Should statues be torn down? Two men who fiercely disagree meet to discuss issue

It is almost exactly a year since the statue of slave owner Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into Bristol Harbour.

Just days after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Officer, the statue became a symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, as years of peaceful protest about the statue boiled over.

Since then, the issue of statues has been polarising for Britain, seized on by the far-right and other groups, but also a genuine source of anxiety for people being asked to re-understand their country’s past.

One of the many disagreements is about whether statues should remain, with new context, or be taken down like the merchant and Tory MP Colston, who now lies on his side on a Bristol museum.

Hours before thousands meet in the UK for our ground-breaking dialogue project, Britain Talks, we asked two men who passionately disagree about the future of statues to sit down together and discuss the issue.

Read all the Mirror’s Britain Talks content on our dedicated channel

Del Hibbert and Sir Geoff Palmer get talking

“Statues are a way of honouring people, and these people do not deserve to be honoured,” says Del Hibbert, 52, a youth organisation director and proud Bristolian who was happy to see the Colston statue removed.

“They were brutal, they murdered, they made their money from it, they destroyed millions of people’s lives. Now it’s down, I don’t want that statue to go back up. The man doesn’t deserve a statue.”

81-year-old academic Sir Geoff Palmer lives in Edinburgh, where similar controversy has raged over a statue of Henry Dundas, amongst other historic figures linked to the slave trade.

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“My view is we should not take statues down,” he says. “They are part of our history, if you remove them, in 50 years’ time, nobody will remember. They’re part of the context of where we are.

“As far as a statue is concerned, to me, it’s a piece of metal. I have no emotion about it.

“My ancestors had to face slave owners so I can face a bit of metal. Colston’s statue was taken down – what has happened since on racism? You remove the evidence, you remove the deed.”

Del Hibbert, pictured with Colston’s statue behind him, wants to see better education on issues like slavery
Del Hibbert, pictured with Colston’s statue behind him, wants to see better education on issues like slavery

Sir Geoff led a campaign to add a plaque with extra information to the 150-foot Melville Memorial, which commemorates Scottish politician Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, in Edinburgh.

“Henry Dundas stopped William Wilberforce from abolishing the slave trade for 15 years,” the Emeritus Professor at Heriot-Watt University says.

“Historians have tried to defend Henry Dundas. But he was going to delay the abolition of the slave trade, and he was going to breed black people.

Sir Geoff Palmer
Sir Geoff Palmer is a University Chancellor

“What I say is, ’it should not be revered, let’s put an honest plaque on it’. Let’s say exactly what he did – because the world slavery wasn’t on the plaque.

“Edinburgh Council set up a committee, we debated it for three years and we got nowhere.

“But when George Floyd was murdered, the leader of the council reconvened the committee and in five days we got a plaque.”

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People have signed up to agree to meet someone from outside their bubble for a conversation online on June 19, as part of this year’s Great Get Together.

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Brexit, Covid, vaccines, masks and politics are just some of the topics some of us have strong views on but are finding it hard to discuss. At times, it can feel like we’re struggling to make ourselves heard.

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Del is used to difficult conversations about statues. Last June, he was filmed talking to people attending an ‘All Lives Matter’ protest in Bristol that followed the Colston statue coming down, taking the heat out of the situation.

“I’m hearing what you’re saying, we had a very similar campaign in Bristol,” he says. “That went on for more than a decade.

“Then last year, George Floyd died, the Black Lives Matter march happened, and a group of people decided to take down the Colston statue and it was thrown in the river.”

Colston’s statue is dumped
Colston’s statue is dumped

The statue is now inside the M-Shed museum as part of a city-wide consultation on the issue. “I had mixed emotions.

“People tried the official way and got absolutely nowhere – it shouldn’t have taken the death of a man 6,000 miles away for that to happen. Some people say we are hiding our history.

“But if more people were taught about the history of this guy, they would want these statues to come down.”

Should statues be torn down? Two men who fiercely disagree meet to discuss issue
Sir Geoff, pictured at Dundas site, wants to add ‘honest’ context to our statues

Geoff, a scientist who once won the ‘Nobel Prize of Brewing’ for his discovery of the barley abrasion process, nods.

“That’s interesting and I respect a position because it’s based on reason and emotion,” he says. “

But if you take a statue down why not knock buildings down which the slave money bought? Since the statue came down, what has happened?

Del Hibbert looks down on Colston, left on his back at the M Shed gallery in Bristol
Del Hibbert looks down on Colston, left on his back at the M Shed gallery in Bristol

“Have we increased job opportunities for black people? Have the protesters taken things further and said, ‘we want more inclusion?’ Can they ensure our children don’t get excluded from school?”

Geoff, who in 1989 became the first black professor in Scotland and was knighted for services to human rights, science and charity, says he has “been through Enoch Powell, Keep Britain White”.

“I‘ve gone through arriving on a boat where people said I was ‘Educationally Sub-Normal’, to be a so-called academic,” he explains.

Del says these people do not deserve to be honoured
Del says these people do not deserve to be honoured

“The point is, that we cannot trust the system to deliver… I want a strategy for equality. Unless that is done, I can see a council saying, ’well you wanted the statue down, the statue is down, technically we’ve done our job’.”

Del doesn’t agree: “If the statue hadn’t come down, we wouldn’t be talking today, it was a catalyst, it was a spark. Not just in Bristol, it went around the world, it was mentioned at the funeral of George Floyd…”

Geoff shakes his head. “If Floyd hadn’t been murdered, I wouldn’t be talking to you. it’s not the statue… It’s Floyd’s death that has changed the world.”

Geoff disagreed with Del
Geoff disagreed with Del

As the talk moves on, Geoff, who was born in Jamaica and lived there until the age of 14, reveals why the Dundas statue matters to him personally.

“My ancestors came from a plantation, owned by the Earl of Balcarres, who Dundas sent out to Jamaica as governor,” he says.

“My family still lives on one his plantations. Three per cent of my genes are Viking from Shetland. In Scotland, we’ve got a Jamaica Street. The link between slavery is surnames, it’s genetic, it’s money.”

The pair enjoyed a joke amid their debate
The pair enjoyed a joke amid their debate

Del, who has Jamaican ancestry, murmurs agreement. “We’ve got a Jamaica Street, in Bristol,” he says. “My aim is to get people to understand why the statue came down and how to move forward with education.”

“I agree,” Geoff says, “but education is through the system, you’ve got to change the system.”

Del nods. “In the film we’re making there are going to be people hearing our opinions for the first time who will probably look up Edward Colston, look up Henry Dundas. Hopefully this conversation will enlighten people.”

With time almost up, the two men reflect on a passionate but respectful conversation, and agree to meet up.

“If Geoff and I were to sit down we’d be talking about history all night. I hope that one day we get the opportunity to do so,” laughs Del.

“It’s important to have different views – we’re Jamaican so that’s what we do,” says Geoff.

The pair could talk history all day
The pair could talk history all day

“This is just a debate about Colston and we have slightly different views about that which is understandable. The end result is the same, we want this history to be on the curriculum.”

After telling Del about his favourite Jamaican food – Geoff prefers fried chicken to the ‘modern’ jerk version – he adds: “I used to go to Bristol a lot – I helped set up one of the breweries there. My students were brewers in the Bristol area.”

Del says: “Whenever you’re down in Bristol again, I‘d be more than happy to buy you a pint… and I’ll take you to my local food spot.”

Both men agree on one thing. “To me,” Geoff says, “the next statue down should be racism.”

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