RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE COMMENT: making sense of the overthrow of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol as part of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations
A personal view by Harry Mottram
The name of Edward Colston (1636-1721) hit the headlines as video of the toppling of his statue was played out from a hundred mobile phones on the internet. The actions of the crowd were greeted in equal measure online and in every home either as disgraceful vandalism or a long overdue removal. Of course it was vandalism and mob rule but it was also poetic justice as Colston and his business associates were responsible for the shipping of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in disgusting conditions to the Americas of whom around 20,000 died en route. The slave trade he and many in the city indulged in left him fabulously wealthy. He used much of that cash to build almshouses, schools and other public works including later in the 19th century via a trust in his name built The Colston Hall – Bristol’s main music venue.
The actions of the crowd who toppled Edward Colston’s statue, rolled down the road and threw it into St Augustine’s Reach Harbournear Pero’s Bridge had a touch of irony. The modern pedestrian bascule ‘horned’ bridge is named after a slave called Pero Jones who was brought to work for the Pinney family in the city in 1783 from his native Nevis Island in the Caribbean.
Over the years the Bristol Evening Post’s letters pages and latterly various social media sites in the city has seen a lively debate about the legacy of Edward Colston in the way the city commemorated him. Readers of the newspaper tended to vote in favour of keeping the name and statue while a growing body of opinion wanted to see his name removed. It was a battle of the you-can’t-change-history camp verses the we-can’t-celebrate-a-slave-trader camp. Both have valid arguments but to understand the furore you need to put yourself in the shoes of a black Bristolian. It’s like having a statue of a Nazi in Tel Aviv.
A second argument is that things change. After 1989 statues of Stalin were removed in Russia and Leningrad was renamed St Petersburg. In Bristol there was a street called Gropecunt Lane. The authorities saw fit to change its name as they felt it inappropriate in the modern era but still resisted renaming Black Boy Hill or indeed Colston Avenue.
For years the city’s council have pondered about the statue as campaigns came and went and petitions were signed by thousands of people. Should it be removed to the museum as part of an exhibition on slavery and Bristol’s role in the trade? Should it go to a secluded spot in Colston School and slowly be forgotten about – or simply destroyed? The Colston Hall has agonised for some time over changing the name of the venue with consultations continuing. In general people who live somewhere they’ve been all their lives don’t like to see what they hold as the icons of their city or town changed – especially by so-called newcomers. But things change and society moves on and so must Bristol with its sizeable black population.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the death of George Floyd have caught the establishment out. They have misjudged the anger – not just from black people but from the younger generation as a whole who don’t understand why discrimination continues. The weekend’s demonstrations and resulting fall out in the UK have marked a landmark in British social history. One feels there now has to be a rethink. Why are there so few black MPs, judges, CEOs and high profile media commentators? And by black, we mean not just folk of African heritage but those whose forefathers come originally from all the continents and islands of the world.
There is a national unease about the mass demonstrations during the Covid 19 crisis with fears of the disease being spread further with anger over the lack of social distancing and breaking of the rules. There is also a widespread disgust at the actions of a few men who threw missiles at the police and injured the force in London as they tried to retain order. It’s a circle that can’t be squared whichever side of the argument you are on.
What should replace the statue? For my money I’d like to see the centre reopened as a harbour as it once was as the River Frome lies under where the statue stood. And as for statues take your pick – Bristol is not short of candidates from Princess Campbell (first black Bristol ward sister) to Paul Stephenson (Bristol bus boycott) and countless others. It is a difficult process to change attitudes and names when they are so ingrained in a city but it can be done with the first step being the recognition of the problem and then an inclusive course of action that includes context and education. One thing is for sure as regards the Edward Colston statue. It now lies at the bottom of the harbour and that is a fact. The city now needs to decide what happens next.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk for Harry on Twitter as @HarryTheSpiv, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and God knows where else.