University of Exeter
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statute and its hauling into Bristol harbour on 7 June as part of global Black Lives Matter protests has provoked a long overdue public debate about the place of memorials of Britain’s imperial past and particularly its key role in the Atlantic slave trade. However, with some important exceptions, the history of creative protest within Bristol against Colston’s statue (as well as the numerous public buildings named after him in the city) is often overlooked in this coverage. Nor is there much discussion of the material significance of where Colston’s plinth was situated and the idea of civic identity its creators sought to impose on Bristol.
This oversight may be accidental in many cases; these debates have generated a great deal of controversy locally, but received little national coverage. However, the effect obscures how the toppling of Colston fits into a longer history of creative protest on the site of the statue.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stated that removing the statues of controversial figures is ‘to lie about our history’. But Colston’s statue has not sat in aspic from 1895 until its unceremonious dunking earlier this month. Instead it has been a site for people to engage with the city’s history and challenge the sanitised narratives of Bristol’s past that the statue’s creators sought to impose.
The Colston statue itself needs to be seen as a form of historical erasure, created as part of a refashioning of Bristol’s civic identity after the end of the Atlantic slave trade. It is a monument to the late-Victorian era, when the city was undergoing rapid expansion fuelled by the growth of shipping and industries such as Wills tobacco business. Colston’s statue was placed at the centre of the thriving city, overlooking the docks (refashioned over the last twenty years as a leisure and housing district) and in the middle of a large thoroughfare designed for promenading, surrounded by commercial buildings. Presumably the idea was to both honour a generous benefactor to the city and offer a romantic nod to Bristol’s seafaring past (divorced from its role in the slave trade). The reliefs on the sides of the statue even include images of dolphins, mermaids and other sea creatures. No mention is made, however, of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade on the original plaque. Instead we are informed the statue was erected ‘as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of the city.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, has argued that Colston’s statue should have been ‘brought down properly, with consent’ and placed in a museum. Leaving aside the question of how such a process of consultation and consent-forming could take place, this approach obscures the tortuous process of attempts to add a new memorial commemorating the victims of the slave trade to the Colston statue. For example, in 2018 a second plaque was proposed mentioning Colston’s role in the enslavement of thousands of Africans as an official in the Royal African Company, his investments in the Spanish slave trade, and his role in preserving the slave trade as MP for Bristol. This was too much for the Society of Merchant Venturers, an organisation of city worthies, who felt that the revised text downplayed Colston’s role as a generous benefactor for various good causes (they have recently expressed regret at this intervention). The controversy regarding the wording rumbled on until Colston’s toppling and raises questions about how a ‘proper’ process of consultation about the memorials of empire might take place. If anything, the Merchant Venturers’ intervention served to highlight how historical inequalities can shape such processes of consultation (Colston himself had been a member of the Society). Regardless of the debate, various people have sought to reappropriate the statue since 2007, most notably with protests centred around International Slavery Day.
It may be that the best home for the Colston statue is now in a museum- Bristol’s harbourside M-Shed has already expressed an interest. This would enable the history of the controversy surrounding the statue to be commemorated and removed to a site that many Bristolians find less objectionable. It would, however, also remove a site for protest against racial injustice and potentially sanitise the statue, freezing its relationship with the city in 2020. There’s also a danger that a museum may impose particular ways of reading the history of Colston’s statue and its relationship with the city.
Of course, as various historians have pointed out, the assumption that local and regional museums have the financial resources to rehouse controversial monuments to Britain’s past is highly problematic. The Black Cultural Archives in south London faces a fight for survival due to shortfalls in funding despite their national significance in recording black British history. Over the last decade, Bristol Museums and Galleries has faced the challenge of finding resources to open up access to the voluminous collections of the defunct British Empire and Commonwealth Museum which they have inherited. The carefully curated 2018 exhibition ‘Empire Through the Lens’ was a good starting point, using various people’s engagement with the museum’s photo collections to reflect on their relationship with empire. However, many visitors to the museum were probably unaware of the exhibition given it was tucked away in some narrow corridors on the top floor of the building (perhaps due to the controversial subject matter).
Taken together, it’s a reminder that if we are to meaningfully confront Britain’s imperial past we need to fund and prominently display initiatives that seek to open up these dialogues. Arguments about the fate of statues are only part of this larger conversation.
 The best introduction to this topic is Olivette Otele, ‘The guerilla arts in Brexit Bristol’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch eds., Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (2019), pp. 133-41; The context of local engagement with the statue is discussed well in Rebecca Gould, ‘Bringing Colston down’, London Review of Books (Blog), 12 June 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/june/bringing-colston-down