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Obliteration, contextualisation or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’? Edward Colston’s statue reconsidered

Legacies of slavery’s past dot many a British cityscape. But how best to handle the architectural politics of memory?

Victoria Street, Bristol 1890. Paul Townsend//flickr.cc(by-nc)

What are we to do with statues from a colonialist past? The recent furore over the memorialisation of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford has made us question not only who should be honoured in public spaces but also who makes up the public whose past is being collectively represented.

In Bristol, the statue of the merchant, slave trader, and philanthropist Edward Colston (1636-1721) has become a lightning rod for racial and class tensions in the city today. Some, inspired by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement have called for its removal, some for its recontextualisation, whilst others have attempted to subvert it through what Alan Rice has characterised as ‘guerilla memorialisation’.

The statue in question, which has presided over Bristol’s city centre since 1895, celebrates this ‘virtuous and wise’ son of the city who was briefly the city’s Tory MP in 1710 and its foremost benefactor. Tellingly, there is no mention on the statue’s plinth of his slave trading activities. Indeed, the city literally bristles with streets and buildings named in Colston’s honour – almshouses, tower blocks, schools and a concert hall all bear his name. Many of Bristol’s churches, tourists are routinely reminded, were restored with his money. Little wonder then that city fathers (and I use the term purposely) have long invoked this sanitised image of Colston as an icon of an apparently universal Bristol identity.

For centuries, Colston’s birthday has been a civic event. Yet Colston’s philanthropy was far from universal. He was, in fact, selectively sectarian towards ordinary Bristolians in his day, explicitly excluding any Whigs and non-Anglican Christians from benefitting from his largesse. And the late Victorian statue by John Cassidy (which is but the most recent of at least three monumental likenesses) was originally conceived as a symbol of civic unity at a time when the established Liberal and Tory elite were challenged by increasing labour unrest.

New research has documented the extent of Bristol’s historic debt to the wealth engendered by enslaved Africans.

It is only since the late 1990s that Colston’s hero status and the statue itself have come under fire, as his involvement in Britain’s slave and sugar trades has become more widely known and as new scholarship has further documented the extent of the city’s historic debt to the wealth engendered by enslaved Africans. In 1998, as part of a consultative exercise leading up to the city’s first major exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade, Colston’s role as a director of the Royal African Company was related to a multi-racial audience in St. Paul’s, Bristol. The following morning, ‘F—k off slave trader’ was famously daubed in red paint across his statue. The vandalism caused outrage in the city, as did a remark by Ray Sefia (then Bristol’s only black Councillor) that it was as inappropriate to have a public monument honouring Colston as it would be to have one of Hitler. Letters pages of the local press, television news features and phone-ins on BBC Radio Bristol all featured heated defence of Colston, who was increasingly conflated with the honour and identity of the city itself.

The battlelines then drawn between pro- and anti-Colston camps uncannily mirrored historic divisions between the city’s pro-slavery and abolitionist factions two centuries before. By the millennium’s end, however, Bristolians were a far more disparate group, including not only increasing numbers of well-educated and liberally-minded newcomers to the city, but also residents of Caribbean and African origin, many of whom were themselves descended from those enslaved in the British colonies.

The debate over Colston’s statue rumbled on into the 21st century, with pro-Colston advocates arguing that Colston endowed many schools, churches and charities and was an intrinsic part of the city’s identity. His philanthropy should not be ignored or forgotten. By contrast, black critics of the statue and their allies pointed out that the uncritical civic celebration of a figure who enslaved one’s ancestors was not only woundingly insulting, but also excluded them from a sense of belonging to the city.

We need a symbolic urban landscape that can provide a more honest and inclusive sense of Bristolians’ shared identity.

It speaks volumes about implicit civic priorities that up until 1998 the only memorial to enslaved Africans was a small plaque privately financed by Ian White, then MEP for Bristol, and the novelist and former Colston girls’ school pupil, Phillipa Gregory. In 2000, a footbridge was named ‘Pero’s bridge’ after the personal servant and slave of a Bristol mayor and Nevis plantation owner, John Pinney. Pero’s dependent status hardly made him an inspiring role model for black Bristolians and many white working class Bristolians reportedly refer to the distinctive construction as ‘the horned bridge’ rather than refer to Pero himself. When calls were made for the city to fund a more explicit memorial to those enslaved, some white Bristolians asked why the focus was solely on those of African descent when Bristol was also built on the back of exploited white labour.

Throughout this debate, Colston’s statue with its celebratory plaques remained unchanged. As such, it has become the target for more unofficial artistic interventions. During the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade in 2007, drops of blood mysteriously appeared on the statue’s plinth, which some attributed to Banksy. The following year, the artist Graeme Evelyn Morton proposed ‘The Two Coins’ temporary art installation in which he aimed to project his recently funded film on historic and contemporary slavery onto Colston’s statue, which would be temporarily boxed in for the purpose. The city never actioned his scheme. A virtual subversion of the statue was effected online by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Hew Locke as part of his ‘Restoration Series’. Here, Colston’s statue was transformed into a fetish object covered in trade trinkets. Most recently a slave collar spray painted to match the statue has been surreptitiously placed around Colston’s neck.

Such interventions, ephemeral as they are, at least have the virtue of revivifying public debate about painful history which belies such blandly celebratory public memorials. Removal of the statue would stifle such perspectives. Using public funds to recontextualise the statue with new plaques and counter memorials (i.e. to the exploited labour underpinning the city’s historic wealth) would both preserve and enrich Bristol’s symbolic urban landscape and provide for a more honest and inclusive sense of Bristolians’ shared identity.

About the author

Madge Dresser is Associate Professor in Social and Cultural British History at the University of the West of England and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She has researched extensively on the history of slavery.

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