Control over memorials was recently centralised by the UK government, giving ministers a final say on decisions by local councils to remove or alter statues, plaques and other public displays of heritage. It is the latest development in a reckoning that began this summer when monuments to slave traders, imperialists and racists fell on both sides of the Atlantic, in a new iteration of a centuries-old freedom struggle.
The reaction from conservatives has been fierce. In the US, the White House threatened to defund schools that teach the history of slavery instead of what it calls “patriotic education”. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried attempts “to rewrite the history of our country, to edit our national CV”. Undeterred, protesters argue that they are adding new context to history and correcting one-sided distortions.
Two statues of Horatio Nelson, one at the heart of Birmingham, England, and the other in Bridgetown, Barbados, embody the contradictions and complexities of this battle between memory and morality. Among the earliest monuments to the glory of the British empire, these statues have witnessed much over the past two centuries. And their shared history is a reminder of the legacies of colonial domination and anti-Black racism that still haunt us today.
Nelson in Birmingham
Admiral Nelson (1758-1805) is something of a secular saint in modern Britain, a fearless naval hero who sacrificed his life to save his country from the menace of Napoleon. A famous painting, created shortly after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, shows him ascending triumphantly to Olympus, on the wings of angels, to take his place among the gods. It was just the beginning of an orgy of commemoration that swept the British empire in the first half of the 19th century.
Completed in 1809, the Nelson statue in Birmingham was the city’s first public memorial and the first of its kind in the British Isles. The sculptor, Richard Westmacott, produced an imposing bronze visage, scowling down from a marble pedestal. “The hero is represented in a reposed and dignified attitude,” explained Westmacott, “his left arm reclining on an anchor”.
A fence of iron spikes guarded the base, which was flanked by four vertical cannons supporting lamp posts. It remained Birmingham’s only public monument for nearly 50 years, at a time when this landlocked industrial city was growing in significance within Britain’s maritime empire.
Located at the centre of a bustling marketplace, Nelson’s statue was a natural rallying point. During the 1830s, it became a hub for mass meetings demanding democratic rights and militant action against wealthy elites. “Let the aristocracy make their laws,” thundered one speaker in 1839, “we, the working classes, will make ours”.
Several months later, a crowd of protesters pulled down the spikes surrounding the statue and used them to break open shop doors and windows. Once inside, they confiscated merchandise, especially slave-grown sugar and East India tea, and set fire to the buildings.
In the following century, the statue survived Nazi air raids and IRA bombings. Relocated twice, it now resides close to its original position, adjacent to the Bullring shopping centre. An annual Trafalgar Day parade culminates at its base.
Nelson is not universally revered, however. In 1966, Irish nationalists blew up the admiral’s colossal monument in Dublin in a symbolic blow against foreign oppression. More recently, historians and activists have pointed to his passionate defence of colonial slavery and opposition to the abolitionist movement.
Nelson in Bridgetown
Nelson was an unapologetic conservative. He viewed the West Indies as the strategic linchpin of the British empire and endorsed the racist fantasy that emancipation of slaves would result in the massacre of what he called “our friends and fellow subjects in the colonies”. Although research suggests that pro-slavery campaigners embellished his support for their cause, he was not an innocent bystander. And it is no accident that his image became synonymous with militarism, imperialism and white supremacy. As historian Hilary Beckles notes:
The 85,000 enslaved Blacks entrapped in Barbados only knew of Nelson as leader of the naval power dedicated to keeping them in slavery.
Completed in 1813, the bronze statue of Nelson in Bridgetown is strikingly similar to its Birmingham sibling. Also designed by Westmacott, it was situated along the wharf, the literal and symbolic heart of the island’s slave trade. Nearby stood “the cage”, a stifling torture chamber that held enslaved people captured during escape attempts.
Together, these structures fostered an urban environment of surveillance and terror. Nelson’s steely gaze was one of the last things glimpsed by shackled fugitives as they descended into their cells, and it was one of the first things they saw when they emerged.
The statue was also a deliberate political manoeuvre, a way for Barbadian planters and their descendants to maintain their connection to the empire in the aftermath of abolition. It survived a slave rebellion, which destroyed a quarter of the island’s sugar crop in 1816; gradual emancipation in the 1830s; and a devastating fire in 1860. As in Birmingham, it was the focus of an annual Trafalgar Day celebration.
Following the colonial independence struggles of the 1960s, the Bridgetown statue became the target of increasing protest. “Take Down Nelson” was a popular calypso song in the 1980s, and the issue became a perennial concern for the Barbadian government. In 2017, activists splashed paint on the statue and added a sign calling Nelson a “racist white supremacist”.
This summer, facing more than 10,000 petitioners and a new wave of demonstrations, the government finally agreed to relocate the statue to a museum. The removal is scheduled for next month and will serve as the unofficial opening act of the island’s transition to a fully independent republic. Until then, the admiral retains a tenuous foothold on the once mighty empire he died to protect.
By contrast, Nelson’s monument in Birmingham is largely ignored today. When I asked my students about it last year, few knew what it was or gave it a second thought, although they passed it regularly. A biographical marker at its base focuses on “honour and glory” while assiduously avoiding any mention of empire or slavery. Yet, as historian David Olusoga is keen to point out, the British empire was a “coloured empire”. This legacy is on clear display in Birmingham, now one of the most diverse cities in the UK.
Both Bridgetown and Birmingham are confronting the contradictions between a precarious present, a multicultural future and a stubborn colonial past. Right now, Bridgetown is leading the way. But a petition launched this summer, inspired by the global movement for Black lives, demands a reconsideration of Birmingham’s memorial landscape. And despite government efforts to stem the tide, one wonders if Nelson’s days in the city are also numbered.