On Sunday June 7, 2020, a Black man climbed up onto a plinth in the center of the British city of Bristol to place a noose around the neck of a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century pioneer of the transatlantic slave trade. A crowd then wrenched down the almost double-life-size bronze, rolled it through the streets to the docks and dumped it into the harbor waters. But only after protestors had knelt on Colston’s neck, mimicking Derek Chauvin’s murderous asphyxiation of George Floyd.
These are among the most spectacular political acts in Bristol’s modern history. Predictably, their interpretation has become enmeshed in the culture wars surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement at a local, national and global level.
In transatlantic solidarity with ‘law and order’ conservatism, the British Home Secretary Priti Patel described the events as “sheer vandalism” and a “distraction” from the Black Lives Matter cause. It bears pointing out that Colston was a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, a fact which may explain the deeper psychology underpinning Patel’s outrage and that of the wider Tory establishment. Meanwhile in the Twittersphere, Piers Morgan asked, “Have we ever had a more tone-deaf Home Secretary?” Given the long history of racism at the center of the British state, it would be hard to say. But Patel’s tin ear appears especially jarring when considering the specifically Bristolian context. There is a reason why it is Bristol that has set the agenda for Britain‘s current self-examination on questions of race and racism.
Vandalism – or, depending on one’s perspective, public art deemed illegal – is central to Bristol’s politics. This is, after all, the city of Banksy, the world’s most famous graffiti artist. One can stroll into the city center past a Banksy mural of a teddy bear preparing to hurl a Molotov cocktail at riot police. This piece of criminal damage turned cherished public artwork is entitled ‘The Mild Mild West…’. If such ironic smirks at authority are typical of Bristol, then Colston’s ceremonious de-platforming is a full-throated Bristolian guffaw. It is also a radical act of Black power against a conspicuous symbol of white supremacy in the heart of a large, affluent, relatively diverse yet majority white, British city.
Colston’s statue went up in 1895, at the height of Victorian Britain’s ‘Scramble for Africa’. This imperial project was overseen by Cecil Rhodes, whose own statue atop Oriel College, Oxford may also soon be coming down. Like Rhodes, Colston availed himself of the reputation-laundering services always available to those with means. As early as 1729, visitors to Colston’s marble tomb in Bristol’s All Saints Church could read the epitaph to a “pious Benefactor” and supporter of “many … excellent Charities”.
The image of Colston as good Christian and benevolent philanthropist was only enhanced by Victorian Bristol. A fine Art Nouveau plaque mounted on Colston’s now-vacant pedestal names him “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of the city. What is not mentioned is the role Colston played as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, the institution which, according to historian William Pettigrew, trafficked more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other.1
It is hard to exaggerate how deeply Colston’s name has been stitched into Bristol’s civic fabric: streets, towers, a concert hall and schools – including my own – have all borne it. Although Bristol has in recent years begun to assess critically its involvement in the slave trade, the city council repeatedly failed to re-contextualize Colston’s statue. Into this void of inaction stepped Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protestors. Far from a crude damnatio memoriae, their actions are a stimulant for developing a new civic memory. Bristol now has its own unique counterpoint to the American South’s beautifully vandalized confederate monuments. Conservative forces in Bristol and the nation at large will find this hard to stomach. But that of course is the point.
Bristol has a rich history of Black anti-racist protest and civil disobedience. As historian Madge Dresser notes, the 1963 Bristol bus boycott was “the first Black-led campaign against racial discrimination in post-war Britain”. Inspired by Rosa Parks and the events in Alabama some seven years earlier, Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry and Guy Bailey, with the support of university students, organized a boycott of the local bus company for its refusal to employ Black and minority crews. And they won: the color bar was dropped, though not without resistance from their white colleagues.
As in Alabama, civil rights victories in Bristol hardly amounted to the end of racial injustice, however much respectable white Bristol may have wanted to think so. On April 2nd 1980, civil unrest arose in St Pauls, a neighborhood with a large Black and minority population and home to Stephenson and other organizers of the 1963 boycott. The day’s events, which included confrontations with the police and the torching of several police cars, took place against the backdrop of the city council’s systematic neglect of St Pauls and the introduction in the 1970s of ‘stop and search’ policing. The fact that Bristolians today remember the event simply as the ‘St Pauls Riots’ indicates the lasting ideological power of labelling as ‘rioting’ any form of civil disobedience involving property damage.
So what should be done with Colston? It seems likely his effigy will be placed on permanent display in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. If it is, then Colston should be surrounded by photos, videos and placards of the historic day. This would be to lodge for good in Bristol’s collective memory these new, authentic, radical images.
Whatever happens to Colston, the memory-making is already well underway. Until Sunday June 7, 2020, I had never truly reflected on what it means to have attended an elementary school named after a slaver. That is now an impossibility, as another former student emphatically confirms: “My name is Liam Rosenior (slave name). I lived in Bristol as a child. I attended COLSTON’S (slave owner and killer) primary school in order to receive my “education”. Pardon me for enjoying this moment of irony.”
- William Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt. The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (Williamsburg, VA: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), p. 21. ↩