Whether you stand for or against its happening, there is no denying that on the 7th of June 2020, history was made in the city of Bristol.
The statue of a notorious slave owner, Edward Colston, was pulled from its pedestal in the centre of the city. The event occurred following a peaceful protest in solidarity with the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement.
Protestors kneeled on the statue for 8 minutes, paying respects to George Floyd who was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes. Following this, Bristolians rolled the statue to the Bristol harbour, notorious for hosting slave ships, and also home to ‘Pero’s bridge’. The same harbours Colston used to build his legacy, transporting around 84,500 Enslaved African people into slavery.
Bristol’s dark history
Pero Jones is the slave name of a man who was forced to come to Bristol as the slave of John Pinney at just 12 years old. This bridge pays homage to him, as one of millions whose lives were torn apart by the greed of the British; and Colston’s statue being disposed of next to this monumental bridge has been called “poetic justice” by many.
Edward Colston was born in Bristol in 1636 to an already wealthy family, however later in his life he became a key actor in the slave trade – mainly as a deputy governor in the Royal African Company, who had the monopoly on Britain’s save trade; hoarding humans like animals and even branding their companies initials on their skin.
Their ships were used to transport around 84,500 slaves; with 23% dying before even reaching the shore, 1 in 4 children would die en route due to the inhumane conditions on these ships. This was not the end of Colston’s involvement in the trafficking of human beings, he sat as a Tory MP working for the expansion of the ‘slave-trade’ and became a commissioner in the Slave Trading South Seas company – who were responsible for transporting 15,931 Africans with 1 in 5 dying en route.
This statue is not the only thing in Bristol that celebrates this slave trader, with everything from schools, to streets and even a day dedicated to commemorating him still remains. During his life Colston gave a large portion of his wealth to charity, as well as investing in the local community through means such as schools and churches.
However, it is inexcusable to disregard the atrocities he committed because a portion of the wealth was used for philanthropy. This money has the blood of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children on it – the crimes committed were heinous and attempting to mitigate this brutal slavery and loss of life with charity is an insult to those who unwillingly were sold into servitude.
Up until 2015 taxpayers were still paying off millions of pounds worth of government debt accumulated by “compensating” wealthy slave owners for a loss of ‘property’. This essentially means that the descendants of slave owners were made to pay money to families of those who torturously mistreated their ancestors, ancestors that built modern Britain and yet received no payment nor accolades but instead, racially fuelled abuse that continues to this day.
For years citizens of Bristol have petitioned for the statue to be removed, alongside the removal of other things commemorating Colston – evidenced in existing petitions that are up to 3 years old. Their attempts however have been either ignored or denied. For years black people have fought simply to have removed a reminder of a tragic moment in their history that was enforced upon them and yet their cries have fallen upon deaf ears.
The disposal of the monument was encouraged by the cheers of at least 10,000 people; making evident that if the political figures that are supposed to represent the will of the people do not meet demands, then people will exercise this will themselves.
This act of direct democracy has ignited conversation across the nation, with other cities demanding that all slaver shrines should be taken down. A statue of Winston Churchill that stands in London has been particularly scrutinised in recent days with fury erupting that a man whose crimes against humanity stretch so far that he has welcomed a title for himself as a “genocidal dictator”.
There should be no debate that a man who engineered a famine that killed millions, fulled on his own xenophobic views isn’t worthy of celebration. Churchills acts were nothing short of criminal and his glorification is a direct contradiction of the society it exists in that demands punishment for crime. The protestors that are taking action against these glorified bigots are being threatened with more punishment than men that killed millions recieved and yet these men are hailed and celebrated.
Those who argue that the erasure of these monuments contributes to the erasure of Britain’s history must consider, what is to be celebrated or commemorated about a history of injustice built on the back of slaves?
It is a further insult that these slaves do not even get a small percentage of recognition for building modern Britain and yet the slavers that advanced off of the diminishment of human life in the name of capital are labelled idols.
Those who believe that the statues stand as a reminder of crimes committed, need reminding that slavery carries deep trauma, with affects that are still to this day not eradicated, a reminder of that is not needed.
Citizens have now started a new petition on the back of Sundays events, suggesting that the place where Colstons statue once resided should be dedicated to civil rights activist Paul Stephenson, who organised the Bristol Boycott of 1963.
Bristols dire history has strong ties to the slave trade and this cannot be erased, however homage can be paid to those who worked tirelessly for the betterment of a city that they were forced to reside in.
What should be a priority going forward – is the advancement of society to both acknowledge and remedy its history of oppression. Political leaders that exercise the will of the people, before citizens need to take matters into their own hands. Radical acts aren’t the only route to justice, but they definitely ensure our voices are heard.