James Watt statue to be reinstalled with plaque on slave trade links

Statue of steam engine pioneer and ‘father of the industrial revolution’ James Watt will be reinstalled in Birmingham with a plaque about his ‘dark side’ and family links to slave trade in the wake of BLM protests

  • The statue of inventor James Watt has been in storage in Birmingham since 2017
  • Council will reinstall it with a plaque explaining his family’s links to slavery
  • The pioneer who died in 1819 was a leading figure of the Industrial Revolution  

The statue of Scottish inventor James Watt in Birmingham will be reinstalled with a plaque explaining his ‘dark side’ and links to slavery.

The steam engine pioneer, who died in 1819, was a key figure in the Industrial Revolution and was honoured with a gilded statue with colleagues Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, known as the ‘golden boys’.

Even though the monument is in storage, Birmingham City Council identified it as a ‘possible risk’ in a statue review amid the Black Lives Matter protests.

The statue of Scottish inventor James Watt in Birmingham will be reinstalled with a plaque explaining his ‘dark side’ and links to slavery

The engineer, who developed the idea of horsepower and lends his name to the unit of power, had family connections to the slave trade.

The council has now decided to reinstate the statue in the city centre with the addition of an explanatory plaque, according to The Telegraph. 

The information on the plaque will explain the ‘dark side to the story of the Watt family’.

In the dossier of ‘at risk’ statues by the council, it states: ‘Watt’s family and Watt himself were not only complicit in the slave trade – they participated directly and benefited extensively from the profits that slavery generated.

The engineer, who developed the idea of horsepower and lends his name to the unit of power, had family connections to the slave trade

‘The father of the industrial revolution’: How James Watt started in his shipwright father’s workshop before going on to pioneer the steam engine

James Watt studying improvements for the steam engine in his laboratory

James Watt was born in 1736 in Renfrewshire and went on to work in his shipwright father’s workshop.

He opened a shop in 1747 selling mathematical instruments at Glasgow University where he met a number of prominent scientists.

While repairing a model of the Newcomen steam engine in 1764, he was surprised by its waste of steam and invented a separate condenser.

He later made his own engine using his designs which massively improved their power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

He later adapted his engine to produce rotary motion and a double-acting engine in which the piston pushed and pulled.

Mills and factories quickly implemented his inventions, scaling up the productivity during the height of the Industrial Revolution. 

‘His father paid for Watt’s education; an element of his father’s income was from colonial trade.’  

It also states on the ‘golden boys’ statue: ‘Both Boulton and Watt sold steam trains for slave plantations in the Caribbean. Murdoch, as an employee, framed by association.’

The statue was placed in storage in 2017 while works were carried out on the Metro system and has since remained in storage.

When it is reinstalled in the city, it will be contextualised with the plaque as well as online information about the links to slavery.

The council is using a research document commissioned by the Birmingham Museums Trust as a basis for the reworked installation.

The 18th century pioneer, who until recently appeared on the £50 note, was supported by his father in his career who was a West India merchant and slave trader.

Watt helped turn Britain from cottage and craft production into an industrial powerhouse thanks to his work on the steam engine, which improved on earlier designs to make a more efficient and available source of power. 

It comes as Birmingham City Council is reassessing its statues and memorials in the wake of last year’s BLM movement.

The local authority said it would engage with residents about ‘heritage, injustice, inequality and multicultural citizenry’. 

In 2019, Glasgow University condemned Watt among other donors for their links to slave trade.

The university had signed an ‘historic’ agreement to fund a £20million programme of ‘reparative justice’ over its links to the slavery during the British Empire.

Officials signed an agreement with the University of the West Indies to fund a joint centre for development research

A report said: ‘Watt worked for his father as a mercantile agent in Glasgow during the 1750s. Furthermore, Caribbean planters who needed to process sugar cane were significant consumers of James Watt’s steam-engines.

‘It is certain that Watt profited from slavery and its commerce, but exact quantification is impossible.’

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, the university vice chancellor, said: ‘One of our report’s external advisers says, while you can’t change the past, you can change their consequences.

‘This is the story of our journey to do this to further enhance awareness and understanding of our history and the university’s connections to both historical slavery and the abolitionist movement.’

The council has now decided to reinstate the statue in the city centre with the addition of an explanatory plaque

Memorials to politicians, war heroes and authors all targeted due to links to slavery and racist beliefs 

The statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, which was retrieved from the water after being toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest and thrown into Bristol Harbour, is now being displayed at M Shed, Bristol

Since Edward Colston’s statue was thrown into Bristol Harbour, there has been a wave of attacks from vandals on various monuments across Britain.

A statue to Winston Churchill was defaced with the words ‘was a racist’ and ‘f*** your agenda’ written underneath the memorial to the war time PM in Westminster Square, London.

Slave trader Robert Milligan’s was covered with a shord and the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ was placed on it in West India Docks amid calls for it to be taken down. It was later removed by Tower Hamlets Council.

Less than a year after it was erected, ‘Nazi’ was scrawled underneath a statue of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a  seat in Parliament, in Plymouth.

A monument to 19th-century politician Henry Vassall-Fox, the third Baron Holland, was left splattered with red paint in Holland Park. A cardboard sign reading ‘I owned 401 slaves’ was perched in the bronze statue’s arms, with the number painted on the plinth alongside red handprints.

Tower Hamlets Council removed a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan after it was covered and displayed the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ during last month’s protests

A Grade II-listed monument to Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain’s foremost naval hero, which stands in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, was sprayed with a black ‘V’ in the middle of a circle – an anarchist symbol.

Red paint spattered another stature of Lord Nelson at Deptford Town Hall in South London.

In Kent, a former councillor wrote ‘Dickens Racist’ outside a museum dedicated to the beloved 19th century author. Letters sent by the Oliver Twist author showed he wished to ‘exterminate’ Indian citizens after a failed uprising.

A statue of Civil War leader Oliver Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, had the words ‘Cromwell is a cockroach,’ ‘f*** racist’ and the Black Lives Matter acronym ‘BLM’ scrawled across it last month. Thousands of people were massacred during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

BLM was also scrawled across the Worcester Civil War memorial in Royal Park.

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