The felling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol city centre on Sunday has attracted international attention, and debate.
For many non-Bristolians – and many Bristolians too – it may be difficult to understand the impassioned feelings behind its removal, as well as why the police tactically – and tactfully – stood by as it happened, and why Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees stated on national radio that he “cannot pretend [to] have any real sense of loss” ((‘No sense of loss’: Bristol mayor says statue of slave trader Edward Colston was a ‘personal affront’”, The Independent, 8th June 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bristol-mayor-edward-colston-statue-black-lives-matter-protest-marvin-rees-a9554646.html)) over what happened.
This article is not intended to debate the legality or civil morality of tearing down a monument, but rather to contextualise the deep resentment over its continued prominence in Bristol, and why it has long been “a lightning rod for the city’s racial tensions.” ((Dresser, Madge & Fleming, Peter, Bristol: Ethnic Minorities and the City 1000-2001 (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007) ))
It should be prefaced by acknowledging that, as a white British citizen, the “personal affront” that Mayor Rees described simply will not resonate on the same level as it will for many people of colour, nor can I ever truly understand the anguish it has caused a significant proportion of our community.
However, as a born and raised Bristolian, I can understand why the statue has long been a source of embarrassment, shame and ire for people of all backgrounds.
Obviously, in a democratic society, it would be much healthier if reasoned debate brought down a statue; however, this debate has been taking place for decades, with no meaningful change.
The statue was erected via privately raised funds in 1895 (( “Statue of Edward Colston”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Edward_Colston)) (over 170 years after Colston’s death), and the first complaints about the implications of honouring Colston were raised in the 1920s. ((“Who was Edward Colston and why is Bristol divided by his legacy?” BBC News, February 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-42404825))
Ideally, the opinions and voices of those most affected by this statue would have been taken into greater consideration a long time ago, and this boiling point would never have been reached.
It’s also worth noting that no shops were looted on Sunday, and there was no protestor-versus-police violence, for which the vast majority of demonstrators have been praised by authorities. ((“Statement from Bristol Area Commander following Black Lives Matter demonstration”, 7th June 2020, https://www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/news/2020/06/statement-from-bristol-area-commander-following-black-lives-matter-demonstration/))
The vitriol was centralised on that statue. There was tacit acknowledgement of how offensive it was to many, since it was hastily covered in bin bags prior to the march, as though it could hide in plain sight.
The main argument against its removal is that it is an emblem of history, thereby raising awareness of both the good and the bad.
This seems at direct odds with the original plaque, which stood without any further context for 123 years: “ERECTED BY CITIZENS OF BRISTOL AS A MEMORIAL OF ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS AND WISE SONS OF THEIR CITY”. ((BBC, February 2018))
Edward Colston wasn’t simply another merchant making money off the slave trade. During his time with the Royal African Company (RAC) between 1680-1692, he swiftly rose through the ranks to become the Company’s de facto director. ((Ball, Roger, “The Royal African Company and Edward Colston (1680-92)”, 17th June 2017, http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/edward-colston-research-paper-2/))
The RAC helped turn the Atlantic slave trade into an industry, growing human trafficking into a “business” that over the next century would lead to loss of life on an unimaginable scale.
If this appears to place the blame on a single company, that is accurate; during Colston’s time with the RAC, the Company held the monopoly by royal charter over all English trade on the west coast of Africa. ((“Charter granted to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Relating to Trade in Africa, 1663”, from the British Library archives, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/charter-granted-to-the-company-of-royal-adventurers-of-england-relating-to-trade-in-africa-1663))
It’s not that Colston was just a slave trader – by virtue of his lofty position within the only English company engaging in slaving at the time, he was THE slave trader.
The cruelty of the gruesome operation is hard to fathom. Under his tenure of the RAC, 84,000 slaves were kidnapped from West Africa. Nearly 20,000 of them died in transit, some cast overboard before they had died. ((Who was Edward Colston – and why is he controversial?”, The Daily Telegraph, 8th June 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/08/edward-colston-controversial/)) Victims had the RAC’s logo seared into their chests. ((Micklethwait, John & Woolridge, Adrian, The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (New York: Modern Library, 2003)) )
This industrialised and exceptionally depraved model set the “standard” for the remainder of the British’s involvement with the slave trade, and the RAC “shipped more enslaved African men, women and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.” (( Pettigrew, William, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1672-1752 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)))
Colston donated vast amounts of money to charitable causes in Bristol, including schools, almshouses and hospitals. This is undoubtedly where some of the reluctance to fully condemn him comes from in the city, and where the impetus came from, in the late 19th Century, to erect a monument in his honour.
Bristol Radical History Society has published an excellent article detailing the “Victorian re-invention” of Colston and the decision to champion him as a “father of the city”, which is worth reading in full. (( Ball, Roger, “Myths Within Myths: Edward Colston and That Statue”, 14th October 2018, https://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/myths-within-myths/))
It carefully explains, in far more detail than can be adequately reproduced here, how the mythos surrounding Colston is a more recent invention than we may realise.
It’s also worth noting that this charity was dependant on support for his political and religious views, and only open to those who shared in them; unsurprisingly, he therefore became MP for Bristol in the early 1700s. Whether this further proves Colston’s corrupt character or can be dismissed as an endemic position for politicians of Colston’s era depends on your viewpoint!
