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"What's wrong with our statues?"

The Hidden Histories behind our Edinburgh statues

When Edward Colston’s statue was toppled in Bristol, the people behind our statues were called into question more than ever before. From Winston Churchill to Henry Dundas, the legacies of figures have been re-examined. Whether these statues should be taken down or not could be debated for hours, but what is fact is that many of the statues we have are of figures who had racist attitudes, views or directly helped prolong suffering of people of colour around the British Empire and beyond.

Edinburgh is home to many statues, so it's no surprise that in June there were protests for removal of some, but while most of us now know these people have some sort of link to racism, we know little else beyond that.

So who were the people behind a few of these controversial statues?


Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, was a Scottish politician. He was extremely close to the Prime minister William Pitt, the Younger and had huge political influence.

Earlier on, in his career as Lord Advocate for Scotland, he defended Joseph Knight, a black slave who challenged his master for freedom. Knight’s challenge led to the end of legal slavery in Scotland in 1778, in the legal case known as Knight v. Wedderburn.

Why is Dundas controversial now?

  • Dundas did not personally own slaves, but he encouraged the gradualist method of abolishing slavery

  • His influence meant that he was at least partly responsible for the delay of the abolition of the slave trade for fifteen years - causing suffering for hundreds of thousands of humans under the trade

  • He was also key to colonial expansion in India


David Hume was a philosopher, essayist and historian during the Scottish Enlightenment - a period of time during the late 18th to the 19th century where there were many new developments in scientific and intellectual thought. Hume is considered one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment era and beyond.

Why is he controversial now?

  • From the Scottish Enlightenment emerged scientific racism which was used to justify and continue with slavery and imperialism.

  • Hume wrote that black people were inferior to white people, as did many key figures during the Enlightenment, and while his personal beliefs may have evolved and changed during his lifetime, writings of Hume had a direct impact on the suffering of many people of colour.

I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. - Hume in his essay "Of National Characters" (1753)
  • We have seen how scientific racism continues to surface in contemporary Scottish classrooms in one of our previous posts, and podcast episodes, and, unfortunately, this is a problem that pervades many classrooms across the globe.

Hume also has a building in the University of Edinburgh named after him.


Another David…

Livingstone was the most famous Scottish explorer of the Victorian era. He worked as a missionary around the continent of Africa (particularly the South), meaning he wanted Africans to convert to Christianity and abandon their prior religious beliefs. Livingstone loved Africa and its people and did not support the slave trade, but believed that it could end if African economies could become more western. He heavily criticised anti-black racism that was so prevalent from colonial settlers.

Why is he controversial now?

  • Despite his criticism of anti-black racism, his missionary work is now understood as problematic because it perpetuated and added to the stereotype that Africans, and other colonised populations, were savage and uncivilised, and that colonisation actually benefited them. These stereotypes were often used to justify slavery and colonialism.

  • Not criticising missionary work of Livingstone allows the stereotypes he perpetuated to go unchallenged - then we can’t learn from his mistakes.


James Gillespie was a tobacco and snuff merchant and “philanthropist” who left money to build a free school for boys, which we now know as James Gillespie’s High School.

Why is he controversial now?

  • Gillespie made his fortune from tobacco and snuff, tobacco farming used slave labour, so Gillespie’s wealth would not have been possible without the use of slaves

These are just three of the statues in Edinburgh, but there are many more of figures who are controversial now. If we look into the histories of all of the statues, we’ll find something wrong with the people behind them. So follows the argument that these people lived in another time so we can’t judge them on their beliefs - but wrong is wrong, we shouldn’t try to justify these people's wrongs but, at the very least, be honest about them and acknowledge the damage their views did.

A statue is made to honour somebody, so statues of these figures helps add to erasure of the cruelty of the British Empire, and helps idolise historical figures without acknowledging negative aspects of their lives. Our history is incomplete without acknowledging racism and oppression - we need to highlight it so we can learn and challenge racist attitudes that are so ingrained into British society.


12 commenti

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Colby Adkins
Colby Adkins
15 dic 2023

Dundas did not personally own slaves, but he encouraged the gradualist method of abolishing slavery dordle

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01 nov 2023

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If we investigate the backstories of each statue, we'll learn that its creators had flaws. It is often argued that we should not pass free games judgment on their ideas since they lived in a different era. However, wrong is wrong, and we should not attempt to explain the wrongs committed by these individuals.

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Martin Meyers
Martin Meyers
18 lug 2023

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