Will statue of 17th century British merchant come down over his trafficking in slaves?
Campaigners demand removal of statue at Museum of the Home, while government and museum want to keep it
A museum façade in London’s Hoxton region turned into an unlikely battlefield in the wake of last year’s police murder in the US of George Floyd, a shocking death which triggered Black Lives Matter protests not just nationwide, but around the globe.
The dispute at this otherwise peaceful site centers on whether to remove a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, a merchant who, in 1685, also served as lord mayor of London, a statue now standing in a niche above the main entrance to the Museum of the Home.
Since last May, when Floyd was murdered, local campaigners have spotlighted the underside of Geffrye’s public face: his involvement in the UK’s Africa slave trade.
His fortune, after all, came largely from trafficking Black people with the East India Company and Royal African Company in the 17th century.
“He was an investor in transatlantic slavery and is listed among the original charter members of the Royal Africa Company, in 1672,” according to the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Geffrye, who also occupied various high offices in London, had a substantial investment in the slave trade, the records show.
Why a statue of Geffrye?
The Museum of the Home until recently was known as the Geffrye Museum, because it is situated in former 18th-century alms-houses – houses built for Britain’s the poor and needy – houses funded by Sir Robert Geffrye (1613 -1703).
The statue of Geffrye – a 20th-century copy of the 1723 original – has stood above the museum entrance since 1912.
There is also a memorial for Geffrye and his wife inside a small chapel situated in the museum, based on his will.
In July 2020, following protesters’ destruction in Bristol, southwestern England of a statue of Edward Colston, an MP and slave merchant, the public was asked its views – called a public consultation – on possible removal of the Geffrye statue.
Though a large majority of 71% of the public favored the statue’s removal, this apparently was not enough for the museum to do so, unlike the Museum of London Docklands, which removed the statue of Robert Milligan, another slave trader, in June 2019.
“In light of new legislation proposed by the government in January 2021 to protect historic monuments at risk of removal or relocation, the Board believes that its original decision is the only practical option for the foreseeable future,” the museum told Anadolu Agency, referring to its decision to “contextualise” Geffrye’s life rather than remove the statue.
“The ongoing debate about the Geffrye statue raises important questions,” it said.
“The Museum is continuing to listen carefully to all the issues raised and is committed to being open about the history of Geffrye on-site and online and to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings.”
‘Ripped from their homes’
Geffrye held shares in the Royal African Company and part-owned the slave ship China Merchant, according to Sasha Simic, a member of Hackney Stand Up to Racism – a group campaigning for the statue’s removal.
Simic told Anadolu Agency that the Royal African Company “sent more than 500 slave ships to West Africa between 1672 and 1713, enslaving people from their homes in Benin, Nigeria, Gambia, and the Gold Coast.”
“Those people were ripped from their homes and sold to plantation owners in Barbados, Jamaica, Nevis, Virginia, and Antigua.”
Simic said that, according to research by archaeologist Sean Kingsley, 279 voyages were taken by the Royal African Company between 1672 and 1713.
On these voyages, over 65,400 Africans were trafficked to the Caribbean, and nearly 14,700 died in the cramped, disease-ridden crossing ships, where they were treated as perishable goods rather than human beings.
“The British establishment built their wealth from the North Atlantic slave trade,” explained Simic.
“Their wealth comes from 400 years of slavery which tore 12.8 million people from their homes in West Africa.”
Simic said the statue should be taken down and displayed in the Museum of the Home, which in December 2019 changed its name from the Geffrye Museum after a government-funded £1.8 million ($2.48 million) renovation.
He thinks visitors to the museum should be able to learn about Geoffrye’s slave trade-tainted past.
“We want the whole story to be told – not a myth which tells us Geffrye was a ‘philanthropist’ but not how he made his money,” Simic said.
“We say the trustees of the Museum of the Home should take the statue down and display it in the museum, with his involvement in the slave trade made open and transparent,” he argued.
“The visiting public should be allowed to make up their own minds as to whether the slaver Geffrye deserves to be remembered as a ‘philanthropist’.”
The museum speaks
The Museum of the Home, which explores changing British homes and gardens through the centuries alongside shifting lifestyles, is standing for now by its original decision to keep the statue in its original place, but says it is “committed to a transformative programme.”
The museum explained to Anadolu Agency that it is “proceeding with ideas about what explaining and contextualising the statue in its original position could look like.”
“The first step has been to install a panel near the statue telling a fuller history of Geffrye, including his persistent investment in the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans, and acknowledging that the statue is the subject of much discussion,” said its media office in a statement.
“Alongside this, the Museum is committed to a transformative programme of structural and cultural change to become truly representative and inclusive, through our new galleries and displays, creative programming, partnerships and workforce.”
Claims of government pressure to keep statue in place
Simic claimed that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden had “threatened” the museum over its board possibly removing the statue, saying that the museum’s funding would be affected.
Anadolu Agency’s email requests to Dowden – whose portfolio also includes digital, media and sport – to respond to this claim went unanswered.
The museum declined to directly address the claim, but did say keeping the statue in place was the “government’s position.”
“The Board’s original decision was made in line with government’s position that statues should not be removed, but should be interpreted in situ, in order to tell the full story of Britain’s past,” it said.
However, Simic argued that communication between Dowden and the museum made the threat of interference very clear.
“In a barely disguised reference to the possible consequences if the statue was moved, Dowden reminded the trustees of the Museum that they were ‘a government-funded organisation’,” he said.
“The Museum also received a follow-up communication from the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) which asked them to redraft a statement on the statue so that references to Dowden’s direct intervention were removed in favour of a vague allusion to ‘relevant government agencies’.”
‘Geffrye must fall’
“Those of us who say #GeffryeMustFall have been accused of wanting to ‘cancel culture’ and ‘re-write history’ but it is Dowden and (Housing Secretary Robert) Jenrick and (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson's government who want to distort and obscure history,” Simic added.
“This is a movement that won’t be stopped,” he stressed.
“If the City of London and The British Museum can remove monuments to slavers, then why can’t The Museum of the Home?
He underlined: “Geffrye must fall. Geffrye will fall.”