History Matters Project: a compendium of evidence
This compendium, part of Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project, represents a first attempt at drawing together a range of recent developments, which all turn on the place of history in the public square – including the removal of certain statues on public display, the renaming of buildings and places, and changes to the way history is taught in university curriculums. In cataloguing these examples, we do not offer any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.
1. Thomas Guy Statue
King’s College London is planning to remove the statues of Thomas Guy (founder of Guy’s Hospital) and Robert Clayton (Lord Mayor of London from 1679 to 1680) from public view.
“Like many organisations in Britain, we know that we have a duty to address the legacy of colonialism, racism and slavery in our work. We absolutely recognise the public hurt and anger that is generated by the symbolism of public statues of historical figures associated with the slave trade in some way.
We have therefore decided to remove statues of Robert Clayton and Thomas Guy from public view, and we look forward to engaging with and receiving guidance from the Mayor of London’s Commission on each.”
2. Thomas Picton Statue, City Hall, Cardiff
The Lord Mayor of Cardiff has called for the statue of Sir Thomas Picton to be removed from Cardiff City Hall. Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton was the most senior officer to die at the battle of Waterloo. He had previously been governor of Trinidad and was a sitting member of parliament at the time of his death.
I’ve written to #Cardiff Council asking for the removal of the statue of sadistic 19th Century slave-owner, Sir Thomas Picton, from the Marble Hall in @CityHallCardiff. You can read my letter here 👇🏾👇🏾#BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/fPJuvLsmzN
— Dan De’Ath (@DeAthCardiff) June 8, 2020
I fully support @DeAthCardiff‘s calls to remove Thomas Picton from City Hall. We will bring forward a Council Motion asap. But gestures aren’t enough, so I’m also proposing a Task Force to work with Black Communities in Cardiff to establish what more we can do to support them. pic.twitter.com/lSh5e6Dx45
— Huw Thomas (@huwthomas_Wales) June 8, 2020
3. Sir John Cass Statue – University of East London
The University of East London has released a statement announcing the removal of a statue of Sir John Cass, a Merchant and Conservative member of parliament.
“The University of East London’s School of Education was renamed the Cass School of Education and Communities in 2008 following a donation from the Sir John Cass’s Foundation.
The Sir John Cass’s Foundation, established in 1748, arose from the endowment of Sir John Cass whose wealth benefited from his engagement with the slave trade. Slavery is monstrous to us all and we cannot comprehend how cultures around the world have, during some point in history, considered this not to be morally bankrupt.
The mission of the Foundation is to promote the education of young people in London, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, through its grant programmes for individuals, educational institutions and organisations.
The University’s relationship with the Sir John Cass’s Foundation has brought many benefits to our students over the years including a range of scholarships for those in hardship and contributes to the wider community with support to a variety of schools and universities.
Whilst attempting to make sense of modern philanthropic endeavours that have their historic origins in racist (or other hateful and corrupt) activity, we must ensure that any past institutional decisions are reflected upon and reviewed to enable us to fulfil our commitment to become an anti-racist institution.
Following consultation with our Black Academy and wider students and staff, we have removed the statue of Sir John Cass which was standing within the Education & Communities School Building. We will be instigating a University-wide review of all sources of historic funding together with the development of a new institutional naming policy reflecting our University values that puts equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of our transformation strategy, Vision 2028.
4. Equestrian statue of Viscount Combermere by Carlo Marochetti (Grade II listed)
A petition to remove the Equestrian statue of Viscount Combermere by Carlo Marochetti has been launched. Field Marshal Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere was a military leader, diplomat and politician and made a Field Marshal in 1855. He served under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War.
5. Robert Baden-Powell
A statue of Robert Baden-Powell – the Scouts movement founder who is accused of being a racist – has been boarded up. The council had initially planned to remove it from Poole Quay. There had been fears over the monument since protestors tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
Posted on Wednesday 10 June 2020
Statement from BCP Council – Robert Baden-Powell statue, Poole Quay
Posted on Thursday 11 June 2020
Cllr Mark Howell, Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Regeneration and Culture, said:
“Our decision yesterday evening to temporarily remove the statue of Lord Baden-Powell from Poole Quay was taken following the listing of the statue on a website detailing potential targets for protestors. This listing placed the much-loved statue at risk of damage or even destruction. We made the decision quickly in order to protect it.
“We know that local people feel proud of Lord Baden-Powell’s and the Scout movement’s links with Poole, and that some people feel that we would be giving in to the protestors by temporarily removing the statue. However, we feel it is responsible to protect it for future generations to enjoy and respect.
“We will not be removing the statue today as the foundations are deeper than originally envisaged and we need further discussions with contractors on the best way to remove it safely. Although we cannot say when any temporary removal may take place, we will be providing 24-hour security until it is either removed or the threat diminishes.
“Should the statue be removed temporarily, barring unforeseen circumstances we will return it to the Quay as soon as the threat level subsides.”
6. National Trust – Kneeling Slave Statue removed
The National Trust has removed the statue of a kneeling black man from the forecourt of Dunham Massey. The piece had been on display since the 18th century. It depicts a kneeling African man wearing a skirt of feathers and holding a sundial above his head. A nearby plaque reads: “This sundial is in the style of one commissioned by King William III. It represents Africa, one of four continents known at the time. The figure depicts a Moor, not a slave, and he has knelt here since before 1750.”
The National Trust said:
“We have taken the decision to move the statue that sits at the front of the house at Dunham Massey.”
“The statue has caused upset and distress because of the way it depicts a black person and because of its prominence at the front of the house.”
“We don’t want to censor or deny the way colonial histories are woven into the fabric of our buildings. For these reasons, we have decided to move it safely from its previous location while we make plans to address it in a way that fully acknowledges the appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade.”
7. Topple the racists: “A crowdsourced map of UK statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism”
Topple the racists is a collaborative map of ‘problematic’ statues in the UK. The markers redirect to local petitions.
“Topple the Racists is inspired by the direct action taken by Bristolians. Statues are exercises of public adoration. And Edward Colston made his fortune in the slave trade. He was part of a system of mass murder, torture and human suffering. We must learn from, not venerate, this terrible chapter in British colonial history. We have included cases where there is responsibility for colonial violence.”
