Exploring Gloucester’s Hidden Links to the Slave Trade
25th June 2021
In the summer of 2020, Gloucester City Council set up a race relations commission charged with reviewing the links between the city’s monuments and the transatlantic slave trade (see here). Over the past year, I have been a member of the steering group overseeing the research for this review which has included representatives from a range of Gloucester’s heritage organisations.
The review was prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 that swept across the United States and Europe following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in May. While these protests began in the United States, they quickly spread across the globe. In Britain, the protests raised significant questions about the way we discuss, remember and often forget the history of the transatlantic slave trade. A number of clashes emerged over legacies of slavery in Britain, particularly the existence of monuments to slave traders such as Edward Colston in Bristol, which was removed by a group of protestors in June 2020. This debate over the way slavery is memorialized in the built environment extended to monuments of other historic figures such as the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, Robert Baden-Powell and even Winston Churchill. For many people these monuments represent long-standing injustice and the way that racism has played a significant but underacknowledged role in our history. As a result, over 70 memorials have either been renamed or taken down in Britain following the events of 2020.
However, the removal or questioning of monuments has been bitterly contested. Some people in Britain have taken the targeting of monuments as an attack on their own heritage and identity, interpreting monuments as representations of an unproblematic and unchanging past. These have often relied on the idea that knocking down statues is equivalent to same as erasing the past. In some cases monuments were protected by groups linked to far-right organizations. Earlier this year, the British government responded to events such as removal of Colston’s statue by introducing new protections for historic statues, and issuing tough penalties for anyone illegally removing protected monuments. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary who took a leading role in the government response described protestors “town hall militants and woke worthies” who were championing a “single, often negative narrative.” This response has become familiar to academics and organizations discussing historic links with slavery or debating more ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of British history (see for instance the National Trust). These debates highlight the way different interpretations of the past, as well as a lack of appreciation for aspects of British history have played a role in contemporary social divisions.
The review of monuments in Gloucester is an opportunity to utilize the heritage landscape of the city to promote a better understanding of this neglected history. As well as examining the statues of monarchs like Charles II and Queen Anne, the review has been examining the memorialization of other key figures celebrated by the city, as well as people who played a large role in Gloucester industrial development. Furthermore, the project has involved History students from the University of Gloucestershire in two main ways. Firstly, they have examined Gloucester citizens who received compensation when slavery was abolished by analysing the records of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database. Second, they shed light on the abolitionist movement that was present in the city by focusing on the visits of African American abolitionists in the 19th century. Exhibits of their research will be on display at the Gloucester History Festival in September, alongside a screening of a new documentary currently in production that explores the city’s hidden links with the slave trade. It will be interesting to see how people in the city respond to the results.
For more information on the student projects, please visit the Cotswold Centre for History & Heritage blog.