Last Sunday history was made at Bristol’s Black Lives Matter Protest when the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, was ripped from it’s pedestal and thrown into the harbour. It’s symbolic removal and the events that followed sent a powerful message; now is the time for change.
The demise of the Colston statue is fitting for the type of man (or monster) he was but it has divided opinion. During the Victorian era, this once revered philanthropist had roads, schools and buildings named after him and his involvement in the slave trade was quietly ignored. For 25 years Bristolians have campaigned to have the statue removed and finally you can walk through the centre, free from its glare.
So who was Edward Colston?
Edward Colston was an English merchant and member of parliament in the 17th century, trading in wine, fabrics and fruit. In 1680, Colston joined the Royal African Company where he spent the next 12 years as a slave trader. Colston oversaw the enslavement of an estimated 84 000 African people who were shipped off to work on plantations in the new world. Ships would travel from Bristol to Africa and then onto the Caribbean, carrying slaves that would be exchanged shipments of sugar and cotton. During the crossing’s as many as 19 000 people died from sickness, diseases and mistreatment; their bodies then tossed into the sea, like unwanted cargo.
Although it’s unknown how much of his wealth came from his involvement in the slave trade, it’s undeniable that Bristol benefitted greatly from it. You can hardly escape his name in Bristol with so much named after him. There’s Colston Street, Colston Avenue, Colston Yard, Colston Hill, Colston Tower, Colston Almshouses and Colston Hall just to name a few. His legacy lives on through the huge amount of donations he was able to make when he was alive and through the money he left when he died and has never been held accountable for the crimes he committed.
In 2017 it was announced that Colston Hall would be undergoing a complete redevelopment, including a name change that was more in line with the organisation. They released a statement that said “We want to look to the future and ensure the whole city is proud of its transformed Hall. The name Colston, and its associations with the slave trade, does not reflect our values as a progressive, forward-thinking, open arts organisations.”
What was the significance of removing the statue?
The manner in which the statue was torn down, bound, and branded was emotionally charged. It was personal. It was the undignified demise Colston deserved and no less than what he inflicted on thousands of innocent people. Standing side by side black and white brothers and sisters pulled on the ropes wrapped around the statue and as it crashed to the ground to cheers of relief, hope, and empowerment.
Members of the black community took to the podium where Colston once stood, to talk about change, injustice and moving forward. Someone then knelt on the neck of the statue in tribute to George Floyd, before it was dragged, damaged and graffitied to the harbours edge. Colston’s statue met the same watery end as many of his slaves, just metres from Pero’s Bridge – named after the slave Pero Jones who was brought from Nevis in the Caribbean to Bristol in the 18th century to work as the personal slave of Merchant, John Pinny.
In a final act of solidarity last Sunday, protestors left their placard’s on the floor, circling the empty plinth where Colston resided. Messages reading “No Justice, No Peace” “All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter”, “If the UK isn’t racist, why did we elect a racist” and “Silence Breeds Violence” amongst many others have now been collected by the council and will be put into an exhibition at the M shed.
What message does this send to the rest of the world?
Whilst it’s estimated that more than 10 000 people marched in the Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, the tearing down of Colston’s statue is what’s resonated most with the rest of the world. For 125 years the statue of Edward Colston, a man who endorsed slavery and profited from pain took the prime plinth in the heart of the city. Every day, members of Bristol’s black communities would walk past the bronze cast of a man who bought and sold their people like property, who murdered and dehumanised African men, women and children so he could build a better city, a better Bristol for white people.
The removal of the statue signifies that Bristol will no longer turn a blind eye to our violent and exploitative history. It sends a message to black, ethnic and minority communities; that Bristol supports you, we are with you, we want justice for you. To councils, governments and heads of states who can so easily ignore written requests, it sends the message that we will not be ignored.
Opinions have been left divided…
Since the statue’s take down, there has been an angry outcry from people who want to see “justice” served to the “criminals” in charge of its removal. During the incident, Avon and Somerset Police made the decision not to get involved as they didn’t want to cause unnecessary violence. The calm response of police officers and people’s desire to protest peacefully, resulted in zero injuries or arrests at the Bristol protest.
Many people who have been upset by this act are claiming that the statue is an important part of Bristol’s history and helps to teach about the past. Rest assured, a quick google or a trip to the museum could tell you a statue that said “Erected b the citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.
Statue’s should be reserved for those who need to be celebrated and remembered for their triumphs and achievements for humanity, not against it. Whilst some have been left shocked, outraged and disgusted by the event (Priti Patel, closet racists, people with no heart), this has been a long time coming. Even Bristol’s Mayor has said he “felt no sense of loss.”
What’s happening in other countries?
With the Black Lives Matter protests comes a new found sense of urgency to have all of these monuments removed. All over the world, white people are taking this opportunity to educate themselves about our bloody pasts and in response, demanding change.
In Belgium, Antwerp authorities have already removed a statue of King Leopold II, with protestors calling for all 14 statues of King Leopold II to be taken down. In Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia, confederate statues of “war heroes” have been taken down either officially or by protestors, after being covered in graffiti and in London the statue of Robert Milligan was removed by officials after the local community decided it wasn’t acceptable to have it on show. We can no longer stand by and ignore the violence and inhumane conditions these once celebrated criminals on black people.
Colston’s statue has now been dragged from the murky water of the River, preserving its new adornments the best they could. On cleaning the bronze effigy, the team discovered a magazined clipping from October 1985 rolled into the tail of the jacket. Whilst a decision of what to do with it is yet to be made, Marvin Rees wants it to be a “conversation for the city” and it’s even rumoured Bansky has made a suggestion, but for now it’ll lay beaten and bruised at the M Shed.
Whether you think it’s criminal damage or a triumph for change, it’s symbolism was heartfelt and poignant. This wasn’t an act of mindless vandalism. The people of Bristol showed up and said, enough is enough. Let’s hope this is the start of the end of commemorating and celebrating purveyors of people. With Colston’s statue gone, Colston Hall to be renamed and literally as I write this the Colston Tower sign is being taken down, you can only wonder how long it’ll be until Bristol is completely Colston free.
Cover image By Abby Gray