8. Blue Plaque: “Admiral Sir Edward Codrington 1770-1851 hero of the Battle of Navarino lived here”
Admiral Sir Edward Codrington was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and took part in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Navarino. A plaque bearing his name was destroyed on 12 June 2020 by building managing agent on instruction from freeholder.
“The managing agent of the building said he had consulted with the freeholder after being alerted to the possible offence it was causing yesterday afternoon.
The freeholder had agreed to take it down, and it was removed with a hammer by 8am this morning.
The agent said: “A chap strolled into our office yesterday afternoon and said about the plaque.
“We took some instructions from the owners and organised for it to be taken down this morning, just to make sure if doesn’t offend anybody.”
Yesterday, the council said it was reviewing all local plaques, statues, building and road names in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Becca Bashford, a student at Sussex who was one of the authors of the letter, said this morning: “I’m so glad this plaque has been removed so swiftly.
“It symbolises a part of British history which we should refuse to glorify, and doesn’t reflect the ethos of our amazing city.
“I look forward to seeing the council continue to listen to their community and make efforts to be actively anti-racist and anti-imperialist.”
Codrington was honoured with a plaque by the Brighton and Hove Commemorative Plaque Panel for being a hero of the Battle of Trafalfgar and Battle of Navarino.”
9. Cromwell Statue outside Parliament
Lord Adonis, the former transport secretary, has argued that “Cromwell’s statue should be removed from outside Parliament and put in a museum”.
“Cromwell was a military dictator who ended up abolishing Parliament and committing genocide in Ireland. He has no place outside Parliament – unlike Churchill, who led the successful national and international resistance to Hitler and Nazi dictatorship.” Lord Adonis has “asked the parliamentary authorities whether they will hold a public consultation on removing Oliver Cromwell’s statue from outside Parliament.”
He has also called for the statue of Robert Clive outside the Foreign Office to be removed, and for Milner Hall and Rhodes House to be renamed.
10. Parliament Artwork
The curator of parliament’s art collection told The Guardian that many artefacts in Westminster have a “racist history” and were bought with slave-owning and colonial wealth.
Melissa Hamnett, also the head of heritage collections in the Palace of Westminster, said that officials and parliamentarians were attempting to re-evaluate how to present the UK’s involvement in exploitation whilst commissioning new artworks that portray black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and female MPs.
Hamnett, who took up her role last year, said the parliamentary authorities were looking again at the collection of more than 9,000 artefacts in light of the BLM movement and wanted to be open about the UK’s links to exploitative and cruel practices.
“The British empire is part of our story and we have to recognise that many of our collections have a racist history. Let’s be honest about that colonial and imperial past and also look at the slave-owning wealth that endowed some of the artefacts,” she said.”
11. Milligan Statue – Museum of London
The Museum of London has removed the statue of Robert Milligan, a prominent Scottish merchant and ship-owner.
“The statue of Robert Milligan has stood uncomfortably outside the Museum of London Docklands for a long time, one of only three museums in the UK to address the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
Robert Milligan was a prominent British Slave trader who, by the time of his death in 1809, owned 2 sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica. A statue made by Sir Richard Westmacott was moved in 1997 to West India Quay, opposite the Museum of London Docklands, in honour of Milligan’s ‘genius, perseverance and guardian care’, as a commemoration to his achievements.
The Museum of London recognises that the monument is part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity. At the Museum of London we stand against upholding structures that reproduce violence, and have previously engaged in interventions that critically engage with pro-slavery lobbying.
We are committed to the processes of learning and unlearning as fostered in our London, Sugar & Slavery gallery, which opened in 2007 at the Museum of London Docklands. This gallery tells the history of the transatlantic slave trade and London’s involvement as once the fourth largest slaving port in the world. The museum, being another physical manifestation of slavery situated in an old sugar warehouse, constantly challenges the contentious nature of this history.
Now more than ever at a time when Black Lives Matter is calling for an end to public monuments honouring slave owners, we advocate for the statue of Robert Milligan to be removed on the grounds of its historical links to colonial violence and exploitation.
We are currently working with a consortium to remove this statue and are aware of other legacies and landmarks within the area. The statue presently stands shrouded with placards and is now an object of protest, we believe these protests should remain as long as the statue remains.”
12. Cecil Rhodes Statue, Oriel College Oxford
Oriel College Oxford’s governing body have voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a mining magnate and politician in southern Africa. He served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. In his last will, he provided for the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarship, an international postgraduate award for students to study at the University of Oxford.
17 June, 2020
“The Governing Body of Oriel College has today (Wednesday 17th June) voted to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue. They also expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the King Edward Street Plaque. This is what they intend to convey to the Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Both of these decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world.
The Commission will deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past.
At today’s meeting, the Governing Body also approved the appointment of an independent Chair for the Commission of Inquiry, Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who in turn will approach a number of individuals drawn from the worlds of academia, education policy, law, politics and journalism. The commission is intending to draw upon the greatest possible breadth and depth of experience, opinion and background.
The Inquiry will, in turn, invite submissions from a broad range of stakeholders from Oxford itself and the country as a whole; the students, representatives of Rhodes Must Fall and Oxford City council, as well as alumni of Oxford and Oriel and citizens of the city. Written and oral evidence will be requested. It is intended that some oral evidence sessions will be held in public, with similar rules of engagement to that of a parliamentary select committee.
By setting up this commission, Oriel governing body is demonstrating that it is willing to be guided by all its stakeholders.
The Governing Body believes that this decision will allow a serious, appropriate and productive resolution of a complex series of issues.
Ms Souter has insisted on a thorough process – but conducted at pace – and set to report to the Governing Body by the end of the year.”
13. Sir Robert Geffrye Statue – Museum of the Home
The Museum of the Home has announced a consultation about the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, an English merchant and former Lord Mayor of London.
A message from Sonia Solicari, Director of the Museum of the Home:
“As the Museum of the Home we are aware of how surroundings impact both shared identity and a sense of self. Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want our museum to represent.
“We know that for many the statue of Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions. We want to ensure the voices of our communities are heard in this important debate.”
About the decision making
We will present the feedback from this consultation to the Museum’s board of trustees. They will consider it alongside other information before making their decision on the future of the statue.
We are committed to anti-racism and equity
The Museum must be more inclusive and accessible. We will continue to consult with our local communities so that we can better represent Black communities and other under-represented voices in our galleries, programming, workforce and visitors.
