During global protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, last week saw the forcible removal of a statue of Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston, which you can watch here along with the tearing-down of other statues associated with slavery and racism–and with the music of Enya in the background (thanks to Dr. Laura Penny for this and the other Twitter link below). Why was a statue of Colston targeted in these protests, such that he would be implicitly characterised as an early modern Lord of the Rings? In other words, why were Bristolians Sauron this monument?
In her 2009 article ‘Remembering Slavery and Abolition in Bristol‘, Bristol historian Madge Dresser notes that Colston has long been a flashpoint of controversy over the city’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade (depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s famous 1840 painting above, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)). Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a successful merchant who patronised local churches and charities both during his life and after his death. In 1895, his statue was erected in Bristol city centre. But his name was found elsewhere, including the local concert hall Colston Hall (currently being renamed), built on the site of a school Colston built in 1708 to educate the poor. His birthday was celebrated by many Bristolians, with an annual ritual hosted by the city which included the laying of flowers on his tomb. The plaque beneath the statue reads, ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.’ It does not mention his involvement in the slave trade, and so the morally outraged would surely cry out for plaque removal.
Colston was one of the most prominent Englishmen to make his fortune off the commerce in human beings. Specifically, the Royal African Company included Colston in its Court of Assistants, the governing body of this joint-stock company founded in the seventeenth century (whose investors included the English philosopher John Locke). Chartered in 1660 under the restored monarchy of Charles II, the company purchased slaves in West Africa and shipped them in brutal conditions to work on plantations in the Caribbean and later English colonies in North America. Colston was a shareholder from 1680-92, profiting considerably from a sugar-refinery in the Caribbean and from his estates in Antigua, and even rose to the executive position of Deputy Governor of the company in 1689-90. It was, however, only in the late 1990s that Colston’s intense involvement in the slave trade came to wide attention–leaving many Britons, especially those of colour, angry or at least stone-cold about Colston.
But Colston was hardly singular among Bristol merchants. As Dresser writes, ‘Bristol was the nation’s leading slaving port in the 1720s and even after it was eclipsed by Liverpool, it remained an important hub for the trade in and the processing of slave-produced goods’, including cotton and tobacco throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. After the abolition of the slave trade, Bristol historians and the press tended to conceal or pass over the city’s entanglement in slavery and instead celebrate its mercantile past. Only in the late twentieth century, with the growing political consciousness of generations of British-born youth of Afro-Caribbean descent, was there any sustained focus on Bristol’s slaving past. By the early 21st century, particularly surrounding the bicentennial celebration of the end of the Bristol slave trade in 2007, debate intensified over the legacies of Colston and Bristol. Calls to remove the statue have thus been around for years, and so to the objection that protestors last week should have gone through the proper channels instead of toppling and immersing it, Bristolians quipped, ‘we tried that for years and were ignored, so now e’s in the proper channel.’ Opponents may Bristol at this, but surely it’s a slam-dunk argument.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Statues of Limitations Studies Program