Far more importantly, though, is the undeniable fact that this charity was only available due to the money Colston had made by literally stealing innocent lives.
Surely it is morally wrong to celebrate the man who gifted this blood money, rather than commemorate the suppressed, silenced and utterly exploited souls who made his “charity” possible?
For 123 years, the statue of Colston stood with zero context but the laudations of the plaque; there was no profound historical lesson to be learned from it, other than that in 1895 he was deemed worthy of a statue to celebrate his virtuousness.
Tearing statues down is sometimes challenged as being an act of “erasing history”, but this statue’s erection was in itself a conscious erasure of history, overlooking any negative actions undertaken by the person it sought to venerate.
In 2018, a campaign to have a second plaque placing his role into greater historical context descended into quarrelling. Nobody could agree on the wording, with one revision removing reference to the number of children who were victims of the RAC during Colston’s time (12,000, for historical record) (( “Row breaks out as Merchant Venturer accused of ‘sanitising’ Edward Colston’s involvement in slave trade”, Bristol Post, 23rd August 2018, https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/row-breaks-out-merchant-venturer-1925896)).
Another revision prompted one city councillor to declare: “I have never been a believer in taking the law into one’s own hands. However, if this partisan and nauseous plaque is approved, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn anyone who damages or removes it.” ((Theft or vandalism of second Colston statue plaque ‘may be justified’ – Tory councillor”, Bristol Post, 23rd July 2018, https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/theft-vandalism-second-colston-statue-1815967)) Let us hope that the dramatic irony of this statement is not now lost…
To summarise the above: for the past 125 years, Bristol has had a statue celebrating one of the 17th Century’s most notorious slave traders in the heart of the city – displayed prominently almost next to our War Memorial – without even providing context on the good he did for the city that supposedly warranted the statue, much less context on the wicked manner in which he funded that good.
For those not directly impacted by slavery and its legacy, it can feel as though such events are distant past, and difficult to understand why the issue is still sensitive.
However, if you have paid taxes in this country before 2015, then you have indirectly paid reparations to a slave trader. ((Abolition Of Slavery Act 1833: Section XXIV”, 28th August 1833, archived at https://www.pdavis.nl/Legis_07.htm))
In 1833 the Government took out a £20 million loan, worth 40% ((Public Revenue Details for 1833, https://www.ukpublicrevenue.co.uk/piechart_1833_UK_total)) of the annual Treasury income, in order to compensate the slavers “losing” their “trade” due to abolition. This loan was only repaid in full 5 years ago. ((Manjapra, Kris, “When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity?”, The Guardian, 29th March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/29/slavery-abolition-compensation-when-will-britain-face-up-to-its-crimes-against-humanity))
In objective historic terms, this could be dismissed as too simplistic a summary of a complex agreement, designed to prevent economic and political turmoil. But this is not an objective subject, this is a living and breathing subject, because the ramifications of an agreement in 1833 has impacted British people well into the 21st Century.
There are people in this country who have inadvertently been paying for damages given to the very people and organisations who enslaved their ancestors.
And in Bristol, at the historic harbour mouth, a statue proclaiming one of the most prolific slavers of them all to be “virtuous and wise” greeted citizens and visitors to Bristol alike for 125 years.
There can be few more brazen examples of how what seems to some of us like distant history still directly shapes and impacts our present.
The intention behind this historical context is not to attempt to articulate the feelings of Bristol’s BAME community or speak for them, but for White Bristolians to ask ourselves: what message did this statue send to our non-White neighbours?
Is this close alignment with Colston truly emblematic of our city in the 21st Century? And can we really confine these difficult questions to “history”, when it is apparent that the issues still resonate deeply?
Bristol has much still to confront, but much to be proud of. It has many worthier sons and daughters to place on that empty plinth; within hours of its removal, a petition was started calling for a statue of Dr. Paul Stephenson, civil rights campaigner and one of the key figures of the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, (( “Pride Of Britain Awards: Dr. Paul Stephenson OBE”, https://www.prideofbritain.com/component/k2/dr-paul-stephenson-obe)) to be installed in its place. ((“Replace the Colston statue with Paul Stephenson”, 7th June 2020, https://www.change.org/p/bristol-city-council-replace-the-colston-statue-with-paul-stephenson))
Certainly, the Boycott is an oft-overlooked chapter in this city’s history that deserves more attention. Perhaps a rotating installation, akin to Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, could allow a diverse range of art to be displayed, in accordance with public feedback.
Perhaps, though, a truly visible memorial to the victims of slavery who gave Colston his money is a more just monument to stand where Colston once stood.
Whatever your views, it seems inevitable that the images of Colston’s statue being tossed into Bristol’s harbour, where his ships once docked, will become iconic.
While the illegality of the act will likely remain a point of contention, even for some who supported the statue’s removal, to many more the greater concern is why a statue of an infamous slave trader was still standing freely in the first place; many feel that it is absurd to try to equate or compare the statue’s removal to the crimes preceding it.
Even if you can’t condone the action, an event as symbolic as this simply did not happen in a vacuum.
Owen Franklin is a Bristolian writer, filmmaker and composer
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