About the wider consultation
We are partnering with Hackney Council to consult our communities about the future of the statue, how we tell the story of the origins of the Museum’s buildings and what the name Geffrye means to you.
Hackney Council will run a wider review of landmarks and the naming of public spaces in the borough. For information about the wider review. This consultation is about the statue and no other use of the name Geffrye.
14. Review into landmarks and naming of public spaces launched – Hackney Council
Hackney Council has launched a review into the naming of landmarks and public spaces.
Hackney,10 June 2020
The role of statues and the naming of buildings, street names, parks and other public spaces will be reviewed to ensure they best reflect Hackney’s diversity and history of fighting racism.
The review, led by Hackney Council, will listen to the views of residents, partners and others about how to tackle public spaces named after slave and plantation owners.
The Council welcomes and will also take part in the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which will focus on increasing representation among London’s diverse communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups in public spaces.
The borough’s former Geffrye Museum – which is housed in almshouses built with money from Sir Robert Geffrye, a merchant involved with the slave trade – is planning to reopen later this year as the Museum of the Home. The museum, run by an independent charity, is already actively debating the future of the statue of Sir Robert that stands in front of the building, which will also be part of these reviews.
Later this month, the Council will announce the outcome of its Windrush Artwork Commission, which will see a permanent, public artwork created in the Town Hall Square to honour the contribution of the Windrush Generation. This is the culmination of many months of engagement with all parts of the community about how best to mark the contribution they have made to our borough.
Hackney is a hugely diverse borough with a proud tradition of fighting racism and intolerance, yet some of our public spaces do not best reflect this.
The Black Lives Matter protests – as well as the events in Bristol and elsewhere over the last few days – have caused many of us to reflect and reconsider those figures in our borough’s history who made their fortune from the slave trade or exploitation and how they have been commemorated.
Hackney was also home to inspirational slave abolitionists and campaigners, but their names and stories do not adorn our public spaces in the same way.
This is not about trying to rewrite history – but we should question whether these statues, plaques, and building, park and street names belong in a museum to educate us about our past, rather than being celebrated into the future.
I am pleased to respond to that challenge and start this review, but this also isn’t all up to me – it’s up to the people of Hackney. This review will listen to the public, our institutions and our historians about how and why these spaces are named or celebrated in this way, so we can come to a collective decision.
It is on all of us to educate ourselves about our borough’s history, which is why this review will build on the existing work of our museum and archives. It will also build on the work we already do to showcase black history.
Our national curriculum must be updated to reflect these issues. In the meantime, our local curriculum will include enhanced educational materials on how black history has shaped Hackney – so that our children and young people get more opportunities to learn about these issues than many of us did when we were younger.
Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney
More details about the review and opportunities for residents and organisations to have their say will be published in the coming weeks.
Hackney Museum has long explored the borough’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade, including producing a film in partnership with University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, Hackney Museum and Archives, funded by Arts Council England through the Share Academy programme.
15. General Sir Redvers Buller Statue – Exeter
The Leader of Labour led Exeter City Council is calling for a review into the future of the city’s famous statue of General Buller. General Buller, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, was Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in South Africa and subsequently commanded the army in Natal until his return to England in November 1900.
“The Local Government Association Labour Group, who provide a national voice for the party in local government, have overwhelming agreement from all Labour led councils that they will listen to and work with their local communities to review the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property.
In Exeter this means the party will table a motion calling for a review into the future of the statue at the next council meeting.
Council Leader Phil Bialyk said: “I feel the time is right to carry out a review, taking into account the views of people in our city. Exeter is a diverse community which in the main is at peace with itself. It’s important how we remember and teach future generations about our history.
We will consult on how we do this. But it isn’t my gift or that of my colleagues to make a unilateral decision, it’s one that the whole city must come to terms with. The values and sentiment behind the Black Lives Matter movement are incredibly important to myself and colleagues. We will listen to opinions and use the platforms that we have as politicians, to make sure, that all voices are heard.”
The statue was paid for by money raised by the people of Devon and unveiled on ‘Buller Day’ in 1905. It is currently situated on land owned by Devon County Council, with the monument itself maintained by the city council.
It was given Grade II listing preservation status in 1953 so any complete or partial removal or relocation would require widespread consultation. It would also require formal planning consent along with permission from Historic England”
16. Renaming of the Gladstone Building at the University of Liverpool
The University of Liverpool is renaming a building named after the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone.
“Gladstone Hall is part of the University of Liverpool’s Greenbank site which was demolished and recently rebuilt. Discussions between the University and its Guild of Students around naming this Hall have been in progress for some time.
A recent open letter from current students calling for the Hall to be renamed has further highlighted that this is an important issue within our University community. The selection of an alternative name will be a democratic process involving students and colleagues across the University.
We have an important opportunity to ensure that the name of this new hall reflects our values of equality and respect while sending a clear message about the commitments we have made to our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and student community.”
Imperial College has announced it has updated its crest to no longer include the motto ‘Scientia imperii decus et tutamen’ which can be translated as ‘Scientific knowledge, the crowning glory and the safeguard of the empire’.
“We acknowledge that this motto is a reminder of a historical legacy that is rooted in colonial power and oppression. We choose not to deny that history but not to be defined by it either. As of 2020 we have updated the crest to no longer include this motto and it will not be used on any new materials. This is to better reflect the College’s culture and values today and our commitment to support a diverse and inclusive community.”
“Imperial can stop using its motto, but cannot simply reword it. Unlike most universities, Imperial’s historic Latin motto was assigned to the institution as part of its Royal Warrant in 1908. This means that while Imperial can choose to stop displaying it, it cannot be changed or reworded unilaterally. Introducing a new motto would require a new Royal Warrant to be issued by The Queen, as well as approval from the College of Arms.”
18. UCL denames buildings named after eugenicists
University College London is renaming buildings named after Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. Francis Galton was a Victorian explorer, anthropologist and scientist. Karl Pearson was a mathematician and biostatistician.
“UCL has today announced it will dename spaces and buildings named after two prominent eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson.”
“The move is one step in a range of actions aimed at acknowledging and addressing the university’s historical links with the eugenics movement. It follows a series of recommendations made by members of the Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL, which reported earlier this year.
A Response Group of senior UCL representatives – including academic staff, equality experts and the Students’ Union – is being formed to consider all the recommendations from the Inquiry.
