I remember watching live updates from social media of the statue of Edward Colston being dragged and pushed into the harbourside. I remember hearing cheers and applause as the Colston statue was successfully dropped into the very water that he made his money from and I think created, for many, this full circle moment, unleashing feelings of relief, optimism and hope for the future.
My feelings around the statue were clear even before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The statue was a constant, relentless and unforgiving reminder that profit overtakes humanity. Edward Colston’s statue focused on this depiction of the seemingly innocent merchant, standing seemingly introspective and deep in thought whilst leaning on his cane. The statue focused on someone who helped build Bristol’s wealth, and in doing so almost justifies his commemoration, instead of focusing on the human suffering he willingly induced and perpetuated. His methods of persecution and enslavement in order to exploit this wealth was easily overlooked.
Bristol is a city built on the persecution of Black people, with streets and buildings named after plantation owners and slave traders. Whilst these should be renamed in order to decolonise, statues are different. Statues offer a physical model and representation of the living person and, to a degree, preserves a certain level of their previous power and domination, and allows them to live on, though static and motionless. When we consider this alongside the statue of Colston, we can see how inappropriate it is to ennoble a man that exploited and enslaved human beings for financial gain.
One particular argument that remains in circulation, particularly on social media around the time of the event, is that the statue provided a reminder of the past and should therefore remain in the Centre. However, the statue in the Centre had no accompanying description of Colston’s acts, or rather crimes, and makes no notice or acknowledgement of the merchant’s offensive past. It then begs the question; what purpose exactly then does the statue serve if not to venerate and serve as a cover up under the pretense of serving a good purpose? Whilst these arguments around keeping the statue are made with good intentions and not in support of the oppressor, my argument is that, if you want a reminder of the history that took place, make it about the persecuted, not the persecutor.
Perhaps the biggest positive that has come from this event is that Colston’s statue has spurred a global conversation about what statues mean, and has ultimately created a dedicated moment to reflect and have open conversations, whether online or in-person, about our own connection to history.
With the statue now on display at Bristol Museum, laying on its side instead of upright, I think this is finally a start for Britain at large to understand and confront its abhorrent legacy. We can only collectively create meaningful social change if we are all willing to examine, acknowledge and learn about our history, and I think we’ve made a great start with the toppling of Colston.