Edinburgh Council - Tear Down That Statue

In the second article for the Scottish Young Fabians blog takeover, Albie Mills discusses why the statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville should be taken down. 

Whatever you call someone from Edinburgh, be it an Edinburger, an Edinbronian or- as Kevin Bridges would say- “a **** fae Edinburgh”, almost all will be familiar with the statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, in the New Town’s St. Andrew’s Square. When I first moved to the city, I had always assumed that it was St Andrew himself who stood atop the 150-foot high column in the eponymous square.

It is, however, the legacy of Dundas, the eighteenth century Home Secretary under Pitt the Younger and anti-abolitionist, whose shadow is cast over George Street at dusk. Dundas is credited with setting back the abolitionist movement twenty years until 1807, by which time 500,000 had lost their lives and freedoms to slavery. He was also impeached for mismanagement of public funds in 1805 and is frequently referred to as ‘King Harry the Ninth’ due to his stranglehold on Scottish politics at a time when British monarchs rarely visited Scotland. To those who like sensory imagery, perhaps Dundas haunting Edinburgh from on high while casting his shadow over a street named after George III would seem fitting.

Dundas’ despicable legacy in all fields would suggest that the time to bring this statue down has long passed but it also raises questions for Edinburgh’s veneration of figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is evidence to demonstrate that there was ‘full and enthusiastic Scottish engagement at every level of the [slave] trade’. The success of the Scottish Enlightenment economy- responsible for building the New Town and the growth of the University of Edinburgh- was built on tobacco, sugar and cotton and around 1 in 10 slave merchants in London during the 1750s were Scots.

Like most European countries, Scotland now faces an uncomfortable and long-overdue reckoning with its colonial past. The names of Buchanan Street, the Melville Monument and even the First Minister’s residence, Bute House, are all steeped in the slave trade. While streets and houses can be renamed, statues need to come down.

The City of Edinburgh Council have announced that Melville’s Column will have a plaque dedicated to the victims of slavery, in order to highlight “the good and bad” of Edinburgh’s history. This simply does not cut it. Melville’s Column stands at 150-foot and a small plaque at its base is not read by those who see it from the outskirts of St Andrew’s Square or the busy Prince’s and George streets. Dundas’ position at the top of the column is still a megalomaniacal veneration of a slave trader and a tyrant. Nearly four million tourists come to Edinburgh each year. A plaque in English at the bottom of a magnificent column is unlikely to stop them from admiring the column itself. A plaque, therefore, not only fails to serve its purpose- re-educating the public about Dundas’ legacy- it is also cowardly and lazy.

Sadiq Khan and Tower Hamlets made the important decision to remove the statue of Robert Milligan, another prominent slave-factor, from West India Docks in London, while many US cities are doing the same to their own reappraised villains. Colston, Milligan and Dundas are not heroes. Whatever their contribution to philanthropy or government (and a bad contribution even to government in the case of Dundas), it is vastly outweighed by their contributions to slavery. Until Dundas’ statue is hauled down and the many streets that share their names with slave owners or merchants have those same names changed, People will not Make Glasgow and Edinburgh will have betrayed the cash injection that comes from BME performers at the Fringe. Without an uncomfortable reappraisal of its past, Scotland will not be a progressive country.

Albie Mills is an Edinburgh-based support worker and Chair of the Young Scottish Fabians.

He tweets at @albiealbiemills

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