The group will be chaired by Professor Dame Hazel Genn and will look at action such as funding new scholarships to study race and racism, a commitment to ensure UCL staff and students learn about the history and legacy of eugenics and the creation of a research post to further examine the university’s history of eugenics. It will report with an implementation plan for consideration by Academic Board and approval by UCL’s Council.
19. Renaming of Beckford Primary School
Beckford Primary School has announced a consultation about its name. William Beckford is a former Lord Mayor of London.
As you may have seen today, there has been a lot of interest in local newspapers and on social media, regarding the origins of Beckford Primary School’s name.
In the news, you may have also seen that, across the country, statues, monuments and place names that have troubling associations are causing real pain and grief right now for local communities.
In response to this, Camden Council have set up a cross-party review to examine statues, monuments and place names. As a school, we stand together with the local authority in rejecting racism.
We also believe in educating our children, so that we can move forward together towards an equal society. Yesterday, I met with governors to discuss changing the name of the school and we agreed that, subject to the outcome of the Camden review, we will seek to start the process on consulting with stakeholders about a new name.
Therefore, we will initially be consulting parents of children at the school, whose views will take priority. We are committed to engaging with the school community and will involve our families, staff, governors and children within any decision making.
20. Rename Rhodes House – Letter from Councillors
Councillors in Camden have written an open letter asking for the removal of “symbols of racism from our urban landscape”. This includes renaming a block named after Cecil Rhodes.
Cecil Rhodes House in Somers Town
- WE write to support calls by Black Lives Matter activists to remove symbols of racism from our urban landscape.
While the world should not forget the key aims of the protests in tearing down all aspects of structural racism, symbols do matter where they create daily grinding reminders of the way our society has too often honoured the perpetrators of racism, instead of its victims.
In Camden we have a block named after Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century businessman and imperialist in Southern Africa whose legacy is symbolic of racism and prejudice against Black people. Rhodes (in)famously believed that White people were a “master race”.
Rhodes’ legacy has no place in a borough which values equality and inclusiveness and, in this light, we would strongly urge our colleagues to support the Black Lives Matter activists who are calling on all decision-makers to uphold anti-racist values.
We feel that the time has come for us in Camden to rid our borough of symbols that glorify racism whether past, present or future.
It is welcome that the council has set up a working group on place names with racist associations; however some decisions on this are obvious and can be taken without delay.
In that respect we are requesting that the council rename Cecil Rhodes House immediately without needing to wait for the outcomes of the working group.
While there will be different thoughts about the new name the block should be given, we would say a good starting point for these thoughts would be to honour the man whose murder has sparked so much consideration of structural racism – and to consider naming the block George Floyd House.
Labour Councillors: Maryam Eslamdoust, Sue Vincent, Douglas Beattie, Thomas Gardiner, Georgie Robertson, Gail Mcanena Wood, Nayra Bello O’shanahan, Leo Cassarani, Ranjit Singh, Simon Pearson
21. Rhodes Birthplace Trust Renamed
The Rhodes Birthplace Trust is to be renamed “The Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts CIO”.
Statement from the chair of the trust:
“I will now seek to address some of the questions that we have received from local residents. As many of you will be aware, the future of venue and the role it will play in the town has been under discussion for some time following the announcement of the intention to build a new arts venue as part of the “Old River Lane” development. In anticipation of the likely changes that will be required of the Arts Complex, a working party was established slightly over two years ago to explore the issues and draw up some recommendations for future change. Although the start of this process considerably pre-dated the advent of the BLM protests and in many cases they are still “work in progress”, their content is highly relevant and, given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to share one of them with you at this time.
In order to update and improve the governance arrangements for the complex in anticipation of the future challenges it will face, it was agreed that the Trust should seek to convert to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO). This process was formally commenced with the Charity Commission approximately 5 months ago and is now well on its way to completion. The Trustees agreed sometime ago that the new CIO will be called ‘The Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts CIO’ thereby replacing the name of its predecessor ‘The Rhodes Birthplace Trust’.
Once the new (Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts) CIO has been fully established (this will still take some time for the process to complete) it will start to set the parameters of what will be the new operating organization. It has always been the intention for the (Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts) CIO to consult with local residents at that time to discuss proposals for the name of this organization and the venue as a whole.
As I hope you can see, we are already actively engaged in an ongoing process that will enable us to make sure that whatever future name for the complex is decided on, it will be one that has been chosen in consultation with our many visitors and supporters and is truly reflective of the wishes of our local community.
Deirdre Glasgow, Chair of Rhodes Birthplace Trust
22. Cross-party review group to examine statues, monuments and place names
Camden Council has stated its commitment to “reviewing the existing naming of buildings, streets, public spaces and memorials within the London Borough of Camden”.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone who is calling to end racism and inequality around the world and here in Camden. These calls must translate into real change – and we want to work with Camden residents to challenge racial inequality at every level.”
“We have seen across the country that some statues, monuments and place names are causing real pain and grief right now for communities. I myself feel very uncomfortable that certain figures are on a pedestal when what they stand for is so incompatible with our values and, in some cases, inextricably linked to racist brutal oppression.
“In Camden we have a history of honouring great activists and amazing individuals who dedicated their life to freeing others from oppression and dismantling inequalities. Camden has a long association with the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in 1985 this was recognised through the naming of Mandela Street. More recently, tenants at our Bourne Estate chose to name their new block after Olaudah Equiano, a man who experienced the horrors of slavery himself, before becoming a leading black campaigner for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
“However, there are a few places in Camden whose names have troubling associations – and we need to have an urgent, informed and open discussion with our communities about changing these. We need to act fast – but also act in a sensitive and consistent way.
“We are setting up a cross-party review group, chaired by Councillor Abdul Hai, our Cabinet Member for Young People and Cohesion, to urgently take stock of place names in Camden and make some decisions on a way forward that takes full account of equality, heritage and community considerations. This group will work with tenants and residents’ associations, our schools and community institutions, to ensure that there is full discussion and education on these important issues. I also encourage any resident to get in contact about concerns they may have to contribute to the wider debate. Our work will also feed into the commission being led by the Mayor of London that is examining the diversity of London’s public realm.
“We stand together in Camden in rejecting racism – in educating all generations and in moving forward together towards an equal society.
Councillor Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council”
A cross-party Working Group will meet for the first time in the next two weeks to consider existing naming of buildings, streets, public spaces and memorials within the London Borough of Camden.
The group will be chaired by Councillor Abdul Hai, our Cabinet Member for Young People and Cohesion, and will also include, but not be limited to, Cllr Awale Olad, Cllr Sabrina Francis, Cllr Nazma Rahman, Cllr Richard Cotton, Cllr Gio Spinella and Cllr Tom Simon. The group will also draw on non-political representation and expertise.
The Working Group will consider buildings, streets, public spaces and memorials in Camden both within and outside Council ownership
The Working Group will consider approaches to engaging with building owners and communities, and will also consider guidelines for future memorials and naming opportunities.
23. Plymouth Council renames Sir John Hawkins Square
Plymouth Council is renaming Sir John Hawkins Square. Sir John Hawkins was a Rear Admiral, one of three main commanders of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, alongside Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher.
“We have already removed the signs on the square and will start the renaming process, which involves an opportunity for people to give their views. We are doing this because we have listened to views and recognise it causes particular offence due to Hawkins’ close involvement in the slave trade.”
Council Leader Tudor Evans made this statement to the Cabinet on 9 June:
“I would like to start by saying our thoughts are with the family and friends of George Floyd. As a Council we have already signalled that we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and everyone who continues to challenge racism, discrimination and inequality.
As a gesture of Plymouth’s support we lit some of our landmarks in purple over the weekend.
This terrible event in the US illustrates how deeply discrimination and oppression – both past and present – are felt and it has highlighted once again that Plymouth needs to continue to acknowledge some aspects of its own past.
We have an incredible maritime history are we very proud of this heritage but we also recognise that the way in which the stories of those seafarers has been told over the centuries has until recent years, downplayed the role that Elizabethan sailors such as Sir John Hawkins played in the slave trade.
We cannot change history and nor do we seek to but we can use it as a reminder of the atrocities of the past and as a way of remembering the victims of slavery and oppression.
We recognise our responsibility for ensuring we condemn the role these figures played in this awful trade and how offensive many people find what they see as their glorification.
The Box, which will open later this year, will tell a much fuller story about our city’s seafaring history and will fully acknowledge the terrible role that the likes of Sir John Hawkins played in the slave trade.
We fully understand the feelings of those who find the naming of a square created in the early 1980s after Hawkins offensive and we have listened and started the process of renaming the square.
We also think it is important to acknowledge and commemorate the victims of the slave trade with a new memorial to those who lost their lives and liberty. We will put this in the Peace Garden on The Hoe.
We will also aim to ensure that where possible existing monuments such as the listed statue of Sir Francis Drake on The Hoe are accompanied by a narrative referring to their role in the slave trade.
While we acknowledge this terrible side to our city’s history, we also need to remember that Plymouth played an important role in the eventual abolition of the slave trade and that it also has a long and proud history of welcoming oppressed communities.”
24. Renaming of South Molton Community College Houses
South Molton Community College has announced the renaming of the college houses. The current houses are named after the naval commanders Drake, Hawkins, Grenville and Raleigh.
“As a school we have been discussing for some time the House names at SMCC. We recognise that the names currently used are inappropriate and certainly do not represent the values and ethos of SMCC. The current names are all male and have links to the slave trade, colonisation, subjugation, exploitation and suppression.
The plan had been that during last half term a working party would look at changing to House names that are more representative of our School. However, lockdown has prevented this moving forward. The horrific events in America and the Black Lives Matter Campaign have rightly brought the matter to the fore once more.
I have been in discussion with my senior colleagues and the Governing Board about the matter and they are in agreement that the matter needs addressing. I have invited representatives of the student body to join us in driving this agenda forward. In the short term we are going to refer to the Houses simply by their letters, D, G, H and R rather than their current names.
The working party will be tasked with finding a suitable set of names and branding for the Houses. This process has to be done with due diligence and appropriate consultation. In addition, the curriculum within the school has in the past year been modified in terms of ‘Learning to Learn’, SMSC, PSCHE and Assembly time to greater reflect all manner of social issues, including ethnic diversity and the BAME agenda. We do firmly believe that there is more work to be done in this area, but in-roads have been made.
I do hope I have your support in this matter and I will keep you informed at each stage of the process.
DJ Lewis, Principal”
The Bank of England has apologised for the connections of some former Governors and Directors to the slave trade.
“There can be no doubt that the eighteenth and nineteenth century slave trade was an unacceptable part of English history. As an institution, the Bank of England was never itself directly involved in the slave trade, but is aware of some inexcusable connections involving former Governors and Directors and apologises for them. The Bank has commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former Governors and Directors to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the Bank. The Bank is committed to improving diversity and is actively engaging with staff, particularly with our BAME colleagues, to help us identify and shape concrete steps that can be taken now to progress the Bank’s efforts to be as inclusive as possible.”
26. Church of England
The Church of England has said that it is a source of shame that some members of the Church perpetrated slavery or profited from it.
“Slavery and exploitation have no place in society.
“While we recognise the leading role clergy and active members of the Church of England played in securing the abolition of slavery, it is a source of shame that others within the Church actively perpetrated slavery and profited from it.
“In 2006 the General Synod of the Church of England issued an apology, acknowledging the part the Church itself played in historic cases of slavery.
We reiterate our commitments to support every effort by the Church and other agencies to oppose human trafficking and all other manifestations of slavery across the world.
“The Church of England is actively committed to combatting slavery in all its forms today, particularly through the work of the Clewer Initiative which works with our 42 dioceses to help support victims of modern slavery and identify the signs of exploitation in their communities.”
A Lloyd’s spokesman told The Telegraph: “We are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the 18th and 19th-century slave trade. This was an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period.”
“Decolonising” The Curriculum
28. University of Kent
“Decolonising the Curriculum Project (DCP) at UoK (funded by Teaching Enhancement Award and led by Dr Suhraiya Jivraj, Senior Lecturer in Law)
Students are increasingly demanding a ‘liberated curriculum’ that represents their diversity as we see from #liberatemydegree, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and other movements mentioned above as well as Kent Student Union campaign ‘Diversify My Curriculum’.
Also at UoK law and politics students on the Race, Religion and Law module (convened by Dr Suhraiya Jivraj) have relished the opportunity both in workshops and through their assessment to explore both historical and contemporary issues that enable them to acquire ‘consciousness of their own position and struggle’ in society and education.
