Student Council at Queen Mary vote to not remove ‘racist’ plaques

Student Council at Queen Mary vote to not remove ‘racist’ plaques

This is not the first time that the plaques have provoked controversy. A Freedom of Information request to the university in 2013 inquired if a review of the plaques would be considered. However QMUL stated that no such information was held.

Queen Mary University of London should not remove plaques commemorating Belgian ruler King Leopold II, according to a council vote at the students’ union.

The call to remove and re-contextualise the two plaques was presented by a group of students at the university.

Queen Mary Pan-African Society said that the plaques “celebrate” and “glorify” the “genocidal” King Leopold II.

The society, when presenting at the meeting, called on Queen Mary Students’ Union to “demand the removal of the plaques from their glorifying and uncritical place in the Octagon to a museum or space in which full contextualization can be rendered, preferably in a space dedicated to the memorialization of the crimes of genocide, colonialism and imperialism.”

The decision to not remove the plaques was made at a student council meeting held at the students’ union in late April. Seven elected representatives voted in favour of removing the plaques, and nine against.

The plaques commemorate Leopold laying the foundation stone of the library, now the Octagon in Queen’s Building, in June 1887.

King Leopold II colonised the Congo, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was responsible for the death and mutilation of the Congolese people. During ‘the scramble for Africa’ in the 19th century, he convinced other European countries to authorise his claim over the country allegedly on humanitarian grounds and with an aim to bring civilisation to the area. Establishing the Congo Free State in 1885, his reign saw the creation of plantations and the use of forced labour to harvest rubber, which was in high demand. He consequently amassed a fortune for himself, causing the genocide of approximately two to fifteen million people and is recognised as one of history’s most brutal figures.

However, those who spoke against removing, and re-contextualising, the King Leopold II plaques believed that their simple removal would eliminate the opportunity for debate around Leopold’s legacy.

Will Atkins, Vice President Barts and The London, said that whilst he understood the atrocities of the crimes committed, the plaques do not necessarily glorify the leader. He said that “re-contextualising it [the plaques] would help us recognise and learn lessons for the future”. He added that it was a fact that Leopold had laid the foundation stone for the Octagon when it was built.

Representatives of the university’s Pan-African society said that it is “deeply offensive” to still have the plaques in place today.

This is not the first time that the plaques have provoked controversy. A Freedom of Information request to the university in 2013 inquired if a review of the plaques would be considered. However QMUL stated that no such information was held.

Aisha Morgan, president of the Pan-African society said that she did not envision that the motion would be difficult to pass.

She said: “QMUL prides itself on being a progressive, socially-inclusive institute of higher learning. Given that the student union is designed to represent the views – and most importantly, ensure the wellbeing of – students on campus, we saw no reason why the motion would not be passed, particularly given  the racialized differences that already exist in student experience”.

With regards to the future for the campaign, the society stated on their Facebook page that they would “continue to do all that we can to ensure that Queen Mary takes full responsibility for the deeply offensive relics that are on campus and to reconcile itself with its history.”

The debate has been dubbed ‘Leopold Must Fall’ by students at Queen Mary, named after the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University. Earlier this year, students at Oxford called for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, based at Oriel College.

Rhodes was an imperialist and white supremacist who advocated for colonial expansion and racial segregation in southern Africa. After much campaigning and media attention, Oxford University announced in January that the statue would remain. However the campaign has been successful at the University of Cape Town. A Cecil Rhodes statue was successfully removed from the university in April 2015, where the Oxford University campaign first began. Lobbying is still ongoing at Oxford.

Correction: The previous title stated “Students at Queen Mary”, referring to the group of students who voted the proposed motion down. Following your feedback, we have amended this to be more representative. We apologise for any inconvenience or offence caused, while it was never intended that all students of Queen Mary but the particular group would be implicated. 


Next week: The “bad benefactor” conundrum – what to do about the morals of past historical figures? Read the other side of the debate, covered by Elizabeth Boulden, here.

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