I’m a member of staff in the SoAD and was born in Bristol and grew up in Winterbourne, a village just north of the city. Edward Colston, slave trader and philanthropist, did the same 300 years previously.
The name Colston wasn’t widely known outside Bristol until last week, although to Bristolians it’s very familiar. The city is riddled with schools, buildings, streets, and monuments that bear his name, although some have been renamed over the years. There is even a Colston bun, traditionally given out to school children on Colston Day (13th Nov). I won’t be putting that date in my diary.
Some 500,000 west African men, women and children were traded by Bristol’s slave merchants, including 84,000 by Colston himself. Using the profits of his trade for acts of philanthropy, however, his name and image are all over the city. Colston casts a long shadow over Bristol and his impact has left it with the troubling and complex task of dealing with his legacy in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Just as black lives mattered before 25th May, Colston’s name and image has been a source of resentment and protest for many years before last Sunday. The removal of his statue was the final act of years of campaigning involving petitions, artistic interventions, frequent acts of ritual public urination and vandalism which have questioned its continued presence in the centre of Bristol. No tears will be shed over its absence from its plinth, although some will question the manner of its removal.
Bristol has long recognised its, and Colston’s, historic role in the transportation, torture and death of millions of lives, then regarded as mere cargo. Some light has been shone into his shadow, but in 2020 it is now impossible to entirely unpick his legacy from Bristol’s past.
Its problem in the recent past has been to find an appropriate way to acknowledge and remember this legacy’s enormous cost.
The Colston statue’s continuing public position was, at best, questionable to many Bristolians and, in light of recent events, probably impossible to comprehend to those outside the city. It wasn’t still there due to any pride in its former citizen, but because of the complexities of finding a way to deal with his legacy and image in a manner that wasn’t racially or politically divisive.
As late as 2018 an attempt to apply a new plaque to acknowledge the statue’s past came to grief over disputes about its wording from local politicians and societies. This left Bristolians with the original 1895 Grade 2 listed inscription on the “memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”; now temporarily obscured by protesters’ placards.
There are few Bristolians who don’t have an opinion about how to address the enormous problem of remembering the city’s past. The difficult questions of previous years have still to find answers, especially after the placards are removed: Are a couple of modest plaques on other monuments enough? What is “enough”? Should streets and buildings be renamed, or will that be seen as act of denial? Does obliteration of the Colston name and image obliterate and obscure history? Should there be another sort of memorial, and how will it reflect an entire diverse community without being divisive? Will a more visible memorial be seen as an insincere act of apology or a guilty gesture that’s as hollow as Colston’s statue?
“We have a statue of someone who made their money by throwing our people into water…and now he’s on the bottom of the water.” Krishnan Guru-Murthy
Whether people regard the very public removal of Colston’s statue as an act of wanton vandalism or as an appropriate and poetically ignominious end, it has brought into very sharp focus an aspect of Bristol’s and the UK’s past that is still deeply troubling. As just one Bristolian I hope that it will galvanise my home city to find a way to shine a bright and united light into Colston’s shadow.
I know that Bristol will never, ever allow him to be returned to his former lofty plinth. I am looking forward to returning to my home city (lockdown measures permitting) and go on a family outing to see that battered and empty plinth.