Who outside Bristol knew who Edward Colston was until yesterday? I certainly didn’t – much to my shame.
We’re now in the full throes of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, swept along in an unstoppable wave to remake the ‘new normal’ which does not treat black people as expendable, disposable, second-class citizens. The protests were sparked in the US by the execution of George Floyd, with other previous sparks in the forms of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and Ahmaud Arbery; but in the UK, we’re not just supporting from afar but rather leading our own demonstrations to strike at the heart of the racist systems the UK is built on. Windrush, anyone?
Yesterday, a statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy and prominent 17th Century merchant and philanthropist, was torn down in Bristol, rolled through the city and dumped in the harbour. In pearl clutching reminiscent of southern US states fighting over monuments to the Confederacy (incidentally, a large proportion of which were erected during the 1960s), the protest inspired outcries and accusations of vandalism, of trying to erase our past; Nigel Farage, in typical form of false equivalency, tweeted “A new form of the Taliban was born in the UK today” in reference. Classic Nige.
Edward Colston joined the Royal African Company (RAC) in 1680, the company which at the time had a monopoly on the west African slave trade. Amongst other horrific acts, the company branded all of its slaves with the letters ‘RAC’ on their chests. According to the Guardian, “it is believed to have sold about 100,000 enslaved west African people in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689 and it was through this company that Colston made the bulk of his fortune, using profits to move into money lending.” The cramped, unhygienic, disease-ridden conditions in which the enslaved people were transported resulted in more than 20,000 of their deaths, with the bodies thrown overboard. Using these ill-gotten gains, Colston built up a profile as a supposedly altruistic philanthropist, founding almshouses, schools and charities in Bristol, at one point even serving as MP for Bristol in 1710. A statue to Colston was ultimately erected in 1895 in honour of his philanthropy to the city.
Statues are some of our most notable monuments. In the UK, we have statues of significant domestic figures, such as Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and Horatio Nelson in Trafalgar Square; such icons are joined by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Millicent Fawcett. We have monuments to soldiers and civilians alike who died in wars, from the Monument to the Women of World War II to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the UK’s official war memorial which was originally founded for a peace parade following the end of the First World War.
Yet there remain dotted around the UK statues and monuments to the perpetrators of the most heinous of acts, taking equal prominence among civil rights campaigners. Edward Colston is a name that would mostly be recognisable to Bristolians, yet other figures emerge in British consciousness. One example which immediately springs to mind is Cecil Rhodes, a name instantly recognisable after 2016’s campaign to remove his statue above Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes was a 19th Century British businessman, diamond magnate and politician who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, and founded the territory of Rhodesia, now split into Zimbabwe and Zambia, with the British South Africa Company. The Cecil Rhodes scholarship, an international postgraduate award at the University of Oxford, is enormously influential and highly-regarded, with prominent alumni boasting the likes of US President Bill Clinton, journalist Ronan Farrow, author Naomi Wolf and recent US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Undoubtedly, the Rhodes scholarship has done much good in the world through the form of education.
If we simply remember these facts about Cecil Rhodes, he sounds like a somewhat remarkable 19th Century figure, a product of his time, and whose legacy will benefit humankind. One thing I forgot to mention is that Cecil Rhodes is widely acknowledged as an architect of South African apartheid, with historian Richard A. McFarlane describing Rhodes “as integral a participant in southern African and British imperial history as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are in their respective eras in United States history.” Cecil Rhodes was unashamedly, nay a proud, white supremacist and imperialist, seeing the Anglo-Saxon race as “the first race in the world”, and advocating the governance of Africans as a “subject race.” Even his scholarship didn’t admit women until 1977.
A statue is not a neutral remembrance of historical facts and figures, teaching us about the proud history of our nation, as right-wing imperialists would have us believe. Statues are rather commemoration and glorification, an attempt to mainstream and idolise legacy. Clinical cultural impact alone should not dictate whether statues should be erected. Does Germany have monuments to Joseph Goebbels? Jimmy Savile was famous for his charity work during his life – should we place a monument to him in a children’s hospital?
The history of humanity is neither wholly positive nor negative – it is a melting pot of torture and humanitarianism, of racism and equality, of oppression and rebellion. In the case of most Western countries (I’m looking at you, Great Britain / America / the Netherlands / Spain / France), our elevation to “developed countries”, the so-called ‘civilised world’, has come in large part from the raping, pillaging and looting of black and brown people and their natural resources. These are facts, and no amount of statues or right-wing platitudes can change this. Slavery and racism are rightly stains on a nuanced history, but we should not seek to sanitise, falsify and remake history. Figures such as Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston are absolutely an integral part of British history (as well as that of the countries whose people they subjugated, murdered and enslaved) and we should of course learn about their lives and the lasting impact of their heritage – but in a history book or a museum where we’re able to critically observe and analyse facts in an unbiased setting, not on a pedestal above an educational institution or a plinth in a city centre.
Tearing down a statue of a slave trader or a lauded racist is not an attempt to erase history. It is an expression of visceral anger, of unconditional rejection and of enduring promise to future generations that we will no longer blithely accept our history as “it was just like that back then.” It is righting a lasting wrong. In tearing down a statue of Edward Colston, we are tearing down not just his legacy but the system which ensured the longevity of the sanitisation of his legacy. And, what better place for a statue of a slave trader, a man who crammed enslaved people into ships and threw no-longer-usable cargo overboard, to rest than in the sea in which thousands of the corpses of his victims lie?
An aside: prominent abolitionist and civil rights campaigners to know: