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London removes slave trader's statue, launches review of other monuments

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By Alice Tidey
A statue of slave owner RObert Milligan was removed from it splinth in east London on June 9, 2020.
A statue of slave owner RObert Milligan was removed from it splinth in east London on June 9, 2020.   -   Copyright  Flickr/Elliott Brown

The statue of a prominent slave trader was removed from outside a London museum with local authorities announcing a review of how other monuments and sites should represent "the more troubling part" of the country's history.

The removal of Robert Milligan's statue outside the Museum of London Docklands on Tuesday comes a few days after the effigy of another noted slave trader, Edward Colston, was torn down from its plinth and thrown into a river in Bristol by anti-racism protesters.

The debate about how some of a nation's monuments or statues are not inclusive and don't reflect its complicated past has been raging for years but has flared up since the May 25 death of African American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, US.

Floyd's death sparked widespread protests in the US against racism and police violence which have since spread to Europe where some protesters have targeted monuments linked to colonialism and slavery.

The Museum of London said that the statue of Milligan, a Scottish slave trader and merchant who by the time of his death owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica, had "stood uncomfortably" outside its premises in Tower Hamlets, east London, for a long time.

"The Museum, being another physical manifestation of slavery situated in an old sugar warehouse, constantly challenges the contentious nature of this history," it wrote on Twitter.

"The Museum recognises that the monument is part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing, which disregards the pain of those who are still wrestling with the remnants of the crimes Milligan committed against humanity," it added.

The Tower Hamlets Council said meanwhile that a review is to be launched into other monuments and sites in the borough "to understand how we should represent the more troubling periods in our history".

London Mayor Sadiq Khan commented on the statue's removal, writing that while "it's a sad truth that much of our city and nation's wealth was derived from the slave trade — this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces".

Khan had announced earlier in the day the creation of a Commission for Diversity tasked with reviewing the British capital's statues and landmarks to ensure they "suitably reflect London's achievements and diversity".

The Commission, which will consider murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials, will also "further the discussion into what legacies should be celebrated and make a series of recommendations".

The debate is also particularly virulent in Belgium where activists have called for statues of colonial-era king, Leopold II, to be removed.

Brussels' Heritage Minister, Pascale Smet, told Euronews on Tuesday that public debate on the issue should be held as quickly as possible.

"You know it's a double debate. If you take the statue away, you will forget it, if you leave the statue, you have to contextualise it at a minimum," he said.