University promises to install plaques to explain slavery links of controversial statues

Artwork by Fiona Quadri depicting Deptford Town Hall statues Francis Drake (left), Robert Blake (middle) and Horatio Nelson (right). Pic: Fiona Quadri

Plaques explaining the context of controversial statues of slavery enablers at Deptford Town Hall in New Cross are to be installed shortly, the owners of the building, Goldsmiths, University of London, have promised.

The statues, erected in 1905, depict slave trader Francis Drake, pro-slavery naval commander Horatio Nelson and Robert Blake who helped secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England.  

The promise by Goldsmiths follows an event called “What Are Statues For?” this week, part of the Being Human Festival at The Albany, near the university itself.

In 2019, Goldsmiths University students staged a 137-day occupation in the Grade II building to have the statues removed. This concluded with Goldsmiths agreeing to erect explanatory plaques outside and to commission a piece of artwork to contrast the building’s racist roots. However questions have been raised as to why this has not yet taken place.  

Deptford Town Hall statues Francis Drake (left), Robert Blake (middle) and Horatio Nelson (right). Pics: Jack Friend

When asked why this has not happened, a spokesperson for Goldsmiths said that a budget for this has been discussed and will be finalised: “The temporary plaques will be installed shortly, following recent small revisions that were made to the information about these statues that we previously published.”

The Goldsmiths statement added: “Goldsmiths remains committed to acting on the critical learning we have made to both recognise and tackle racial injustice and to reckon with its colonial past.  Our actions, of which Deptford Town Hall forms a part, are aimed at ensuring that all members of our community feel safe, are valued, and supported.”

The government’s Retain and Explain policy, issued earlier this year, makes it harder to remove offensive statues in the name of preserving Britain’s history. Goldsmiths said: “The Delivery Group discussed its response with a shared view that Goldsmiths must look to fully explore these policies.”

Milly Williamson, a Goldsmiths lecturer and co-organiser of the event “What Are Statues For?” said: “It felt really good to see such engagement with this issue and people really wanting to explore the history behind statues, what they symbolise and what we should do with them.” 

Speakers Helen Paul and Rhian Graham answering questions from the audience. Pic: Saskia Henn

The discussion was led by five speakers, including Rhian Graham, one of the Colston Four who were charged with causing criminal damage when they toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.  

Graham talked about the day she attended the protest, carrying the rope that sent Colston’s statue crashing onto the ground and into the water. She told ELL: “If I hadn’t been one of the people to bring ropes probably other people had some with them that day. That was the mood of the day – that this was going to happen.”

Dean Ryan, member of Stand Up To Racism and the Geffrye Must Fall Campaign, which seeks to remove the statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye from Shoreditch’s Museum of the Home, said: “I think [the government] is trying to use racism as a way of deflecting people’s anger. There’s a lot of things going on – cost of living, war, lots of other stuff, and actually they’ve got no answers for these things but their answer just seems to be culture wars.”  

Also involved in the discussion were Helen Paul from Deptford’s soon-to-be-named Memorial of Enslavement and Freedom, Chilean activist, journalist and filmmaker Marcela Pizarro and artist/post-colonial student  Fiona Quadri. Quadri made the art promoting the event, adding an intentionally ugly twist to the traditionally regal statues.

Some attendees were already aware of the controversy surrounding Deptford Town Hall’s racist statues, but it was news to others. Event co-organiser, filmmaker and Goldsmiths lecturer Dr Freddie Osborne said: “I lived in Brockley as a young kid and I had no idea who the statues were”. 

Likewise, Quadri told ELL: “I lived in Lewisham for the past five years and I had no idea about these statues so even just the awareness about it is quite limited”. 

The audience participated in discussion after the speakers. Pic: Saskia Henn

Retired biochemist and Goldsmiths Alumnus Jenis Gales, who learned about the logistics of getting the statues removed during the roundtable discussion and photography workshop, told ELL: “There are so many things that have been happening behind the scenes that I was unaware of until today.”

Williamson hopes to organise an exhibition in the spring with the film, photography and poetry created during the event to keep the discussion going.

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