What next after the toppling of Colston?

Edward Colston, the slave trader whose statue was toppled by protestors and rolled into Bristol harbour yesterday, was described the year after his death as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” 

Colston’s wealth came from trade, including in slaves. It is estimated that while he worked for the Royal African Company around 84,000 men, women and children were forcibly transported to the Americans and the Caribbean as slaves on tobacco and sugar plantations, although around 19,000 perished en route, their bodies tossed overboard. 

During his lifetime (1636-1721) Colston was known as a generous philanthropist, supporting and founding schools. Yet his generosity extended only to those who shared his views. 

Only in the last two decades has the city begun to discuss its part in the slave trade and disentangle itself from bizarre array of traditions and church services that took place to maintain his honour. Councillors had got as far as to suggest adding a second plaque to the statue, addressing his slave links, but could not agree on what it should say

They have missed their chance. The Grade II-listed monument now lies at the bottom of Bristol Harbour following the actions of protestors of various ethnicities. Speaking yesterday, TV historian David Olusoga told the BBC: “Today should never have happened, because this statue should have been taken down. And it should have been a great collective day for Britain and Bristol when the statue was peacefully taken down and put in a museum, which is where, after all, we remember history properly.” Indeed – by all means display the statue in the city museum along with photographs and footage from yesterday, which are all part of Colston’s and slavery’s uneasy legacy. 

Disappointingly, Home Secretary Priti Patel viewed the incident only through a law and order lens, linking it unfairly with the few violent acts at otherwise peaceful protests in London. She descried the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”.

Does it? The protestors yesterday didn’t go on a looting spree through the city centre, they didn’t hit out at anyone. No arrests were made. They didn’t injure 27 police officers, throw glass bottles or light flares – that was in London. As for the statue, Bristol’s Labour Mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, told Channel 4 News he “couldn’t support criminal damage or social disorder,” but he added: “We have a statue up to someone who made their money by sometimes throwing the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here.” 

And perhaps a sense of homecoming: after centuries of the most horrific forms of abuse of Africans, the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota arrived in the city from where some of the earliest British slave ships docked from Africa and set sail for the Americas and the Caribbean.

Colston’s fall needs to be followed by dialogue and constructive action, and Bristol could serve as a model for the country and beyond. It is vital that black citizens explain the way they would like to see wrongs righted, rather than having non-black leaders decide what’s needed. Which structures and institutions reinforce and legitimise a worldview that puts whites firmly on top? Which street names? What else needs to be moved to a museum before it gets ripped down in frustration?

What has become clear in the two short weeks since the Black Lives Matter protests began is that us white people don’t even realise how we perpetuate racial inequalities. So let’s learn. 

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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