Ellie Sandy celebrates Bristol’s anti-racist response to the rethinking of Edward Colston, and urges us to continue scrutinizing Britain’s history of colonialism and slave trade so that we can keep deconstructing its legacy.
I remember falling in love with the city of Bristol when I visited as a prospective undergraduate. To want to live in a place, and to love it; to see yourself as part of it, is an indisputably special feeling. I also remember in my first year of university, studying a new module never ran before. It dealt with questions of citizenship and belonging in Bristol and beyond. For the first time I learnt who Edward Colston was. Before that, ‘Colston’, was just another part of the city; that music hall; that tower on that street of the same name; that statue. I, and thousands of young people like me across the UK, weren’t taught about the depth of Britain’s expansive role in the slave trade and traders like Colston. Instead, we have had to reassess our experience of education and its role. Surely our earlier education should have helped us to understand the powers that be and how the world has been shaped, not convolute it?
I remember in that seminar I searched Colston on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which named him solely as a ‘merchant and philanthropist’. Despite being responsible for the trafficking of 80,000 Africans, he was commended as a benefactor to Bristol. While it is true that good deeds and altruism can sometimes be a reconciling force for forgiveness, this cannot apply to Colston. His misdeeds are what facilitated his philanthropy; he could not be a benefactor to the city without trading people as slaves. Put simply, he couldn’t even be great without being awful.
The legacy of Colston has been a point of contention for Bristolians long before the protests of this summer. In fact, the newly named Bristol Beacon agreed on a name change back in 2017, and artists like Massive Attack have refused to perform at the venue because of its association with Colston. The toppling of Colston’s statue was a culmination of years of dispute surrounding Colston’s legacy, coupled with the resurfacing of widespread, intersectional anti-racist action. As of now, a conservation team has been tasked with preparing the statue for display in the future – graffiti, scrapes, scuffs and all – alongside over 500 placards recovered from the site.
The murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, and those waves rippled through civil unrest that has been simmering for years. Floyd is one of many figureheads of the global fight for racial justice: a Black person made a martyr at the hands of a racist institutional practice. Since then, Colston’s name has been removed from a tower in the city centre, Colston Girl’s School is changing its name, and The Dolphin School will be changing its logo, previously inspired by Colston’s crest. My personal favourite, however, is the temporary renaming of The Colston Arms to Ye olde Pubby Mcdrunkface.
As of October 2020, there have been 267,213 signatures on a Parliamentary petition to make teaching Britain’s colonial past compulsory on the curriculum. The government responded by drawing attention to a statutory theme at Key Stage 3: ‘Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901’ for ‘the schools and teachers themselves to pick which examples, topics and resources to use.’
This isn’t good enough. Firstly, it diminishes the impact of the Empire on those overseas. Secondly, colonialism is a history with roots older than 1745! The East India Company and Royal African Company, both prolific trading companies, were established in 1600 and 1660 respectively.
The British Empire and its violently racist practice shaped the world we know today. It is woven into the fabric of modern society, and education is one of the tools we can equip ourselves with to help us take the necessary steps towards establishing racial equality. Asking questions about the world around us and wanting more from our educators is one of the ways we can attempt to reach some form of reconciliation with our past.
The history of a place, a city, a country, is wrapped up in the collective identity of its inhabitants. History is written in the streets, on the walls of buildings and even on benches. A statue is unlike these things. To erect a statue of someone is to remind the public to celebrate the success of that person. For many Bristolians, the statue of Colston is not a cause for celebration, but a reminder of a traumatic and violent history. Colston’s statue cannot provide an impartial history; it doesn’t incite a feeling of pride in everyone. Edward Colston’s statue belongs in an environment that invites scrutiny – like a museum – where we don’t just passively accept it as we walk past, but we are invited to question it; to study it.
Therein lies the wider problem: we are not invited to study our racist history, but to accept it as something that just ‘happened’. We cannot stroll past our racist history every day like a statue in a public square. Racism and colonialism is a part of our history hidden in the places in between. This includes streets, buildings and maybe even our benches! But that does not mean we should passively accept it. Rather than ignore our racist history, and fixate on some ways our society is not plagued by racism in the present, we must confront it, so that we can start breaking down the racist practice of our institutions. We should study and scrutinise Colston; he was not just a contributor to Bristol as we know it, but a contributor to institutional racism as we know it too.
The ODNB has since amended its entry of Edward Colston, defining him as a ‘merchant, slave trader and philanthropist’, and gives more detail about his membership of the Royal African Company. His history, and ours, is not being rewritten or changed as we interrogate our institutionally racist systems, but more broadly understood. When we better understand our history, we better understand ourselves and our positions in society. We better understand how racism is a deep cut that bleeds into society and our everyday lives, how it has done, and how it will continue to do so if we don’t stop, see that we’re bleeding, and treat the wound before it’s too late.
Artwork by Amelia Elson.