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. Continue reading “Colston’s Fall, Bristol’s Civic Identity and the Memory of Empire”