Bristol Council

Colston Should Have Stayed at the Bottom of the Harbour

by Ameya Tripathi

@ameyatripathi
11th June 2020
  • Estimated read time: 4 mins

The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was winched out of Bristol Harbour this morning, just days after Black Lives Matter protesters toppled and sunk it. 

We probably shouldn’t be surprised. Less than 24 hours after the statue was removed by anti-racists, who made history by pulling it down with ropes and kneeling on its neck for over eight minutes in honour of George Floyd, Labour leader Keir Starmer condemned their actions as “completely wrong” and said that the statue belonged in a museum.

The statue should have been “brought down properly” Starmer added, presumably meaning removed by the council following a consultation.

But as historian Adam Hochschild points out, from the 1990s onwards, campaigns and petitions have called for the removal of the statue – in 1998 “SLAVE TRADER” was scrawled on its base – but to no avail. 

In 2018, Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West, wrote to Bristol City Council calling for the removal of the statue. Meanwhile, a petition to remove the statue had garnered more than 11,000 signatures before the statue was toppled.

Since Starmer’s comments, “put it in a museum” has fast become the rallying cry of broadcasters, politicians, academics, and citizens across the political spectrum, united by their respectability politics response to the events on Sunday.

Acting on this, the council announced on Wednesday that it would remove the statue from the harbour and apparently snuck out at dawn on Thursday morning to do so, before anybody had much time to complain or mount a response.

What does it say to BAME communities in Bristol that the council could – in three days – recover a white man’s lost and damaged property when they couldn’t get the statue taken down democratically after decades of campaigning? Suddenly, legal channels work, but in favour of a dead white slaver. 

Colston would never have come down without direct action.

Seeking a minor win, when petitions to have the entire statue removed were ignored, activists had campaigned for a second plaque explaining Colston’s role in the slave trade to be affixed, but the Society of Merchant Venturers, the organisation that ran Bristol’s slave trade, scuppered those plans, wrangling over wording for years. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the society as cultish: until recently they kept Colston’s fingernails and hair on display.

Liberal politicians are trying to have it both ways: to agree that the statue should have been taken down but only specify legal methods which have been proven to fail black people time and time again. 

The ‘put it in a museum’ response fails to recognise and understand the sheer emotion of plunging the slaver into the sea. Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, spoke to the cathartic joy felt by many at the sight of Colston undone, saying

“Think about some of the punishments that would have been meted out on his slaves, Africans . . . Thrown off the quayside where Colston’s ships would undoubtedly have docked, next to a bridge called Pero’s Bridge named after a Bristol slave… I mean the historical poetry of that should not be lost on anyone.”

“Historical poetry” is a choice phrase; perhaps, as an elected politician Rees did not want to say that Colston met ‘poetic justice’. It might have been politically risky to say that direct action was just. But that is what many of the protestors, and those watching from around the world, believe.

Some 19,000 of Colston’s slaves died, thrown overboard during the treacherous Middle Passage across the Atlantic either when there was a lack of food or to lighten the ship.  

Proponents of museums may offer many interesting examples around the world, from Paraguay to India, of ways to house fallen imperialists and dictators that seek to remember rather than glorify.

There’s certainly a case for some statues, such as those of Robert Clive in Shrewsbury and Whitehall, or Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, to go in museums as some #RhodesMustFall campaigners have suggested. This is why leaving Colston in the sea would not have gone down the slippery slope of mob iconoclasm as some have alleged; people can recognise a beautiful artwork from a hunk of metal. 

But in this case, we have to question if there’s good faith going into yet more consultation. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest more of the same shenanigans will follow. One Bristol Conservative councillor has condemned the protestors and claimed Colston was a “hero”. It is dismally unsurprising to find that this very same councillor had to resign in 2001 over photos of him grinning next to a racist golliwog doll.  

What kinds of trouble are councillors such as him and the Society of Merchant Venturers going to cause when it comes to the eventual museum display? 

By taking the matter into their own hands, the protestors didn’t simply remove Colston: they also exposed real problems with our democratic politics, which prioritises feet-dragging by a few apologists over the deep pain felt by many. 

Questions remain: will Colston be restored, or left smeared in red paint and affixed with signs as he was moments before his demise? Rees has already said that the statue will have to be assessed for damage. As historian David Olusoga points out, Colston’s statue does not bear any relation to the man, as we have no idea what he actually looked like. The work of restoration: amending, polishing, burnishing, plays into his glorification.

Reaching for the ‘museum’ as a non-political, anti-inflammatory answer does not work because museums are not inherently apolitical spaces.

For most of their history museums have served a clear imperial function, growing massively in the 19th century to show off the loot plundered from colonies. Now and then we might come across museums that promise to reconcile and educate – and just occasionally there are subversive museums such as the Museum of British Colonialism.  

Many talented curators might put their shoulder to the wheel to generate something provocative. But just fishing Colston back out of the water has already done the damage.

For those whose ancestors were bound in chains, there is something permanent and irretrievable about the loss of thousands of slaves in the Middle Passage or on the Bristol quayside. They could not buy themselves absolution and did not have the privilege to have their history told as individuals cast in metal. Why should Colston be able to?

When Colston’s statue was put up in 1895, the Merchant Venturers had to subsidise its maintenance themselves as not enough residents could be found to subscribe to it. 

Make no mistake about it, Colston’s memorialisation and resurrection from the waters comes from slave-subsidised privilege. Will putting his wretched statue on display either educate us or reconcile us? Don’t hold your breath. 

 Ameya Tripathi is a writer and PhD candidate at Columbia University. 

Published 11th June 2020

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