Today the statue of Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protestors, and thrown into the harbour. People from outside the city may not understand the resonances of this act, other than that Colston was a slaver who bequeathed much of his wealth to the city. A lot of things in Bristol are consequently named after him, including my children’s very multicultural primary school (although that name was changed a few years ago).
Possibly you think that a statue to someone who died 300 years ago is just part of the historical fabric, and should be left as such. But the statue to Colston has been a living controversy for many years – it’s not ‘just’ history.
First, of course, it wasn’t put up on Colston’s death but almost two centuries later, in 1895 – itself a political act. At that point the plaque beneath it read: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”. There was no mention of slavery at all.
Many people have argued for the removal of the statue, while others resisted. In 2018 the city agreed a compromise, suggesting wording for a new plaque that would give a fuller picture of Colston’s legacy:
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant, long honoured as the city’s greatest benefactor. He made vast donations to restore churches, establish schools, almshouses and various charities in Bristol and across the country.
Much of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods.
When a high official of the Royal African Company (1680-1692) (which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698), he played an active role in the trafficking of over 84,000 enslaved Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died on their way across the Atlantic.
As MP for Bristol (1710-1713) he worked to safeguard Bristol’s slave-trading interests. His role in the exploitation of enslaved Africans and his opposition to any form of religious or political dissent, has in recent years made him the focus of increasing controversy.
Pretty uncontroversial, you might think? But it was too harsh for the Merchant Venturers, Colston’s club, which is still a power in the city. In 2019 they commissioned a former curator of the City Museum to write a softer version:
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant and the city's greatest benefactor. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.
Some of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced commodities. From 1680 to 1692 he was an official of the Royal African Company, which had the monopoly of the English slave trade until 1698.
Thus, he was involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on voyages to the Caribbean and the Americas.
Notice, among many other differences, how “trafficked” has become “transported” – as if the slaves were either a) criminals or b) passengers, rather than traded goods; while the blame for slavery has somehow been shifted to Africa itself.
All this wasn’t in the distant past, mind. It was a year ago.
The Mayor of Bristol (himself descended from enslaved Africans) unsurprisingly rejected this proposal – and there, until today, the matter rested, pending ultimate agreement on the wording.
The destruction of the statue cuts that Gordian knot. It's about time.