Statues with ‘slavery links’ won’t be removed at Goldsmiths

The uni is keeping controversial statues despite 137-day student occupation protest

Students at Goldsmiths, University of London lost their fight to remove statues of individuals involved in the transatlantic slave trade after years of protest.

The four statues stand in the Deptford Town Hall, a Goldsmiths-owned property. Over half of residents (58 per cent) in the neighbouring New Cross Ward area voted against their removal in a 2021 public consultation by Goldsmiths.

A Goldsmiths spokesperson told the London Tab: “Having carefully considered the views of local people and of those who are taught in or work in this university building we believe keeping the statues in place and adding explanation panels is the right way forward. We will also develop a civic and schools engagement programme and a grant for local artists of colour to explore the issues raised by Deptford Town Hall and its statues.”

Deptford Town Hall (Image credit: Goldsmiths)

In 2019, a Goldsmiths student group called the Goldsmiths Anti-Racism Action (GARA) demanded statues of Lord Horatio Nelson, Sir Francis Drake, Admiral Robert Blake, and an unnamed figure representing an admiral naval officer to be torn down as part of the demands to end their 137-day occupation of Deptford Town Hall.

As described by the uni, the named figures of the statues are linked with slavery.

Nelson was close with slave owners during his long career in the Caribbeans and allegedly used this to counter abolitionists, Drake was sponsored by British royals to kidnap and sell slaves from West Africa, and Blake fought for Britain in keeping their trade routes to Africa and the Caribbeans.

GARA thought the statues are “inherently tied to violence, displacement and exploitation of black bodies” and “stand as a daily reminder of the racial violence that was inflicted on the ancestors of the local Afro-Caribbean residents.”

Goldsmiths’ University and College Union (UCU) branch, who supported GARA in the past, told the London Tab most GARA members have graduated and thought “the timing regarding the decision on the statues was made once the original students involved in the protests were out of the way.” Goldsmiths responded to this by saying: “The delay to the consultation was due to the impacts of the pandemic.”

The uni also said the decision to keep the statues in the end had been reached in consultation with locals of the area and the Goldsmiths community, which was performed as both mail and virtual surveys.

The consultation results show 38 per cent of local respondents supported the removal, another 11 per cent remained neutral, and an overwhelming majority of 58 per cent voting against it.

Warden of Goldsmiths Frances Corner said about the final decision: “We will continue to consult with local people as we develop our plans to address the complex legacy of the area’s maritime heritage embodied in the Deptford Town Hall statues.

“Now there is clear recognition of the damage and hurt inflicted by slavery and the colonial system which supported slavery, and the impact this continues to have on modern society through ongoing structural inequality and injustice.”

A group campaigning for keeping the statues intact calls this decision a “victory” but is against the information panels Goldsmiths’ plan to install to explain the statues’ colonial history. They referenced outcomes from the uni’s online consultation in which 83 per cent of locals also voted against altering the statues in any way.

A spokesperson for Goldsmiths told the London Tab: “Universities should be places for honest and open discussion of difficult issues including recent debates around the complex legacy of Britain’s colonial past.

“Our students and staff expressed genuine concerns about Deptford Town Hall’s historical statues and their links to colonialism and slavery. This was why we ran a public consultation last year to find out how local people think the issues around these statues should be addressed.

“We fully recognise our duty to tackle racial injustice in all its forms and we continue to discuss with students and colleagues what more we need to do as an organisation and as individuals to combat prejudice and discrimination.”

Feature images are provided and used with permission from Goldsmiths. The statues from left to right: Lord Horatio Nelson, Sir Francis Drake, Robert Blake, and anonymous naval figure.

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