Application to remove controversial slavery plaque on statue submitted

Some academics argue that the plaque 'does not provide a factual description of Henry Dundas history'.

Application to remove controversial Dundas statue plaque on Edinburgh Melville Monument submitted iStock

A group arguing that a new plaque at the foot of Edinburgh’s controversial Melville Monument is not historically accurate has applied for planning permission to have it removed.

Installed in 2021 as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sparked calls for the removal of the Henry Dundas statue, which sits atop a 150ft column in St Andrew Square, the plaque sought to present a more nuanced account of the life and work of the prominent 18th century politician by highlighting his role in delaying the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

The wording, agreed by council leaders, heritage experts and Professor Geoff Palmer, who has since completed a slavery and colonialism legacy review for Edinburgh City Council, states Dundas was “instrumental” in deferring abolition with “more than half a million enslaved Africans crossing the Atlantic” as a result.

However some academics who dispute this view argue pinning the blame on Dundas ignores other factors that were at play at the time.

Research published by one of the most high-profile sceptics, history academic Angela McCarthy, forms part of a bid to have the new plaque taken down.

An application for listed building consent lodged with the council by the ‘Melville Monument Committee’ – a limited company registered in Carnwath – is set to be considered after being validated by planning officers on September 8.

The group, which goes by the longer name of the Committee On The Naval Monument To The Memory of The Late Lord Viscount Melville Ltd, said they think the wording on the plaque “is inappropriate and does not provide a factual description of Henry Dundas history”.

Included in the planning documents are two of McCarthy’s academic papers published earlier this year, one looking at the former home secretary’s role in delaying slave trade abolition, and another titled ‘Historians, Activists and Britain’s Slave Trade Abolition Debate: The Henry Dundas Plaque Debacle’.

In it, she wrote Mr Palmer has “repeatedly misrepresented the published views of historians and historical evidence and failed to accept the current historiographical and academic consensus that Henry Dundas was not solely responsible for Britain’s failure to achieve immediate abolition of its slave trade”.

Palmer, who is an Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, recently recommended new plaques to be installed at all statues, monuments and street names linked to slavery and colonialism in the capital to explain historical context.

He said the process is “not about erasing history” but rather “presenting a fuller picture that enables us all to better understand who we are, and how this history influenced the development of Edinburgh itself”.

Members of the public are able to comment on the application until Friday, October 21.

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