On the 7th June, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a prolific 17th-century slave trader, and threw him into the harbour. His figure sunk to the bottom of the river in the very place where he once docked his ships and traded in human lives and suffering. You would not have known that by just looking at the statue, though, formally erect and shining on a plinth. The plaque underneath had said he was “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city.” They neglected to include that his ships had carried 100,000 slaves from West Africa, transporting them to the Americas where they would be worked to death on plantations. An estimated 19,000 slaves died on the ships, either succumbing to the terrible conditions, or throwing themselves into the ocean to escape the torment that was ahead. Now Colston himself, is lying on the murky bed of the Avon.
In the days after, a global debate over monuments celebrating slavery and colonialism has begun. Those who are against them being removed claim that they are invaluable and can teach us about our history. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that removing statues of problematic figures would be “to lie about our history”. In a response to the boarding up of notable memorials in central London to prevent them being defaced, he made it clear there was no intention to bring all controversial statues down. He said “those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.” Johnson insinuates that these memorials can provide us with essential information about the past that can’t be gained from anywhere else. But how can we learn anything from a statue when only selective histories are featured on the plaque?
Like Johnson, many seem taken by this idea that we can ‘learn’ from these monuments, that they are much more than just a bronze cast figurine. However, statues are often biased, erected by a person or group of people that wish to cast someone in a certain light. They do not exist to purely record historical facts. If they did, we would see plaques that encapsulate all aspects of a person’s history, not just one side of it.
Edward Colston was remembered for his philanthropy, not for his involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even then, his philanthropy did not extend as far as the plaque suggests. Whilst he donated to various schools, hospitals, churches, and the poor, only those that agreed with his religious and political views benefitted from the money. Two Bristol based historians Roger Ball and Spencer Jordan also found that Colston’s charities only covered 1.5% of the total cost of helping the poor in Bristol. There is no way you could know this just by reading the plaque underneath his effigy. Onlookers would presume he was an honourable and charitable man, which is what you expect from someone who has been memorialised in bronze. The darker and far more significant side of Colston’s past isn’t mentioned, as such there is no way we can look at this as a factual piece of history.
The effigy was never meant to be a true representation of who Colston was. It was built over 170 years after his death, when no one alive had even known him. Rather, it was a symbol of the creator’s own perceptions of him and the story they wanted to tell. Best-selling author and professor of history at Reading University, Professor Kate Williams, has shone some light on the subject in a Twitter thread last week. She said that “business societies in Bristol romanticised Colston as the ‘father of the city’” and built the monument in 1895 after workers in Bristol had begun revolting. The statue acted as a celebration of the colonisation that had created Britain’s wealth, as the empire had started to decline. Panicked by the demand for workers’ rights, it was erected to bring unity and memorialise a time that had brought great fortune to the city.
There were efforts within recent years to remove the plaque and replace it with one that better explained who Colston was, however, even then, there was much debate over what to write. Some wanted a sanitised version of events that prioritised his charity work, whilst others wanted a stark reminder of his role as a slave trader. In March last year, Bristol Council had still not come to an agreement on how to remember Colston. With so little action taken protesters made the decision for them, tearing down this symbol of cruelty.
It’s argued that these monuments are vital to our remembrance of the past, but it’s clear that they have never effectively recorded our history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is well documented and there are plenty of other mediums that can tell us what happened. There are numerous texts and paintings from the time that depict slavery, maps showing the routes ships would sail, laws passed that allowed Africans to be legally enslaved. There are even the very shackles used to transport slaves and the bills displaying how much they were sold for shown in museums. So why are we told we would be erasing history if we were to remove these controversial figurines? Why are people so reluctant to bring down these statues that glorify slavery?
The argument that they must be preserved to teach us about our history is unconvincing. Boris Johnson said, “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past”, but history is constantly edited and reconfigured. Often having been tainted by bias in the first place, it’s not a solid thing that can’t be changed. Historians are always re-contextualising events and forming new opinions on them. As our values change, so do our perceptions of the past. We don’t have to hang onto things that no longer align with our morals, especially when they can’t teach us anything valuable. A statue of a slave trader may have been acceptable once, but that doesn’t mean it should remain in place today.
By keeping offensive monuments up, we are sending a message to black people that their feelings aren’t valid. These provocative statues have been allowed to stand, acting as public reminders of slavery and the oppression black people face every day. Slave traders have been glorified and set in stone. In a society that claims to embrace diversity and condemns racism, we must consider how we are continuing to oppress black people and ethnic minorities. To be able to move on from our imperial past, it’s necessary for us to cut all ties with it. By all means, keep these statues in museums where it’s likely we will be provided with a full, unbiased history of the person represented. But take them down from their prominent positions in towns and cities where they only serve as a grim reminders of the slave trade and the racism that still pervades within our society.
Words by Georgie Hughes