Who was Robert Milligan? History of the Scottish slave trader whose statue on West India Quay in London was removed

A statue depicting Robert Milligan has been removed from its plinth in London's West India Dock (Getty Images)A statue depicting Robert Milligan has been removed from its plinth in London's West India Dock (Getty Images)
A statue depicting Robert Milligan has been removed from its plinth in London's West India Dock (Getty Images)
A statue portraying the Scottish merchant has been removed following calls from demonstrators.

The statue of a slave trader has been taken down from its plinth in London following calls for the removal of statues and monuments in the UK linked with racism and slavery.

The man it depicts is Scotsman Robert Milligan, a West Indian merchant, founded the West India Dock and owned over 500 slaves.

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Its removal comes amidst growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked global protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The felling of a statue depicting slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol by demonstrators had opened a heated public conversation on the presence of monuments featuring figures linked to slavery.

And now its hoped that the legal removal of Robert Milligan’s statue can open up a healthy discussion on the presence of other figures.

Who was Robert Milligan?

Born in Dumfries in 1746, Robert Milligan was from a wealthy family who possessed wealthy sugar plantations in Jamaica, and it was here that Milligan spent much of his youth.

He swapped the West Indies for London in 1779 where he established himself as a powerful merchant.

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He, along with a number of London businessmen planned and built the West India docks which became the sole receiver of West Indies imports such as sugar, rum and coffee.The docks officially opened in 1802, seven years before Milligan’s death.

At the peak of his career Milligan served as the chairman of the West India Company, while holding strong political connections including a working relationship with William Pitt the Younger.

At the time of his death Milligan was in the possession of 526 slaves who worked his West Indian plantations.

What have authorities said about the removal of Milligan’s statue?

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been vocal in his support for the removal of statues memorialising slave traders.

Tweeting at the time of Milligan’s removal he said: "It's a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade - but this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces."

Tower Hamlets’ mayor John Biggs also supported the move.

He stated: "I know the strength of feeling about this following the removal of a similar statue in Bristol, and we've acted quickly to both ensure public safety and respond to the concerns of our residents, which I share.

"The East End has a proud history of fighting intolerance. We now need a wider conversation about confronting this part of our history and the symbols that represent it."

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The move came after Labour councils promised to review the presence of such statues in their areas.

Conservative Home deputy editor Charlotte Gill criticised the move, stating: “the mistake is thinking it ends with Robert Milligan. Who's next? The misogynists of London? Whole street names come away; the statues fall down, and the parameters for offence begin to grow.”