18th June, 2020
On Sunday 7th June 2020, protesters in Bristol brought down one of the city’s most prominent figures, Edward Colston, in a rousing iconoclasmic act that saw him toppled all the way down to the murky depths of the River Avon. Home Secretary Priti Patel has described Colston’s forcible deposition by the people of Bristol as ‘utterly disgraceful’ and the ‘unlawful and reckless acts’ of ‘criminals’. Strong words. Whilst it is true that the monument’s destruction does indeed meet the legal definition of ‘criminal damage’, whether the statue should have been removed on moral grounds, is quite another matter.
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was and remains, one of the most prominent figures in Bristol’s history and his name, his legacy is built into the physical fabric of the city’s superstructure. His name continues to brand the likes of Colston Hall, Colston Street and Colson Avenue and is enshrined within an independent school, Colston’s, which had annual celebrations of Colston and his philanthropic contribution to the community. The wealth and prosperity Colston brought with his work, including as a Tory MP for the city, is incontrovertible. Equally incontrovertible however, are his links to the slave trade.
Colston was a leading figure, shareholder and later deputy governor, of the Royal African Company which oversaw the enslavement and deportation of tens of thousands of the Africans to British colonies. He was also a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery which processed sugar produced by enslaved Africans. His commercial success is the commercial success of slavery. His philanthropic contributions to the city of Bristol are the financial product of the pain, misery and deaths of thousands of others. In repeatedly placing his work in philanthropy above his work in the slave trade in historical record, we continue to place the economic over the human; money over men, women and children. We place the financial contribution of the White man over the suffering and slaughter of the Black man. His monument is the ultimate privileging of white lives over Black lives, of capital over compassion and humanity, set in bronze.
Opponents argue that this monument is a historical object and its removal represents the destruction of history; an ‘editing’ of our past to suit the cultural norms and expectations of the present. This abstract notion of ‘history’ as an inert and unchanging entity, something definitive which can be ‘damaged’ or ‘destroyed’ is one which does not match reality. History is a construction of the past by the present. It is a ‘story’ we tell. There is no truly objective or independent ‘history’, none which is free of the context in which it is told. Every source, document, article, textbook or artifact enacts its own story, its own history, created by someone. Edward Colston’s statue is no different. Built in 1870, over 150 years after Colston’s death, it tells a story of the past, his story, but it is not ‘the’ definitive history. In arguing that these are historical objects, we mark them as monuments of the past, when they are inevitably monuments of the present. The erection of Colston’s monument was indeed an act of history, but its enduring presence is of the present; a conscious and continuing act of privileging in the here and now and in refusing to accept this, we deny our own responsibility for it.
Some argue that the removal of statues detracts from ‘real’ racial issues in the present and are an act of virtue signalling or performative allyship. I can understand this. However, as Orwell’s 1984 infamously declares, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’. If we want to change the future, we need to change how we represent our past. In acting and taking control in the present, by forcing the removal of these monuments, we help achieve this.
Almost two weeks on from the statue’s removal, we can begin to recognise the importance of the event of 7th June, not only in the #BlackLivesMatter movement but in wider cultural and political discourse. Prior to the protests, campaigners had repeatedly petitioned and campaigned for the removal of Edward Colston to no avail. An 11,000 signature-strong petition had failed. An agreement to change the plaque, which documented the monument as one ‘Erected by the citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’, had also yielded no material change. Now however, Colston’s school has removed its own statue and Colston Hall has announced it will be changing its name. Oriel College, Oxford also has agreed to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes in response to the protests and the resurgence of the #RhodesMustFall movement. The Mayor of London has announced a review into monuments in the city and their connections to the slave trade. Meanwhile, some US states are pushing forward with radical police reform. The tide is turning.