trade in the UK and is situated in the very building that was a hub for receiving the imported goods from Britain’s slave plantations. Whilst the museum takes steps to foreground black voices and highlight some of these hidden histories, a walk onto the docks outside the entrance reveals some stark reminders of this unconfronted violence. A cocktail bar serves “plantation punch” as a drink on the menu. And towering just in front of that sits a statue honouring prominent British slave trader Robert Milligan, who by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

I stared up at the dead metal eyes of Milligan looking out across the docks, posed as if smiling upon an arriving ship, bountiful with the fruits of his murderous plantations. The plinth on which the statue stands illustrates his achievements with a relief that depicts Britannia seated on her tame-looking British lion, whilst the female figure of commerce offers her riches and at her feet three cherubs help carry the bounty. The mast of an approaching ship is visible in the background, the very ships whose docking in Greenwich Milligan would have cheered.

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue.

In romanticising the wealth men like Milligan brought lady Britannia, statues such as this obscure how this wealth originated in racial violence – the lucrative cargo carried aboard these ships, and which both Milligan and Britain celebrate, were produced by the enslaved. The continued existence of these statues’ silences new voices and alternative histories under the weight of the historical indulgence upon which Britain’s current power structures relies, that of a grotesque imperial and racially violent past located elsewhere, in far-off lands.

When I embarked on researching the Milligan statue, along with the statues of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, George Floyd was still alive. The protests catalysed by his murder at the hands of three police officers have since led to each either being removed or torn down by activists. This totally unforeseeable set of events taking place as I research these statues has left my project at an incredible crossroads that changes from day-to-day. The removal of the Colston statue in Bristol by activists, followed by its symbolically poignant casting into the harbour, prompted the Milligan statue to be removed by the local council days later. It has just been announced that the Cecil Rhodes statue that sat on Oriel College and has for years been the subject of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, will likewise be removed. Commenting on these events, the Prime Minister stated that to remove these statues is to “lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come.” This statement is reminiscent of the same mental gymnastics performed by the relief that sits below the Milligan statue. Rather than being moved by watching the monuments to these men fall and cheering what is, at best, a small step toward confronting this violent past, Johnson continues the exercise of obfuscation. Not once does he mention precisely what he thinks this history is, yet he claims it to be the “truth”. To engage in the actual process of discussing this history is to highlight what these statues hide: that of a British slave-trading and imperial past not confronted, and the “afterlives” of the British slave in which non-white people in this country must live.

At the time of an anti-racist uprising alongside offering solidarity to America, we must also reflect on the constitutive role slavery and white supremacy have played in British history. As the actions of many demonstrators have movingly and powerfully shown, it is imperative to reflect on what voices are hidden when men like Colston, Milligan and Rhodes are celebrated. We must remind ourselves that the enslaved also breathed the UK’s air “too pure.”

Further reading:

On the British abolitionist movement and the Haitian revolution 

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Random HouseNew York, 1989)

US Black studies theorists and the afterlives of slavery 

Saidiya V Hartman Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007)

Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016)

Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

For British involvement in the slave trade

Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Verso, London, New York, 1993)

Catherine Hall Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016)

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School of Arts Awarded Three Research Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust

Senior Lecturer, Dorigen Caldwell, reflects on her award and looks forward to a time she can visit Italy again.

Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work!

this is a photo of a cathedral in Italy

Please tell us about your area of research. I am a Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art in the History of Art Department at Birkbeck. My area of research is early modern Italy, with a particular emphasis on religious art produced after the Council of Trent (1545-63), where the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church were discussed and codified, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. This marked a key moment in debates not only around religion, but also around the visual arts and their role in the propagation of faith.

What inspires you most when it comes to your academic pursuits? Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work! In both teaching and research, I think I am primarily interested in the history of ideas, and in thinking about the use of images within a broader historical and cultural context.

Why have you chosen this particular area of research? The title of my current research project, for which I was awarded the Leverhulme fellowship, is ‘Piety, Patronage and Politics in Early Modern Rome’. The focus of this research is a private chapel in a Roman church that was lavishly decorated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and includes an altarpiece designed by the celebrated painter, Annibale Caracci. I chose this chapel because it was commissioned by a family of cardinals who came from the Northern Italian city of Trent, where the pivotal Council was held, and which at the time was a German-speaking territory. As such, these cardinals represented the interests of German catholicism in Rome, and their family chapel represents a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between the periphery (Northern Italy/Southern Germany) and the centre (Rome) of the Catholic world at the time, and to explore ideas around images, beliefs and politics at a moment of intense artistic production.

What impact do you envisage from the research? I am due to give papers at conferences in Rome and Dublin over the next year (coronavirus permitting!) and plan to write a book which I hope will disseminate my research to a broad audience beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art history. The Leverhulme Trust will be paying for a replacement post to carry out my Birkbeck duties over the course of the next academic year (apart from my PhD students who I will continue to supervise); and I plan to make two research trips to Italy to visit churches and archives. The award allows me to focus on my research for a year, to (hopefully) travel to Italy, and to get as much of my book written as possible in the time.

And lastly, can you share your sentiments on the significance of the Fellowship? I am incredibly grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for this Fellowship, as it will make all the difference to my research, allowing me to focus on my book project over an extended period of time. I am very excited about this opportunity to devote myself to my research and I look forward to the moment when I can travel to Italy again.

Learn more about the Leverhulme Trust Fellowships.

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Why I did a PhD in my 70s

The rewards of taking on a major research project are enormous at any age. Dr Mairi McDonald discusses completing her PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies at 72, which she is now turning into a book.

2018 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo which seems to me to be the appropriate year to finish a PhD relating the artist’s paintings and their relationship with discourses on poverty in seventeenth-century Seville.

What use is a PhD to a seventy-two-year-old? Not much, you might think. However, the rewards are great: meeting the challenge of adding something new to a particular subject, the satisfaction of joining an academic community dedicated to the subject you are studying and also a huge amount of fun.

I started taking a variety of Open University courses in the history of art while I worked part-time at Channel 4 after leaving my full-time post there, then progressed to an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck. A friend had strongly recommended this course and I was attracted by the range of subjects on offer, including the chance to pursue a module on Power and Control in Spanish Golden Age Art. My dissertation for the MA made me want to continue investigating the topic of seventeenth-century Spanish painting further and keep my brain functioning in old age. Since I had retired by then, and with the support of Dr Carmen Fracchia who had supervised my MA dissertation, I enrolled as a part-time PhD at Birkbeck in what was then the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies. As a student of Early Modern Spanish art, I was the exception in a department where most PhD students were studying contemporary topics, but I found their enthusiasm and dedication stimulating. I also loved Birkbeck for the impressively wide range of students studying there and the fact that there were even a handful of people around my age. There were workshops to assist me at every phase of the PhD, from the initial stages of how to plan your work through to coping with the Viva. Above all, I received invaluable help and encouragement from my supervisor throughout.

The most difficult aspect of this work was not the research, or the writing up of my findings but learning Spanish from scratch. Learning a new language in my sixties was a tough proposition. Without Spanish, I could not read the seventeenth-century documents relevant to the PhD, such as sermons of the period, discourses on poverty, seventeenth-century chronicles on Seville as well as the writings of current Spanish scholars, none of which were available in English. Through courses at the Instituto Cervantes in London and some perseverance, I eventually attained a workable reading knowledge of Spanish.

Since surviving the viva and graduating at Birkbeck, I was invited to present a paper on Murillo and poverty at a prestigious symposium Murillo in Perspective which was held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London earlier this year and am working on converting my PhD into a book, amazing opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old!

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