Black Lives Matter: toppling Colston - vandalism or vindication?

Timothy RybackWednesday 24 June 2020

During the Black Lives Matter protests in the first week of June, a bronze statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled from a pedestal in Bristol, United Kingdom, dragged through the streets, and dumped in the harbour. A crowd applauded and cheered. ‘It could only have happened that way,’ said Bristol poet laureate Miles Chambers. ‘It could only have been ripped down.’ The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw things differently. ‘I will not support or indulge those who break the law,’ Johnson said after the attack on the Colston statue. ‘If you want to change the urban landscape, you can stand for election or vote for someone who will.’

Since the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer at the end of May, protesters have attacked statues and monuments in cities across Europe and the United States, highlighting the importance of historical legacies in public spaces, but also raising fundamental questions about the role of statues, monuments and street names in public life, as well as the need for established principles and processes for aligning a country’s narrative landscape with its evolving social or political circumstances, in particular, in a world of increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic societies. In brief, how does a democratic society deal, as Johnson suggests, with complex historical legacies within the parameters while respecting the rule of law?

Contested histories

This article is authored by Timothy Ryback on behalf of the group of experts - convened by the IBA, The Salzburg Global Seminar, and IHJR – which is preparing a volume of eight case studies addressing the social, political and legal dynamics in facilitating or complicating the resolution of public disputes over contested historical legacies in public spaces. The project will be the product of three years of in-depth research. Find out more here

It’s not the first time we’ve seen massed protesters tearing down historical symbols in public spaces. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, statues of Marx and Lenin were toppled across the former Soviet bloc. In Ukraine, where thousands of Lenin statues fell, people coined the term, Leninopad, or ‘Lenin fall.’ In Poland, a ‘memory law’ required municipalities to rename streets and public spaces honouring Marx, Lenin, and more than a hundred other names associated with ‘communist, totalitarian or authoritarian rule.’ The Estonian-based historian Siobhan Kattago writes of the ‘living topography of a nation,’ that evolves with a nation’s evolving sense of self. Some things are ‘fiercely remembered,’ Kattago writes. Others are ‘forgotten and overgrown.’

Edward Colston is deeply imbedded in Bristol’s memory landscape, its municipal consciousness. There’s a Colston Avenue and Colston Towers. Bristol bakeries produce ‘Colston buns’, schoolchildren wear a ‘Colston flower’ on his birthday. Colston Hall, a leading music venue, has hosted the Beatles, David Bowie and Elton John. And there’s the Colston statue.

The ten-foot bronze was erected in 1895 to honour a wealthy businessman who earned much of his fortune in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, through the slave trade of the Royal African Company. Bequeathing his fortune to the port city of Bristol, Colston’s legacy was managed in good part by Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, an ancient and venerable organisation dating back to the 13th century. It supports the Colston Girls’ School, along with other philanthropic work. They also commissioned the Colston statue.

In 1920, a local clergyman criticised Bristol’s ‘cult of Colston,’ detailing Colston’s links with the slave trade, but it took over 70 years for controversy to stir. In 1998 an activist scrawled the words ‘Slave Trader’ on the statue's base. In 2007, when Nelson Mandela was invited to Bristol to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery, local activists wrote to warn him that his ‘presence would be seen as condoning an overwhelmingly white city council which is accused of riding roughshod over the wishes of the city’s black population.’ Mandela declined the invitation.

In 2014, a retired journalist, Mike Gardner, described Colston as ‘one of the most evil men in British history.’ ‘It’s time to stop little girls wearing flowers to celebrate his birthday,’ Gardner wrote in an article addressed to the city’s political leaders. ‘And it’s time to pull down that statue.’ An opinion poll, conducted by the Bristol Post, found a 56 per cent majority in favour of retaining the Colston statue. However, it was decided that a bronze plaque explaining Colston’s problematic legacy should be added.

The draft text read: ‘As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692 Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America.’ Colston also ‘invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar.’ The plaque stalled amid wrangling over wording.

Meanwhile, local activists coalesced into the Countering Colston campaign, which fuelled public debate by calling for the renaming of Colston Hall. A petition for the name change gathered over 2,000 signatures. Two counterpetitions were launched, gaining over 5,000 and 7,000 names respectively. The Bristol Post was deluged with letters. ‘Anybody who thinks that Bristol is such a terrible place,’ one person wrote, ‘is welcome to go and live somewhere else.’

Joanna Burch-Brown, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Bristol and a member of Countering Colston, analysed 50 of the letters sent to the Bristol Post. She found that only 16 advocated change. Objections ranged from ‘political correctness gone mad’ to ‘white washing history’ to ‘Colston was a man of his time.’ One letter noted that the pyramid had been built by slaves; another that the Africans had sold ‘their fellow countrymen’ to the European slave traders ‘for a few goodies.’ ‘Bristol has a population of about 449,300 people,’ one person wrote. ‘I hardly think 2,400 signatures is a mandate to change the name.’ The letter writer asked: ‘Would we change the name of England because 0.53% of the country voted for it?’

In October 2017, Burch-Brown presented initial findings of her study in Bristol Live. She noted there was a perception that the Countering Colston campaign was ‘being driven by a tiny minority obsessed with political correctness, and does not reflect the values of the rest of the city.’ Burch-Brown did not deny the democratic deficit. ‘We see this campaign as an expression of respect for universal equality, and the fundamental dignity of all human beings,’ she wrote. ‘These values are non-partisan, and are ones that all Bristolians can share.’ By spring 2017, the decision had been taken that Colston Hall would be re-named on re-opening, following refurbishment, at some point in 2020. A satisfactory text for the Colston statue plaque had been finalised and cast in bronze. Then George Floyd was killed.

Since Floyd’s death, on Monday 25 May, protesters around the world have attacked, toppled, torched, and crushed hundreds of statues, some ‘fiercely remembered,’ others ‘forgotten’ or ‘overgrown.’ The living topographies of nations were shaken. On Sunday 7 June, amid rising protests, the Colston statue was smeared with graffiti, toppled and thrown in the harbour where slave trade ships once anchored. The next day, the British Home Secretary announced in the House of Commons that the Bristol protesters would be prosecuted for the vandalism. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 provides for prosecution of a ‘person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another,’ or attempts to destroy or damage. A person guilty of any other offence under the Act could face up to ten years in prison. More serious infractions can result in ‘lifetime imprisonment.’

‘I hope that the Council will not press charges,’ Burch-Brown said at the time. ‘But if prosecutions do go ahead, then we must see this as an opportunity.’ Burch-Brown noted that courts have long provided ‘an important platform’ for effecting social change. She said, ‘Landmark speeches have been made, and societies changed forever.’ To date, no charges have been filed.

The Colston statue has since been recovered from Bristol harbour. It will be displayed in the city museum after restoration. Fran Coles, Conservation and Documentation Manager for Bristol Museums, told The New York Times that the graffiti will be preserved. ‘It has become part of the story of the object, of the statue,’ she said.

As with the erasure of Soviet legacies three decades ago, the assault on the topographies of former slave-trading nations suggests a seismic shift in society. It also raises fundamental questions about appropriate means for re-scripting urban landscapes, but also, as Burch-Brown suggested, our understanding of representation in a representative democracy.

Image: Jacek Wojnarowski /