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‘Norfolk won’t allow his statues to be toppled’ - Nelson defended amid racism row

PUBLISHED: 18:20 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 08:55 12 June 2020

Lord Nelson statue by Thomas Milnes in Upper Close at Norwich Cathedral. Picture : Antony Kelly

Lord Nelson statue by Thomas Milnes in Upper Close at Norwich Cathedral. Picture : Antony Kelly

Supporters of Admiral Nelson in Norfolk have defended him from calls to remove statues that represent or celebrate Britain’s slave trade and imperialist past.

Border sign that marks the county's strong links to Nelson who was born and educated in Norfolk. Picture: Picture: James BassBorder sign that marks the county's strong links to Nelson who was born and educated in Norfolk. Picture: Picture: James Bass

Following the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and the local authority-approved removal of the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan in London’s Docklands, activists have turned their attention to other controversial statues around the UK.

A website called “topple the racists” has compiled a list of around 60 statues and other memorials across the UK it argues should be taken down, because they “celebrate slavery and racism”.

Though it includes no statues in Norfolk or Suffolk it does include monuments to some of Britain’s most iconic historical figures including King Charles II, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Francis Drake as well as Nelson’s Column in London.

Consideration is to be given to the context and interpretation of the Nelson statue at Norwich Cathedral. Picture: Antony KellyConsideration is to be given to the context and interpretation of the Nelson statue at Norwich Cathedral. Picture: Antony Kelly

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Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is Norfolk’s most famous son, so much so that ‘Nelson’s County’ appears on border signs.

There are numerous memorials to his links at his birthplace, Burnham Thorpe, and the 144ft monument in Great Yarmouth topped with Britannia, completed in 1819, 24 years before the Trafalgar Square column, was put up in Nelson’s memory.

Norwich Cathedral said in light of the current debate, further consideration will be given to the “context and interpretation” of the statue of Nelson in The Close, which is owned and maintained by Norwich City Council.

The Nelson monument in Great Yarmouth. 

Picture: James BassThe Nelson monument in Great Yarmouth. Picture: James Bass

The Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral said: “Like all human beings, Horatio Nelson was a flawed person.

“He did many things for which he is now honoured but also others which were much less admirable. All lives are complex, and his legacy should be understood as a whole.”

However Bruno Peek, the Yarmouth-based pageantmaster who led national bicentennial celebrations to Nelson in 2005, said he believed the monuments should remain in place.

Pageantmaster Bruno Peek said he believed Nelson monuments should remain in place. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WirePageantmaster Bruno Peek said he believed Nelson monuments should remain in place. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

He said: “There is no way that the people of Norfolk would allow Nelson’s monuments in the county to be taken down. I’d be the first one standing at the bottom of the Britannia Monument making sure no-one got near it.

“What he did for this country was remarkable. Nelson is one of England’s greatest heroes and he sacrificed his life for the good of Europe.”

Kerry Robinson-Payne, who represents Nelson ward on Great Yarmouth Borough Council and former curator of the Nelson Museum in the town, said she agreed statues of some historical figures “need to be looked at again”, though Nelson was a very different case.

Trafalgar Day celebrations held at the Nelson Monument in Great Yarmouth.
 Picture: Nick ButcherTrafalgar Day celebrations held at the Nelson Monument in Great Yarmouth. Picture: Nick Butcher

She said: “There is definitely a momentum at the moment where I think these issues do need to be reassessed. Some statues of those who were slave traders, I agree should not still be out in public to be admired.

“History isn’t black and white though, there are grey areas and some people like Nelson, though they were of the time when those things were happening, weren’t directly involved like Colston or Rhodes, who did get rich off the back of the slave trade.

“Nelson had lots of different men on his ships and he treated them very well. He was admired and looked up to and revered by his sailors, and he had men of all nationalities on his ships.”

Cllr Kerry Robinson-Payne who represents Nelson ward in Great Yarmouth and formerly curator of the Nelson museum. Picture: GYBCCllr Kerry Robinson-Payne who represents Nelson ward in Great Yarmouth and formerly curator of the Nelson museum. Picture: GYBC

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Nelson’s reputation as Britain’s greatest seafaring hero survives though it has been suggested a letter read out in parliament after his death revealed his opposition to William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of the slave trade.

But Chris Brett, vice-chair of the Nelson Society, said the letter was in “very stark contrast to the actions in his life”.

He said: “In the West Indies any slaves that swam to his ships were signed on, paid and treated the same as any of the crew and at the end of their service discharged as free men.

Chris Brett (left) from the Nelson Society joins councillors and members Great Yarmouth preservation trust and archaeological society at the unveiling of a plaque at the jetty from where Nelson sailed. Picture: SubmittedChris Brett (left) from the Nelson Society joins councillors and members Great Yarmouth preservation trust and archaeological society at the unveiling of a plaque at the jetty from where Nelson sailed. Picture: Submitted

“He was certainly a patriot and understood that Britain’s economy was based on wealth derived in part from the West Indies.

“But of course we have to remember that Britain was engaged in a massive conflict with the French at the time and anything that would undermine that was unlikely to be favourably received.”

He added that Nelson also supported a proposition that West Indian plantation slaves should be replaced by free Chinese workers, and in 1799 personally intervened to secure the release of 30 north African slaves being held by the Portuguese.

“Since Nelson’s death he is probably one of the most trawled over characters in our history, there have been well over a thousand biographies, but none of those writers and historians have ever accused Nelson of being racist or a white supremist,” he added.

MORE: Tear down Nelson’s column - No thanks!

Pressure on authorities to remove contentious monuments has seen Labour-led councils across England and Wales agree to work with their local communities to look at the “appropriateness” of statues on public land and council property.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has also announced a new commission to review the capital’s landmarks.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi said that people should be able to examine the UK’s history “warts and all” without a feeling of “self loathing” but said decisions over the future of controversial statues should be taken democratically.

Other targets include a statue of Thomas Guy outside the London hospital he founded, because he made his fortune from a company that sold slaves, and a statue of Robert Clive, known as Clive of India, in Shrewsbury.

YOUR VIEWS - SHOULD MONUMENTS NELSON BE TAKEN DOWN?

Kim Squance - These statues and monuments represent history. You can not delete history, only learn from it. Rather than glorifying them add factual information about acts in their time.

Amanda Louise Hope - All these statues being torn down are part of history, maybe not a history to be proud of, but a history to show how far we have come. You can’t change or rewrite history.

Anna Key - Maybe the real issue is history is taught badly, does not give the full story and is selective. Take Nelson as an example, always portrayed as a hero but he was flawed.

Paul Walmsley - As much of our 18/19th century history and wealth was built on the back of colonialism, slavery and white supremacy we could be left with a lot of empty spaces and changed street names.

Jen Llywelyn - These statues could possibly stay if there were clear statements on them about who they were and what they did. History has been white-washed. It must be clear. No more hiding it.

Leah Black - Why as British people can we not see our statues celebrating men who bought and sold millions of people like animals should not sit in our streets, history or not.


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