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Swansea Council pass motion to remove symbols with links to slave trade

STREET names and symbols with links to the slave trade or exploitation could be removed in Swansea after councillors gave strong cross-party support to a Black Lives Matter motion.

In what was a lively debate several councillors said they did not wish to erase the past but learn from it and explain it better.

“It is inevitable that we are going to find things which don’t sit well with us,” said council leader Rob Stewart at a meeting of the full council.

“We should be proud of our history. But there are elements where the story is not told well enough.”

The motion brought by 17 Labour councillors said the authority stood in solidarity with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) in Swansea and elsewhere in the face of racism in all its forms.

It called on the council to examine Swansea’s geography and institutions to see whether any names or images should be removed, amended or displayed differently – but not to eradicate the past.

Another objective is for plaques and memorials to include more women, BAME individuals, working-class people, and representatives of disabled and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Educational resources about Swansea’s past should be developed, it said, to better inform residents and visitors.

The work is to be undertaken by the council’s equalities and future generations policy development committee, who will co-opt the city’s only black elected member, Cllr Yvonne Jardine.

Motion proposer Cllr Louise Gibbard said soldier and governor of Trinidad, Sir Thomas Picton, who was from Pembrokeshire and whose name prefixes an arcade, lane and terrace in Swansea, was memorialised for his role in the Napoleonic Wars but was also a plantation and slave owner.

He was, she said, “infamous” for excessive cruelty and had been convicted for extracting a confession under torture while in Trinidad of a 14-year-old, mixed-race girl accused of stealing.

Cllr Gibbard said he later had the conviction “overturned” on a technicality and with backing from slave-owning peers.

Cllr Gibbard said she trained as a history teacher, respected the subject and did not wish to erase it, but felt there were alternative historical figures who the city should celebrate.

She also said in today’s UK black mothers were five times more likely to die in pregnancy that white mothers, that black people convicted of a crime received on average 50% longer prison sentences, and that black people were twice as likely to die from the coronavirus.

“Racism is a pandemic just as much as Covid-19,” she said.

Cllr Lyndon Jones, leader of Swansea Conservatives, said racism made him angry and sad in equal measure but said the motion really had to mean something if passed.

He added: “People who are racist are missing out on meeting fantastic people who are a joy to know.”

Cllr Wendy Fitzgerald said she wanted to know how far the council would extend its historical examination.

“The deeper you dig, the more you reveal,” she said.

Cllr Fitzgerald said the city’s copper-smelting past had links to slavery, and she wondered if industrialists like Sir John Morris – who Morriston is named after – and Richard Glynn Vivian might end up being brought into the frame.

Poet Elizabeth Browning, she said, had described children working in coal mines as little more than slaves.

“It’s going to be a very challenging problem to decide exactly how we are going to determine which ones are offensive and which ones we can live with,” she said.

Cllr Alyson Pugh said: “We must call this out for what it is – racism.”

Cllr Jennifer Raynor, the cabinet member for education improvement, learning and skills, said: “Black history is still almost invisible.”

No decision has been made on whether to remove or change the city’s Picton Arcade sign, but the motion called for action, where possible, to remove offending names or public realm items that have confirmed links to slavery or exploitation.

Cllr Gibbard said she felt exploitation carried out in the mines and smelting factories, while horrible, could cause a distraction.

“This motion is primarily about addressing racism,” she said.

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