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Felling of British slave trader statue heats up simmering debate

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Protesters tear down a statue of Edward Colston during a protest against racial inequality in Bristol, Britain June 7, 2020 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Mohiudin Malik/via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – The toppling by anti-racism protesters of a statue of a slave trader in the English port city of Bristol has given new urgency to a debate about how Britain should confront some of the darkest chapters of its history.

The statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from trading in West African slaves, was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour on Sunday by a group of demonstrators taking part in a worldwide wave of protests.

Statues of figures from Britain’s imperialist past have in recent years become the subject of controversies between those who argue that such monuments merely reflect history and those who say they glorify racism.

Colston donated widely to charitable causes across his home city of Bristol, which named a street and several buildings after him. A campaign to remove the statue had gathered momentum in recent years, but had failed to persuade the authorities.

By taking matters into their own hands, the protesters raised the temperature of a debate that had previously remained confined to the realms of marches, petitions and newspaper columns.

Opinions were sharply divided as to whether their message justified their means.

Interior minister Priti Patel called the felling of the statue an “utterly disgraceful” distraction from the protesters’ cause, while policing minister Kit Malthouse denounced “mobs just turning up and deciding to do whatever they like”.

The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said on Channel 4 television he did not support social disorder, but the community was navigating complex issues that had no binary solutions.

“I would never pretend that the statue of a slaver in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up, and someone who may well have owned one of my ancestors, was anything other than a personal affront to me,” said Rees, who has Jamaican roots.

Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Guy Faulconbridge

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