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Over 1,000 people sign petition to replace Robert Milligan statue with Mary Prince tribute

PUBLISHED: 17:00 29 June 2020

Dr Rhiannon Lee has started a petition to replace the removed statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan with a tribute to Mary Prince, a former slave who was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament. Picture: Rhiannon Lee

Dr Rhiannon Lee has started a petition to replace the removed statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan with a tribute to Mary Prince, a former slave who was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament. Picture: Rhiannon Lee

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A petition to install a statue of female abolitionist Mary Prince outside the Museum of London Docklands has reached over 1000 signatures.

Workers take down the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay. Picture: Yui Mok/PA WireWorkers take down the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Organiser Dr Rhiannon Lee says the tribute — intended as a replacement for the recently-removed statue of slaveholder Robert Milligan — would be a positive step with respect to how women are remembered historically: “I have grown up in England my whole life — there has always been statues of white men. It is in our consciousness.

“To have a statue of former slave Mary Prince, a key abolitionist who was also a woman of colour, would represent huge progress.”

Since the statue of Milligan was removed, there has been little talk of a replacement, and virtually no talk of Mary Prince.

This, according to Rhiannon, is because most people don’t know who she is.

Despite featuring in an exhibit at the London Docklands museum, where Mary is recognised to have “played a crucial role in the abolition campaign”, her general contribution isn’t widely known in the UK.

Rhiannon herself became aware of Mary’s legacy as the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament by buying her autobiography ‘The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave’ in 2015.

This autobiography, also the first to be written and published by a black woman, details a life of huge adversity in which Mary was sold four times, separated from her family as a teenager, subjected to sustained torture, and forced to leave her husband to go to England.

As a child Mary was sold around the Caribbean, eventually settling in Antigua where she was owned by John Adams Wood from 1815 onwards.

In 1828 she was forced to relocate to London, leaving behind husband Daniel James, a freed former slave who she had married two years previously.

Upon arriving in the UK, where slavery had already been abolished by the 1807 Slave Trade Act, Mary soon escaped from her oppressive conditions.

But she had no means to support herself independently and lived at the Moravian Mission House in Hatton Gardens until finding work through Thomas Pringle, the secretary of the anti-slavery society who became an ally.

Mary found her passion in campaigning for a total end to slavery, acutely aware that abolition in the UK had not yet extended to the colonies due to fears over the impact to the sugar industry.

She became the first black woman to present a petition to the British government in 1829, arguing for the basic human rights of slaves.

Mary is known to have remained in England until at least 1833, playing a pivotal role in the legislation which freed 800,000 slaves from the colonies the following year.

Rumours remain that she then returned to husband Daniel in Antigua, though these have never been confirmed.

This history shows just how central Mary was to the eventual freeing of slaves in the colonies, with Rhiannon adamant that she deserves a more obvious legacy: “When the Milligan statue was taken down, I was waiting and waiting for someone to mention Mary, but nobody did. It was then I realised that she wasn’t very well known.”

This led Rhiannon — a scientist by trade — to lobby for the abolitionist to be Milligan’s replacement.

Tentative discussions have taken place with both the museum and the Canal River Trust, who own the land the empty plinth is on.

Rhiannon’s ultimate aim is to get the attention of Tower Hamlets council, who has since confirmed that a consultation on this issue has been set up.

The scientist is buoyed by this development, and urges people to submit their ideas before the July 12 deadline: “It’s amazing that Tower Hamlets has taken action. Mary Prince already has a national day in Antigua, so there is no reason why she shouldn’t be more revered here.

“Some have suggested the plinth stay empty with a plaque to explain why the previous statue was taken down, but I think there’s a better way to capture this moment in history.”

To sign the petition, visit this link.


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