The UoK EDI Project phase II strategy acknowledges this need in affirming that the ‘white curriculum acts as a barrier to inclusivity’ including because ‘it fails to legitimise contributions to knowledge from people of colour’. Phase II therefore seeks to ensure that ‘our curriculum reflects and addresses a range of perspectives’ and asks how this can be operationalised specifically at UoK. Modules like RRL and others in KLS are already operationalising a more inclusive curriculum requiring students to engage with key works from critical race/religion and decolonial studies which offer alternative perspectives to those heteronormative and euro-centric perspectives of white, able-bodied men dominating the western canon.
This project will go one significant step further by placing students of colour as well as knowledge produced by people of colour at the centre. Being a student led project is crucial as it empowers them to become change actors and co-producers of knowledge, shaping the agenda and curriculum that seeks to include them. Moreover, it enables them to be ‘assets’ rather than see themselves represented as quantitative data in University diversity reports which does not capture the nuance and complexity of their lived realities. Empowerment for self-determination at the grassroots level is key as is apparent from student led movements that have already effected change in the curriculum.
The desire for self and culturally intelligible knowledge is now well documented including in the University of Kent, Student Success (EDI) Project, Phase I:Report 2 ‘Theory and research on race and attainment in UK higher education’ by Hensby and Mitton (2017). This project seeks to operationalise this further and more broadly through the following three interlinked activities:
1) Focus groups:
- Up to five stage 3 students will lead focus groups of five to ten BAME students from across the KLS UG programme.
- The focus group leaders will form a research team and design the format and questions collaboratively, under the supervision of Dr Jivraj, using naturalistic methods and going through the KLS ethics approval process.
2) Publication of findings:
- The data from the focus groups will be collated by the research team and will produce an accessible output such as a ‘manifesto of suggestions’ on making the curriculum more inclusive and a co-authored e-book.
- The research team will also be supported in publishing findings via a blog and social media.
3) Student led conference
- The workshop committee will organise a half day student led conference to discuss the findings and invite speakers from campaigns such as the NUS #liberatemydegree campaign; Why is My Curriculum White? (based at UCL); Decolonising our Minds SOAS; and the #Rhodesmustfall student movements and at least one academic speaker. Watch this space for further details.”
29. De Montfort University – Leicester
De Montford University Leicester has recommitted to “decolonise” the university.
“This letter is a declaration of our position and is something we wanted to share directly with our university community, as we recommit to our work on Decolonising DMU.”
“Empirical evidence identifies the outcomes of blatant and covert racism are exhibited on a daily basis in our criminal justice system, education system, employment environments, the health and welfare systems and within government policy and actions.”
30. Oxford Brookes
Oxford Brookes University Library: Decolonising the Curriculum
A presentation entitled “The Role of the Librarian in Decolonising the Curriculum” at Oxford Brookes University Library on 17th June 2019. Geoff Morgan discusses how librarians at both Kent University and the University of the Arts London have contributed to making the curriculum more inclusive by carrying out an audit of reading lists and noting the ethnicity and gender of each author. Watch the video here.
Diversifying the Curriculum
According to the website, the university-wide project’s aims are to:
– increase the visibility of BME/BAME representation in Western contexts;
– improve critical thinking by using taught content to build conceptual frameworks to prevent unconscious bias and challenge assumptions;
– provide varied biographic references (spoken, visual and printed) in taught content;
– sustain work to internationalise reading lists;
– enable all students to gain further insight into their fields of study by looking at a subject through a wider range of lenses (e.g. historical, legal, ethical, cultural, social or political dimensions).
31. Keele University
“Keele Decolonising the Curriculum Network” outlines what it would mean to decolonise the curriculum:
Why is My Curriculum So White?
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO DECOLONISE THE UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM?
Decolonising the curriculum means, first of all, acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone. It is a cumulative and shared resource that is available to all. Knowledge (and culture) is collectively produced and human beings of all races, ethnicities, classes , genders, sexual orientations, and disabilities have as much right as elite white men to understand what our roles and contributions have been in shaping intellectual achievements and shifting culture and progress.
Decolonising the curriculum is to recognise that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations. Our universities exist in a global economy of knowledge, with a definite hegemonic centre, reflecting hierarchies of race, class and gender. At the top of this hierarchy sit the knowledge institutions of the global North, databanks and research centres supported by the wealth of European and North American powers. This hegemonic position is not just a matter of the wealth of the global North. Our world is still shaped by a long colonial history in which white upper class men are at the top of social hierarchy, most disciplines give disproportionate significance to the experiences, histories and achievements of this one group.
Decolonising is about rethinking, reframing and reconstructing the current curriculum in order to make it better, and more inclusive. It is about expanding our notions of good literature so it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, and one way of being in the world. It is about considering how different frameworks, traditions and knowledge projects can inform each other, how multiple voices can be heard, and how new perspectives emerge from mutual learning.
Decolonising is not just about bringing in minority ethnic writers and texts, but also how we read ‘traditional mainstream’ texts. Decolonising is far more nuanced than just replacing authors, and it is more than just the topics covered in a course. It concerns not only what is taught and how it is critiqued, but how it is taught, which gives rise to an understanding of decolonisation that addresses how academic literacies are experienced.
Decolonising means identifying ways in which the university structurally reproduces colonial hierarchies; confronting, challenging and rejecting the status quo; and reimagining them and putting alternatives into practice for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability.
Decolonising the curriculum means creating spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the university on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum, and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world.
Decolonisation is not a project over which one group can claim sole custodianship. Non-white and white academics and students are in this together. This will involve conscious, deliberate, non-hypocritical and diligent interest by both non-white and white members of the university in all knowledge systems, cultures, peoples and languages.
Decolonising requires sustained collaboration, discussion and experimentation among groups of teachers and students, who themselves have power to make things happen on the ground and think about what might be done differently. The change will take different forms in different universities and disciplines. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Decolonising is thinking about how students experience the university differently. Race, gender, disability and class all demonstrably impact student attainment and experiences of exclusion from the university environment. These are linked to the university’s historic identity and mission, as well as wider structural inequalities within society.
Decolonising requires the courage to admit that any knowledge could and should be open to challenge and question; regardless of its original power relations. This is the only way to avoid the mere ‘displacement’ of one curriculum coloniser by another.
Decolonising is about how we can ensure a system where all those who engage with the university to make their living, or to study, can do so under conditions of dignity, respect and security.
