Dr Sami Pinarbasi, Lecturer in History.
The pigeon-magnet of Piccadilly, Greater Manchester’s own Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet (1788-1850) standings atop a plinth on a series of steps in 2021, a bigot made of bronze. His face ennobled with haughtiness and his deportment confident, jaunty, almost ironically Byronic (for a Conservative politician.) Below him sit two subsidiary figures holding emblems of industry, the arts, and of course, cotton. As a statue on a plinth, it conveys the monumental status of a solitary and isolated hero standing alone in the middle of Manchester. The statue — and even the historiography — only tells half the story, the wealth that projected Peel into politics and fame was based on the exploitation of enslaved Black people in both North America and the British West Indies. The provenance of Peel’s wealth cannot be ignored.
Robert Peel and his statue represents a nexus of historical and contemporary issues such as race, capitalism, modern policing, free trade, slavery, and industrialisation. There are at least seven statues of the man, more than of any other non-royal in Britain. This alone is testimony to his powerful legacy and influence.
To help grasp the importance of the Peel statue, it is vital to place it in its socio-political context. The statue occupies an ideological space which represented modernity — free trade, industrialisation, and capitalism — and a connection to the idea of globalisation — colonialism, cotton, and imperialism. Today, the statue inhabits a physical space in the centre of a global city. Manchester depended upon global connections for its cotton-based wealth, the same can be said for the Peel family. The city itself is a monument to colonialism, slavery, and the plantation economy. This naturally leads to the retelling of the story of Peel and his statue through the intellectual prism of modernity which Doreen Massey (1999, p. 63) reflects its ‘preconditions in and effects of violence, racism and oppression.’ The physical centring of the statue must not be accompanied by the continued centring of Peel’s violent, racist, and oppressive ideology, as has happened in the past. Instead, as Stuart Hall (1996, p. 50) tells us, we must attempt a ‘re-narrativisation (which) displaces the “story” of capitalist modernity from its European centring to its dispersed global “peripheries”.’ The postcolonial focus now must be on the lives, experiences, and legacies of the multitude of unknown and forgotten enslaved people that picked the cotton which the Peels grew wealthy from. The faded bronze form of the great 19th century statesman symbolizes the global sense of place and signifies ‘real relations with real content — economic, political, cultural’ — between Manchester and the wider world in which it exists.
Even in the nineteenth century, as Richard Gaunt (2010:147-149) reminds us, ‘statues of Peel were controversial sites of veneration and commemoration,’ with Peel’s statue in Parliament Square, London, being the most prominent example. The history of this particular statue ‘with its interminable delays, political infighting, administrative wrangling and financial hand-wringing is emblematic of the wider difficulties attending the “siting” of Peel in the popular and historical memory.’
Peel would establish the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829, it cannot be a coincidence that the proslavery and anti-Black Peel would have founded the police. British police have been described as ‘institutionally racist’ and accused of having a profound problem with discrimination and prejudice at an institutional level.
The killing of black people at the hands of the police is all too easy for politicians and others to dismiss as a uniquely American problem. It is uncomplicated to assume that police brutality and racism doesn’t happen in Britain – after all we have a Prime Minister who has declared that Britain is not a racist country and only recently has Cressida Dick, the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, denied that the force was ‘institutionally racist.’
To defenestrate the statue of Robert Peel would be an iconoclastic moment, such moments ‘in these movements almost always provides the careful observer with a sharp view of the stresses and tears in the social fabric of a given time or place.’ (2012, p. 4) These ‘stresses and tears’ are long-pent-up frustrations within civil society that erupt into social movements such as Black Lives Matter when marginalised people within a society are misrepresented, marginalised and oppressed and resultantly direct their anger and frustrations towards icons which perpetuate the narrative that movements wish to challenge and change.
Photos and videos of angry protestors vandalising or pulling down statues have permeated the media’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests since the summer of 2020. This led to the authorities placing protective boxes around statues throughout Britain, with the most prominent example of this being the boxing-up of Churchill on the 12th June 2020. The next day, the Peel statue in Tamworth was similarly entombed in a wooden box.
On 7th June 2020, Black Lives Matter activist toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, dragged it down the street, and summarily plunged it into a nearby river. Since then, countless statues have been removed and streets have been renamed throughout Britain. This new civil rights era which was ushered in by the protests of summer 2020 have created an opportunity for a critical debate over the interpretation of history and how we remember the figures, ideas, and events that statues and memorials commemorate.
The contestations over the Peel statue continue in the 21st century. As stated by Ana Lucia Araujo, the ‘public memory of slavery is a permanent battleground.’ (2019:69) I am a woke and resultantly have been denounced as a ‘statue terrorist,’ a ‘history terrorist’ and even a ‘violent protestor’ for starting the peaceful #RepealPeel campaign. These vile slurs have only spurred on my campaign, which began with the circulation of a petition on 5th June 2020, merely days before Colston fell in Bristol. As an anti-racist historian, I felt a personal responsibility to use my academic knowledge of Robert Peel and Manchester’s connections to the British West Indies and the plantation economy to try and effect meaningful change by challenging and contesting the historical perception of Robert Peel.
Araujo, A.L (2019) Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Gaunt, R. (2010) Sir Robert Peel: the Life and Legacy, London: I. B. Tauris.
Hall, S. (1996) ‘When was "the Post Colonial"? Thinking at the Limit’ in Chambers, I. and Curti, L. (eds) The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, London: Routledge.
Massey, D. (2005) For Space, London: Sage Publications.
Noble, T. F. X. (2012) Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press.