On Tuesday, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced a review of the capital’s landmarks, with a view to remove any with links to slavery. Khan’s decision follows the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, in the wake of worldwide outrage after the death of George Floyd in police custody. It has already sparked some backlash in a country which habitually romanticizes its past at the expense of progress — and maintains a veneer of denial about the crimes committed by its historic heroes.
Pressed about where the review of London landmarks should draw the line — given that a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was recently graffitied with the accurate statement “Churchill was a racist” — Khan said the many great historical figures were not perfect. He added that history should be taught “warts & all.” But as the question and Khan’s reply to it demonstrate, the line between racist enough to topple, and relevant enough to stay, looks uncomfortably blurry.
A very brief examination of the characters and associations behind some of London’s most famous monuments reveals how many of our history’s “warts” are not only omitted by plaques and commemorations, but echoed in the racist views and expressions of Britain’s leaders today. Sir Winston Churchill — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hero and the country’s most celebrated wartime leader — was outspoken in his belief of white superiority.
He openly admitted he thought black people were inferior to whites and called people from India the “beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” He bragged about killing three “savages” during his early career quashing insurgents in Sudan. Churchill advocated in a memo for the use of gas against “uncivilised tribes” — not the “most deadly gasses,” but ones “which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror.” Perhaps most revolting of all, he supported policies which research shows directly contributed to the Bengal famine, responsible for the deaths of up to three million people.
These elements of Churchill’s life and personality — like much of Britain’s colonial past — are largely ignored by the British education system and, as a result, the public and popular discourse around him. They certainly are not noted alongside his bronze likeness. Churchill is sold as a laudable British export — portrayed with reverence by Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour,” and as a grouchy but ultimately loveable grandfather to the nation by John Lithgow in “The Crown.”