IT all started with a statue toppled and thrown into the sea. Edward Colston, whose monument was erected in 1895, oversaw the deportation of 100,000 Africans to have them be reduced to slavery in the Caribbean in the 17th century, many of whom died and were thrown to the sharks in the Atlantic ocean.

The image of his bronze cast being dragged into the water of Bristol’s harbour started an irrepressible movement, with fresh scrutiny cast on dozens of monuments everywhere in the United Kingdom and the world. And soon, the debate became about whether people should have politely asked for them to be pulled down instead of taking things into their own hands.

We would be mistaken to think this is a brand new conversation: it is only that now, because the Black Lives Matter movement is finally gaining the attention it has long been struggling to get, the symbols of Britain’s colonial past displayed throughout our cities are being seen for what they truly are.

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As a matter of fact, people have been asking for change for years in many countries. Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, the three main slave trade ports in France between the 17th and the 19th century, are also facing calls to rename several streets honouring slave traders, and to provide information so that no-one can ever claim to ignore their city’s history.

If, after the Second World War, France was able to replace street names linked to Nazi collaborators, then why shouldn’t there be a similar push for those referring to slave traders, campaigners argue.

But only recently have these calls been taken more seriously. The last few days seem to have accelerated things dramatically. In Edinburgh, the city council convened a committee this week to confirm a new plaque highlighting Henry Dundas’ role in delaying the abolition of slavery.

A group, with Sir Geoff Palmer, a Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and a human rights activist, had been working on it for two years.

But the way the public reacted to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations helped break the deadlock to replace the plaque: the blockage came from some members of the committee who refused to have the word slavery featuring on it. Professor Palmer said: “Many people wrote to me and asked: what can we do to help? And I said, write to the council. They wrote to the council and within 24 hours, the leader of the council said to me, he’s going to call a council meeting. This was less than a week ago”, he explains. “We’ve managed to get a plaque on there with the word slavery on it, for the first time in 143 years.”

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In Glasgow too, the question has been raised time and time again, in particular thanks to the work of the Coalition of Racial Equality and Rights. Glasgow has often boasted about being the Second City of the British Empire, with the concepts of wealth, influence and power attached to it bringing pride to the city.

The names of Glasgow’s tobacco lords, such as Buchanan, Ingram, and Glassford, as well as streets named after plantations in Jamaica and Virginia, are there for all to see in the city centre, giving a feeling that the history of slave trade and imperialism is woven into the very fabric of the city, as CRER’s map of black history shows.

Merchant City, in memory of those tobacco lords whose immense wealth relied on slave labour, was only baptised thirty years ago, when Glasgow became European City of Culture, as part of the regeneration of the city centre.

However, despite all the work, it is still a very complicated conversation to have, says Zandra Yeaman, CRER’s community and campaigns officer. “People do want to see themselves as inherently good. And I think, when we challenge them and say that racism exists in Scotland, they feel that we are calling them racists. That’s not what this is about. And the other thing about it is, because people are non-racist, they’re not always clear about the actions or the non-action that they take or don’t take, propping up that ideology that came from the Empire.”

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THAT is why talking about those controversial statues and monuments is neither an end in itself, nor a futile exercise of grievance. “What I feel is getting lost in this discussion is this isn’t just the past. It’s the legacy. History is meaningless unless we are talking about the legacy of it,” Yeaman says. “It’s about getting people to understand and learn the past, so that they understand why we are in this situation in the present, so that we can actively make changes for the future.”

Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken says this thinking, as well as Geoff Palmer’s work, has greatly influenced the city’s approach to re-examine its past.

“I am absolutely clear that the racism African-Americans and black people here continue to suffer to this day is a direct legacy of slavery. The legacy of slavery has never left us, and I don’t agree with people who say it was such a long time ago, and we should just move on.”

The work to understand how the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation helped build and left marks in the modern city started a while ago, but this will come as news to many people who had never been taught about this part of Scotland’s history.

“It’s interesting to me that in the past couple of weeks, it’s been clear that some people are just finding out about it”, Aitken says. “So all the work that we’ve been doing hasn’t always penetrated the public consciousness.”

Last year, the council commissioned Dr Stephen Mullen to lead a pioneering academic study similar to what has been done at the University of Glasgow, exploring the city’s colonial past and links to slavery. Statues, street names, buildings, financial bequests to the former council, even museum collections belonging to the city: everything will be examined.

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“We’ve also appointed a specialist curator to look at the city’s collections to see if we have things that we shouldn’t have and should be returned. We have returned things in the past, and we’re willing to do that again”, she explains. “We’ll also look at how the narrative of our museums and our public spaces makes sure we accurately and properly reflect the slave trade history and colonialism. We’re also looking at the possibility of either a standalone museum, or a permanent exhibition of slavery and empire in the city.”

This work is also about engaging the public: later this year, along with the findings of the study, proposals will be formulated, and a consultation with the people of Glasgow will take place to decide how best to respond.

“We want to make sure we publicly acknowledge and confront this history, and how we address the continuing legacy”, Aitken explains.

How do we make sure that what we are experiencing now isn’t just another trending moment, that is going to slip out of public consciousness as quickly as it appeared?

For Geoff Palmer, the answer cannot be removing those statues. “What bothers me as a black person is, I think that is removing my history. This is black history. This is my history,” he answers to those who want to have the Melville Monument removed. “Some people simply don’t want to see the word slavery on the plaque. Therefore, if you took that monument down, it would not bother them as much as putting a plaque with slavery on it. We need to expose this history.”

Susan Aitken agrees. “We shouldn’t just change street names or remove statues, and wipe them off the map. We don’t want to erase the deed. What we want to do is confront it, acknowledge it, and tell future generations about it. It’s about recontextualising, elucidating, explaining and telling the whole story instead of one side of the history of the city. And crucially, it’s about drawing a line under celebrating the merchants.”

Other public figures, such as British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga and Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo have argued that removing these monuments wasn’t an attack of history, but a necessary reinterrogation and reinterpretation of history by marginalised people.

More importantly, Zandra Yeaman thinks, it is high time black voices are heard, people realise that the work around anti-racism isn’t new, and they can throw their weight behind initiatives to implement actual change.

“We have written to the First Minister to call for five specific, achievable actions. If we can get people to back us to get the Scottish Government to do that, that would be amazing. This is about sustained activity. Anti-racism work isn’t always going to be sexy and visible,” she warns.

“There are also people doing their own direct action, calling out structural racism within their organisations, within the workplaces, and educating themselves, especially about white fragility. Sure, it isn’t comfortable. But that’s a great start.’’