32. Goldsmiths University
Goldsmiths University Library explains their efforts to decolonise the collections
As part of the Library’s strategy, we will engage with the aims of LTAS commitment to ‘Liberate our degrees’.
- We will work to diversify our collections, to de-centre Whiteness, to challenge non-inclusive structures in knowledge management and their impact on library collections, users, and services
- We will take an intersectional approach to our liberation work to encompass the many parts of a person’s identity
We are doing this work to decolonise and diversify our collections as part of an effort to ensure the library collections speak to all voices, particularly those that are traditionally underrepresented in curricula and on reading lists.
We want to work in a collaborative way with our users in identifying the subject areas that do not address their experiences and identities, and where the canon excludes them. Please see below about how you can make suggestions for purchase.
How we are doing this
We are working alongside Goldsmiths Students’ Union to ensure access, inclusion, and robust learning support for all our students.
Purchasing new books and resources as part of ‘Liberate our degrees’
Students and staff can make new book suggestions as part of ‘Liberate our degrees’.
If you would like to suggest an item for purchase, use the item request form and select ‘Yes’ for the ‘Liberate our degrees’ initiative question.
You can also make suggestions by emailing: acquisitions (@gold.ac.uk), with the Subject line: Liberate.
All suggestions bought will be discoverable as a collection in Library Search.
You can view all the books and resources for Goldsmiths ‘Liberate our Degree’ by searching for the keyword ‘liberatemydegree’ on Library Search.
Decolonising the curriculum
Collaborating with academic departments and students to identify marginalised groups not represented in the curriculum, and reflect those groups in the acquisition of learning and teaching resources.
Diversifying Reading Lists
Collaborating with teaching staff to create decolonised and inclusive Reading Lists to better represent the identities and experiences of our student body.
Resistance Researching Workshops
We offer a series of workshops designed to help students think more critically about how we find and why we use information from a social justice perspective. Come along to try out some practical techniques to expand your research horizons and learn about ‘Liberate our Library’.
- Resistance Researching: A Critical Approach to Information Gathering – This workshop aims to empower participants to understand why all the books they need aren’t shelved in one place in the library, to critically assess bias in library systems, and to proactively seek multiple perspectives in information gathering
- Resistance Researching: Inclusive Citation – This workshop aims to enable participants to understand that academic references and citations have a purpose (and a power) beyond plagiarism, and provide practical tips on how to resist privileging dominant voices by engaging in a practice of inclusive citation
See the Academic Skills Centre page for further details.
Liberate! Zines Collection
The Liberate! Zines Collection is an ongoing project and a dedicated space for recognising the intersectionality of struggles for black, POC (People of Colour), LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex and Asexual), disabled, women and otherwise institutionally oppressed groups through listening and including the voices of the most marginalised. The zines collection at Goldsmiths will support work around decolonising the curriculum. You can make suggestions for purchase by filling in the form below or emailing: acquisitions (@gold.ac.uk), with the Subject line: Liberate! Zines
33. Balliol, Oxford
A number of faculties in Oxford have been taking initiatives in recent years to ‘decolonise’ their curricula. Balliol students, both undergraduate and graduate, and Fellows, have been actively engaged in this work.
“One example is International Relations, a discipline frequently criticised for its Eurocentrism, whose dominant theories, concepts and approaches have been largely derived from European and US history and whose disciplinary development has been dominated by the West. One of the most important figures in the development of the subject in Oxford was Hedley Bull (Montague Burton Professor 1977-1985 and Professorial Fellow of Balliol), whose central preoccupation was with the Third World challenge and what he termed the revolt against Western dominance. Bull’s work and the critiques it provoked came to serve as a vital reference point for the more recent upsurge of work, including by Balliol graduate students, on what is now more frequently described as the globalisation of Western international society, on non-Western thought and theory, and on the international relations of different areas and regions of the world. Andrew Hurrell (Professorial Fellow and the current Montague Burton Professor of International Relations) has played a leading role in these developments; he has led curriculum changes and organised workshops and teaching seminars on such subjects as Provincializing Westphalia, Contested Narratives of the Global, and How to Study Global IR; he has also been a member of the International Studies Association Global Task Force.
A further example is the wide-ranging reform of the History curriculum implemented in recent years, in which Martin Conway (Professor of Contemporary European History, MacLellan-Warburg Fellow and Tutor in History) played a role with many colleagues during his term as Chair of the History Faculty Board. Contrary to some newspaper coverage of these changes, this was not about effacing British History, but about locating British and European History in wider global frames of reference and encouraging History students to take at least one paper from beyond the British and European shores of the curriculum. This is a significant shift at University level, but in fact reflects choices that the large majority of Balliol History students had been making for a good decade or more.
Another example of how Balliol’s Fellows engage with questions of the curriculum and practices of research can be found in the work of Anand Venkatkrishnan, who was elected Balliol’s first Asoke Kumar Sarkar Research Fellow in Classical Indology in 2015. This post was endowed by the generosity of the ABP Group with the intent of furthering the study of India primarily through textual and epigraphic sources, with the focus on India’s classical languages, such as Sanskrit and Prakrit. Now based at the University of Chicago, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Divinity School, Anand is actively engaged in the study of the history of South Asian Studies in the US, and the impact that early Sanskritists and Orientalists had in defining the field and establishing dominant research agendas which continue to influence the subject today.”
34. University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow is considering possible acts of reparative justice for its links to the slave trade.
“The University formed a History of Slavery Steering Committee (HSSC), with external consultants. At the same time the University joined the international consortium of Universities Studying Slavery (http://slavery.virginia.edu/universities-studying-slavery/).
HSSC oversaw a year-long research process undertaken by Dr. Stephen Mullen and Prof. Simon Newman to:
- investigate the nature and extent of the financial benefits which accrued to the University as a result of historical racial slavery
- recommend possible acts of reparative justice designed to acknowledge this history and engage in the kinds of reparative justice most appropriate to a university based on Enlightenment ideals of truth and justice
- draft a report for publication, summarising the complicated relationship between the University and the history of racial slavery, and the actions the University proposes to take going forward
“Another donor, the famous inventor James Watt, was the son of a West India merchant and slave-trader who supported Watt in his career: indeed, Watt worked for his father as a mercantile agent in Glasgow during the 1750s. Furthermore, Caribbean planters who needed to process sugar cane were significant consumers of James Watt’s steam-engines. It is certain that Watt profited from slavery and its commerce.
