Further calls to remove Edward Colston statue

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Whether it’s Colston tower, Colston street or Colston’s school, the name Edward Colston seems unavoidable in Bristol; it permeates the City. This has been the case since the merchant’s death in 1721, yet a recent campaign has challenged these honours, igniting a fractious debate about Colston’s slave-trading past and his place in a modern society.

Most recent to enter the fray is Thangam Debbonaire, a Labour Party MP for the Bristol West constituency, an area encompassing many of the landmarks dedicated to Colston. Speaking at a Black History Month event at City Hall on Thursday 11 October, Debbonaire demanded the removal of Colston’s statue in the City centre, stating that the City “should not be honouring people who benefited from slavery”.

Edward Colston standing in Bristol City Centre

These memorials were initially intended to celebrate Colston as a philanthropist, not as a slave-trader, and his contribution to the City cannot be understated.

Despite living in London for the bulk of his adult life, he always considered Bristol his hometown and even represented the area in Parliament for a short period of time.  He founded two almshouses and gave generously to Bristol charities he considered worthwhile including hospitals, churches, and schools, some of which still exist today. He bequeathed the majority of his wealth to the City at his death and greatly advanced Bristol’s growing prosperity through the 18th century, with these current commemorations a testament to his influence.

At the time, perhaps many Bristolians were unaware of Colston’s membership of the Royal African Company from 1680 onwards, which held a monopoly in England on slave-trading. By 1689, Colston had risen to the most senior executive position in the Company and it was money earned through this slave-trading that was reinvested in Bristol.

Unveiled in 1895, Colston’s statue commemorates this generosity and was relatively innocuous for a century. In recent years though it has been the centre of a growing controversy beginning in 1999, when a talk by Professor Madge Dresser at the University of the West of England, exposed Colston’s transportation of up to 85,000 slaves. The following day the words “Slave Trader” were branded onto the statue and since then the movement has grown exponentially, with the group Countering Colston bringing the issue to the fore of the City’s consciousness.

Colston is undeniably culpable for the horrific suffering of thousands of slaves transported from Africa to the Americas on a nightmarish trip – only to be condemned to a lifetime of chattel bondage upon arrival. To many, this is an unforgivable crime, so can you justify his statue in Bristol City centre?

There have been fears that the complete removal of Colston’s name could amount to airbrushing history and ignoring the shameful segments of our past while many suggest we should judge him by the standards of his time, as opposed to the virtues of today.

But Debbonaire certainly disagreed in her recent speech talking of the hurt commemorating such people can cause: “Having statues of people who oppressed us is not a good thing to be saying to black people in this city.”

The impact of this speech and the growing disquiet is yet to be determined but it does appear that this movement, unheard of 20 years ago, is really gaining momentum with some major backing.

Some progress has already been made. Following Massive Attack’s longstanding boycott of Colston Hall, it was announced last year that the arena will be returning in 2020 with a new name. Meanwhile, the Bristol City Council announced the implementation of a second plaque to the statue earlier this year, finally acknowledging Colston’s involvement in the slave-trade.

Whether the name of Colston will ever be completely redundant in Bristol is unclear. Colston is, and will remain, a divisive figure, he has been synonymous with Bristol since the 17th century and the prospect of Bristol without Colston is almost inconceivable. But these questions must now be asked with his presence in the City Centre under ever-increasing scrutiny.