The statue of 18th-century plantation owner William Beckford, which stands in London’s Guildhall, will be recontextualised rather than permanently removed, the City of London Corporation has said. A plaque will be placed next to the statue explaining its connection to the transatlantic slave trade. To me – a descendant of the people he enslaved – this decision feels like a moral failure.
Last year, I participated in some discussions with the hardware store and other statue stakeholders. It became clear that after the decision in 2021 that the character would remain in the Great Hall, there wasn’t as much resistance as I would have expected. But as a Jamaican-British man and a descendant of those Beckford exploited and murdered, I think leaving the statue in a prestigious location, even with a note of explanation, is morally wrong. Or, in the words of my Jamaican grandparents, it’s “evil.” The decision, which I am sure was the culmination of serious deliberations, underestimates the radical evil of racial slavery capitalism and its ongoing destructive consequences for people racialized as black.
William Beckford is implicated in mass murder and immense cruelty in colonial Jamaica. The son of violent colonists, in 1737 he inherited more than a dozen slave plantations and 3,000 African slaves in Jamaica. Beckford made his fortune by ruthlessly exploiting their labor, with what the Beckford Tower and Museum calls “tyrannical force.”
West Indian slavery was a crime against humanity. In 2001, at the Third United Nations World Conference Against Racism, European nations recognized this fact. Beckford’s wealth allowed him to achieve power and status in Britain, including twice becoming Lord Mayor of London. He was a vicious slave owner. In Tacky’s Revolt: An Atlantic Slave’s Story, historian Vincent Brown recounts how, after a failed insurrection in 1760, 400 slaves were killed for their participation in the rebellion, and its leader was burned at the stake.
So why was someone linked to mass murder venerated with a statue in 1772? Ironically, he had gained great favor in the City two years previously, due to his apparent support for liberty. He delivered a speech of sympathy against King George III, to defend the freedoms and rights of the city. Then as now, the City’s admiration for Beckford’s selective outrage masked his brutality.
Two blind spots regarding slavery allowed society to decide to leave the statue in place.
First, the depth and horror of slavery remains unknown. We have institutionalized ignorance of the slave past in secondary education. I know from more than two decades of university teaching the lack of understanding of racial terror in the West Indies. Rastafari-inspired reggae music has been the most consistent transmitter of the bestiality of slavery. Bob Marley’s classic song Babylon System uses the metaphor of cannibalism to mean slavery as total devouring. Likewise, in his book Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies, anthropologist Mimi Sheller describes the different ways Europeans devoured black flesh in Caribbean history. In A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance, activist Stella Dadzie demonstrates how enslaved women were “consumed” by everyone. They were the most vulnerable to sexual violence, physical mutilation, and premature death on slave plantations. Slavery as cannibalism is an example of what Christian theology calls “radical evil” – a descent into a toxic mix of pride, moral corruption, and deprivation.
Second, black suffering is still not considered fully human suffering in society. The false assessment of the suffering of black bodies has a long history in Western thought and practice. Animalistically imagined in slavery as beasts of burden, black people were expected to endure more physical pain than their captors because, apparently, black pain was not real human pain. The legacy of this racism also persists in contemporary medicine. For example, research has shown that healthcare professionals fail to administer adequate pain relief to Black patients, including Black women in labor. Likewise, the past suffering of black people is also devalued. The decades-long fight for a national monument recognizing the suffering of people enslaved by the British reflects a lack of cultural intelligence within government to mourn the historical suffering of black people. The animals do better. A London war memorial to commemorate the suffering of animals during the First World War was erected in London in 2004.
It is possible that certain objects (pottery, ornaments, ironwork) linked to the slave trade are less problematic than the Beckford statue and can be explained in situ. But a plaque is not enough to recontextualize the actions of a West Indian murderer. I would prefer this statue to be removed and placed in a London museum. My suggestion for the museum description is that it read:
“William Beckford inherited 3,000 African slaves in Jamaica, whom he mercilessly exploited to accumulate great wealth in Britain. Its African slaves were victims of sexual violence, torture, bodily mutilation and mass murder. Today we recognize slavery as a crime against humanity and an unresolved stain on the national conscience. We display this statue not because we wish to honor Beckford, but as a reminder of how we, as a nation, have sanitized, obscured, and neglected racial capitalism and racial terror as the founding narratives of our modern history.