Robert Milligan, who made his fortune from the slave trade, will no longer watch over West India Quay.
In the immortal words of Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come” – and in London, it looks like it’s coming rather quickly. Two days after the good people of Bristol sent a statue of slave trader Edward Colston to his watery demise, and barely a day since Sadiq Khan announced a review of all London statues with links to slavery, the first London monument to the slave trade has been removed. A statue of Robert Milligan, which has stood at West India Quay since 1813, was swiftly removed yesterday evening after sustained pressure from local residents and politicians.
Milligan, who helped build West India Quay and the surrounding docks, earned his fortune from trading slaves and from his sugar plantation in the Caribbean, which was run by 526 slaves. As you might imagine, this shameful legacy would most likely have earned him a spot atop the hit list of the aforementioned review, but the decision has been expedited as continued protest and activism hastens the demise of colonial symbols.
We’ve removed the statue of the slave trader Robert Milligan at West India Quay. Thanks to @EhtashamulHaque for arranging the petition calling for this. We now need a wider conversation about confronting this part of our history and the symbols that represent it #blacklivesmatter pic.twitter.com/LWZQ7FyaF5
— Mayor John Biggs (@MayorJohnBiggs) June 9, 2020
Unlike Colston in Bristol, Milligan’s statue was removed by the authorities, with the Canal & River Trust, who operate the docks, overseeing its removal last night. The decision was taken after the campaigning of local councillor Ehtasham Haque, who organised a petition calling for its removal, and had called for daily protests in front of the statue. In the petition, Haque wrote “we should not glorify the enslavement of individuals by displaying a statue of a slave trader. The East End has a proud history of fighting against injustice and inequality”, and that legacy continued yesterday evening as the statue was carted off by the Canal & River Trust.
The next steps for Robert Milligan haven’t been made clear yet (chucking him into the North Dock appears to be out of the question now). Haque has previously tweeted that it could be taken inside the Museum of London Docklands – which the statue had stood outside until last night – and used for proper educational purposes rather than lazy glorification, but any concrete plans are yet to be formed. Still, it’s another useful step in confronting the legacy of colonialism, and is unlikely to be the last statue to fall in London.
Also published on Medium.