Edward Colston: A Problematic Legacy in the People’s Hands

On the 7 June 2020, against a backdrop of conversations surrounding the treatment of Black people in light of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota, protestors in Bristol graffitied, tied up and toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader whose fortune helped to build the city. The whole world watched as the bronze memorial, which had stood by Bristol’s harbour since 1895, was thrown into the water amidst cheering. Four days later, it was retrieved and put into storage by Bristol City Council, who later said they planned to display it, graffiti and ropes intact, at the city’s M Shed Museum. The news of the statue’s toppling was met with disdain by many, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, who branded the action ‘utterly disgraceful’, while others celebrated it as an act of justice.

Edward Colston had long been a contentious figure in the city, a number of whose streets, buildings and schools bore his name. He was also at one point Deputy Director of the Royal African Company, which was directly responsible for the transport of African people to Britain and, subsequently, on to the United States. He, therefore, made his wealth from the transatlantic slave trade, an industry which partially operated out of Bristol and significantly contributed to its development. It is estimated that the company transported around 212,000 enslaved men, women, and children, many of whom were branded with the company’s initials. There had been calls for the statue to be removed before, including by Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire in 2018, or for a second plaque to be added detailing Colston’s involvement in the slave trade, but neither of these ideas came to fruition before the statue was toppled.

A year on, and it has just been put on display at M Shed Museum, lying on its back due to damage, with placards from the protest and a bike wheel dragged up from the harbour with it exhibited alongside it. The We Are Bristol History Commission, set up by the Mayor of Bristol in September 2020, is ongoing, allowing residents of the city to decide what they believe is best for the future of the statue after the temporary exhibition it is a part of ends. A survey will be undertaken in order to ensure that all residents can have their say, and an archive of the results will be made publicly accessible.

The empty plinth now stands as a powerful image of the rejection of white supremacy and colonialism, but what should happen next? Various ideas have included leaving the statue in a museum and the plinth empty, replacing the statue’s place on the plinth with some sort of memorial to the enslaved people who died in captivity at the hands of the Royal African Company, or a temporary or permanent art installation.

While the survey has been praised as a positive, people-led step to working out what the next chapter in the Colston statue and Bristol’s story is, it is important to consider the impacts of intergenerational colonialism in order to truly start a conversation. It’s one thing to remove a statue memorialising a deeply racist man and his legacy, but what can be done to start to alleviate the modern-day repercussions of slavery, colonialism and racism in Bristol and beyond? Black people have long been told that racism is at the very least far less common in modern day Britain, or totally solved (most recently and notably the government announced as part of their Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published in March that the UK “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries” in terms of tackling institutional racism). Whether Colston’s statue stays in the M Shed, is hidden from public view, or is restored to its plinth, Black Bristolians will still undoubtedly face institutional and interpersonal racism.

There is no clear path towards reckoning with the questions and issues the toppling of Colston’s statue brings up. However, the image of a slaver being pulled down by the people will remain a defining moment of our history and will hopefully continue to initiate conversations about colonialism, empire, and the role those we choose to place on pedestals and plinths have had in the oppression of others.

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: Unsplash

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