A Man Reviled: Why Edward Colston’s Statue Should Be Raised.
On the 7th June 2020, protestors following the Black Lives Matter movement in Bristol tore down the statue of Edward Colston before throwing it into the River Avon. While its removal now dominates the media, Colston’s statue has been a controversial matter in the port city ever since it was erected in 1895.
Born to a wealthy merchant family in 1636, Colston became a successful trader under the Royal Africa Company. Through royal warrants, he was was responsible for trading 85,000 slaves from West Africa, the Caribbean, to the Americas, 12,000 of which were children. Crammed into the darkness of cargo holds, tens of thousands would sail the brutal journey to Britain. Shackled to one another with rusty chains, many would perish through the plethora of diseases and illnesses aboard 17th century slave ships, which included dysentery and smallpox. Treated like animals, the dead and dying were discarded and thrown overboard, their names never to be known and remembered. Under Colston’s trade, it is believed 19,000 died this way as they travelled to Bristol.
Founding a number of almshouses, endowing Bristols Queen Elizebeth’s Hospital, while funding a number of schools, Colston’s statue was raised on account of his philanthropy and supposed altruism. While one can credit these actions, they are built on the foundations of a cruel and pitiless trade.
Despite trading in blood, a statue of Colston was raised, his figure equalling those of John Wesley, King William III, and other Bristolian monuments. While I agree Colston’s statue should have been pulled down decades ago, it should not have been thrown in the Avon.
Rather, it should have been carefully dismantled as an important artefact of our history. Emulating Moscow park before it was “improved”, Colston should be laid on his back looking blankly at the grey English sky, to serve not only as a memorial for the 85,000 who were erased under his watch, but also to remind us of our history, in all its shock and horror. Indeed, in Moscow, soviet despots and monoliths mimicking the faces of Stalin, Lenin, and others once looming large over the city as disturbing reminders of absolute power, lied facing emptily at cold Russian sky, reminding us of the horrors of their actions while honouring the memory of those who perished because of them. There is some profound power in this use of symbolism. Once towering figures of the socialist giant now lying on the ground, stark, motionless, and without faculty. To this end, Colston could be used to educate the generations which follow us in the barbarism of history. In the words of Philippa Gregory “turning a proud boast into a supine symbol.”
To echo the words of Daryl Davies and his eloquent comments on US history, slavery is as British as the Union Jack, bulldogs, and roast dinners. One cannot discard ones history, letting it rust and wash away with the waves. Instead, we should acknowledge and learn from the horrors of our past so to never repeat them again.
Until his statue was toppled, I never knew who Edward Colston was and I will never know the names of those who suffered under him. If his statue were laid down for all to see, his expressionless bronze effigy would serve a powerful and disturbing reminder of our history. It would remind me, my children, and the generations to come of the viciousness of the past, while honouring the memory of the 85,000, and the millions more who suffered under slavery.