James Watt’s immediate family were heavily involved in transatlantic commerce, including on occasion trading enslaved persons in Greenock. His father, James Watt senior (1698-1782) was a transatlantic merchant in Greenock trading in sugar and tobacco with factors in North America and the Caribbean, at least from 1733 until 1771. For example, in the early 1740s, Watt senior traded with in Antigua via factor Archibald Cochran, including grain and corn and in return, sugar, rum and cotton. James Watt’s brother, John, worked in father’s business and branched out in slave-trading. On 17 March 1762, Walter McAdam ‘received from John Watt a Black Boy which I promise to deliver to Mr John Warrand Mercht in Glasgow’.”
“The steam engine pioneer James Watt is among donors denounced by Glasgow University for their links to the slave trade.
On Friday the university became the first in Britain to announce a package of reparations for its benefit from the slave trade.
It pledged to raise £20 million over the next 20 years to fund a new research centre which will be a joint venture with the University of the West Indies.”
Exeter University is implementing an Education Strategy which includes decolonising the curriculum as a priority.
- “We are implementing an Education Strategy that puts success for all at its heart and prioritises widening access and participation, international students wellbeing and decolonising the curriculum”
36. University of Westminster
The University of Westminster’s inclusive curriculum project will look at best practice to decolonise the curriculum.
“As part of the inclusive curriculum project, a Westminster graduate has recently undertaken a literature and best practice review about the attainment gap and decolonising the curriculum. The findings will be used to develop a tool kit for staff and students working in this area during 2019/20.”
The President and Vice Chancellor of Nottingham University state their aim to expand decolonisation programmes.
- “We have curriculum decolonisation programmes in place in some, but not all, of our University programmes. We believe progress can be made faster and impact needs to be felt more widely. Our work has told us that the influences on the degree-awarding gap for black students are multifactorial, and we must do more than simply focus on the content of our curriculum. Here we would want to accelerate the existing use of anonymised applications for University roles, training to address unconscious bias in the classroom, inclusive teaching practices and reverse mentoring schemes. We have specifically identified a need to deliver anti-racist training to support effective conversations about racism, and this will be included in our Race Equality Charter action plan, and in our University-wide staff and student EDI engagement programme that we will be launching in January 2021. Building on our collaborative Stronger Together programme, we are also developing a student-facing programme to deliver clear and impactful education focused on inclusion and respect to our students for the start of the 2020/21 academic session”.
38. Director of Science at Kew: “it’s time to decolonise botanical collections”
The Director of Science at Kew has written an article explaining his wish to decolonise botanical collections.
“I’ve often struggled to answer the simple question, “Where are you from?” As I was born and raised in Brazil, like many people my origin is mixed – comprising indigenous, African and Mediterranean ancestors – and I dislike pre-defined labels.
Having lived outside my birth country most of my life, I have experienced discrimination on multiple occasions. I have learned the history of imperialism from the perspective of a former colony.
At school, I was taught that Brazil was “discovered” in 1500 by the Portuguese. The fact that several million people lived there prior to that was barely mentioned in our books. We were told of a long history of brutal exploitation of our natural resources, including vast amounts of gold, rubber and timber. All this was achieved through the exploitation of our native people and African slaves – including my own ancestors.
Despite this, I am proud that Brazil is widely known also as the world’s most biodiverse country. It astounded colonial botanists. Charles Darwin was astonished at our “lands teeming with life”, as was Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent years in the Amazon. It is not lost on me that these were both white British men.
And Britain is also where I ended up professionally. After two decades studying biodiversity across the world, I’m now head of science at Kew, responsible for the world’s largest collections of plants and fungi.
For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south. Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants. Much of Kew’s work in the 19th century focused on the movement of such plants around the British Empire, which means we too have a legacy that is deeply rooted in colonialism.
The traces of colonial exploitation are not endemic to botany – they are everywhere, from the socio-economic inequalities in marginalised communities to the diamonds in wedding rings. History cannot be changed, but we must learn from it, to truly understand the power dynamics of the present and pave the way for a better future.
An imbalanced legacy of ‘discovery’
We like to think that things get better over time. But as the Black Lives Matter movement has rightly shown, change happens too slowly, or is superficial, or doesn’t happen at all.
In my own field of research, you can see an imperialist view prevail. Scientists continue to report how new species are “discovered” every year, species that are often already known and used by people in the region – and have been for thousands of years.
Scientists have appropriated indigenous knowledge and downplayed its depth and complexity. The first inhabitants of Brazil and the first users of plants in Australia often remained unnamed, unrecognised, and uncompensated. They are quite literally invisible in history. This needs to change.
Black Lives Matter is also showing how today’s inequalities and discrimination are deeply rooted in our societies. But besides our historical legacy, we also need to understand the challenges lying ahead.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and in the face of climate change and population growth, the challenges of safeguarding sustainable livelihoods while protecting natural ecosystems across the globe will be immense. Countries with the lowest incomes are likely to suffer the most, as outlined in the work on climate injustice.
Plants and fungi can be part of the solution. At Kew, we’re sharing knowledge accumulated during our long botanical history with partner organisations in countries around the world to meet those challenges. In Ethiopia, we are investigating the potential for enset (the “false banana”) to become a major source of nutrition for sub-Saharan Africa.
In Madagascar, our local office promotes the sustainable cultivation of wild yams to enhance livelihoods and increase food security. In Colombia, we collaborate on mapping useful plants to promote sustainable use of natural resources.
These are just few examples of how knowledge about plant diversity can be used for the benefit of all people, in particular those who’ve suffered most from systematic discrimination and long-term exploitation.
At Kew, we aim to tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science. We will strive, for example, to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.
We will re-examine our scientific and curatorial practices and expand our programme of research into our historic collections to encourage diverse perspectives. We will widen access to our history by digitising the vast collections of specimens, letters, books and artefacts in our collections, and by examining and updating the western-centric labels we use to describe these items.
Our current work on a new science strategy is an opportunity to ensure our research is framed in the context of equality, diversity and inclusion. These tasks cannot be achieved alone, and we will seek guidance from beyond Kew, including from the many international partners with whom we work.
By opening up our collections and practices, we will give voice to a past that includes troubled chapters, but one that will hopefully contribute to a brighter future.”