Edward Colston’s Statue Part 2 – Rejected by the Citizens of Bristol
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about how you can’t always trust what you read on a plaque. I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and this episode we’re continuing the story of the statue of Edward Colston, and the several plaques that did, or didn’t, go with it.
Last episode I explained who Colston was – a slave trader who, by the end of his involvement with the company, was essentially second in command of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly at the time on the British slave-trading industry. We talked about the tens of thousands of enslaved African people, including children, that his company shipped to plantations in America, after branding them on the chest. We talked about the coffin-esque conditions in which those people were kept during the voyage, and the thousands that died before ever getting off the ships again.
We also acknowledged that, despite barely living in the city, Colston did donate a lot of money and set up schools and almshouses to help the poor and needy in the city. As long as they were of the correct denomination of Christianity, and not too rowdy. He also left the city a huge amount of money in his will.
And then we got to his legacy, which turned out to be not so much an altruistic continuation of his philanthropy by other merchants and rich people who thought that helping others be Not Poor was a good idea so much as a concerted effort to ensure Colston’s name meant something in Bristol so they could continue trading on his reputation for literally centuries. If you remember, there were four societies that sprang up in the decades after his death to trade on that reputation. They certainly did do some philanthropy, but they did it incredibly efficiently with an eye to pomp and circumstance rather than helping the poor in any sort of efficient or reasonable way. They cared more about being seen to do good than actually doing good, because their real goal was to enhance their reputations and cement their positions as elites in society. In fact, if you were feeling particularly uncharitable you might suggest that they had no real desire to help the poor in any substantial way, because to do so ran counter to their own selfish interests. If your ultimate goal is to reaffirm your place high up in society you don’t actually want the poor people to get to a point where they don’t depend on your charity, because then they might not need you. And even worse than that, they might be able to make something of their lives in such a way that would allow them to earn enough money to have power within the city. And they certainly didn’t want that. Their method of asserting their influence within the city required there to be poor people to benefit from their charity.
And then, finally, we got to that damn statue, and picked up several important bits of info. Firstly: it was erected in 1884, over 160 years after Colston’s death. Secondly, it was the vanity project of James Arrowsmith, president of one of the societies that had been trading on Colston’s reputation – the Anchor Society. Arrowsmith had suggested that the four Colston societies erect a statue in Colston’s honour. The idea gained approval and a committee was set up to organise it, and raise the money. Except once it came to actually putting their money where their mouths were, suddenly people’s enthusiasm was… well… way less enthusiastic. Arrowsmith failed to raise the money from the four societies, and eventually turned to the public to solicit donations from them. Turns out the public at the time didn’t particularly give a damn about the idea of spending money to erect a statue of Colston either. That’s how much they cared about this great man. The statue was erected before Arrowsmith had even managed to raise all the funds necessary for it, and eventually, after cajoling some more money out of society members, and the Society of Merchant Venturers, some anonymous benefactor who was probably Arrowsmith himself supplied the last of the funds.
And because this statue was absolutely definitely indisputably about remembering history, there was a plaque on its base, that read:
Erected by The citizens of Bristol As a memorial Of one of the most Virtuous and wise sons of Their city.
Which is certainly a full and complete account of his life, and is definitely not missing out some crucial details that would be required for anyone reading that plaque to form an honest opinion of who Edward Colston was.
The statue was erected in the centre of Bristol, and there it stayed for just over 130 years, staring thoughtfully down at the patch of ground in front of the monument, as the city around it changed. Until 2020, when those changes finally caught up to it, and protestors at a Black Lives Matter rally pulled him off his plinth, dragged him to the edge of the harbour, and dumped him in the waters. Y’know. Much like the crew on ships operated by the Royal African Company dumped the bodies of dead people they’d enslaved overboard if they died before reaching their future life of enslavement on plantations in America. So there was some kind of poetic justice there.
But this act of defiant protest didn’t come out of nowhere. Obviously, there’s a bigger context to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing waves of protests that rippled out from America after yet another police officer murdered yet another black American, George Floyd, and seemed on course to get away with it. But there’s also a specific context for this statue, and the plaque that went with it. And that’s what we’re interested in right now, for this story.
Members of Bristol’s black community have been pointing out that this guy was a slave-trader and it’s really inappropriate to glorify him for decades. They were condemning Bristol’s whitewashing of his history and adoration of his name in the 90s. A statue of him – not the one that made headlines last month, a different one, because of course you need more than one statue – was graffitied with the words ‘slave trader’ way back in January 1998 (Morgan 1999: 18).
Historian David Olusoga, recalled his experiences when he first moved to Bristol over 20 years ago:
I was told, in hushed tones, by one of the first black people I got to know in Bristol, about the statue of the slave trader down in the city centre. As a historian, I inevitably began to read about Colston’s role in the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading company in British history. He was an investor and a board member of the RAC, eventually becoming deputy governor, and during his period it is estimated that about 84,000 Africans were shipped to lives of misery and torment in the Americas. Of that 84,000, only about 65,000 reached the plantations. About a quarter, 19,000, perished chained to the slave decks of the RAC’s ships. Slave traders such as Colston called these deaths “wastage”.
Knowing all this and seeing Colston every day, there on his pedestal – combined with the city’s wealth and Georgian pomp, which was intimidating for someone from my background – made me feel that this was a city I would struggle to ever call home. (Olusoga 2020)
A public monument is not a value neutral object. We build monuments to celebrate and commemorate. We build statues in particular to commemorate people who did something that society deemed good, or those who are seen as innocent victims of disaster. From saints to war heroes to explorers, inventors, writers – the list goes on. No source is truly objective, completely value neutral, but statues are emphatically not so. A statue’s very presence indicates to a passer-by that this is someone that people thought worthy of recognition, or worth remembering. A statue of Winston Churchill is there to commemorate his handling of World War 2. It is not there not do that and also to acknowledge his role in the Bengal famine. The statue of Colston was not there to acknowledge his charity and his role in the slave trade. It was not there to remind people of his crimes against humanity. It was an attempt to erase them. To say that we need this statue to remember the history its very presence seeks to erase, is itself, to be complicit in that erasure. If you really care about history, then that statue, and that plaque, should be deeply offensive to you. It is a monument to the erasure of history, and to the erasure of human cruelty, and human suffering.
Marti Burgess, a Trustee of the Black South West Network, who, at the start of this year, became the very first black member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, described in 2018 the impact the statue had on her:
“I walk past it every day in my hometown and it looks like we are wanting to celebrate somebody who did what he did, and as someone of Jamaican descent, we shouldn’t memorialise someone who made money off the backs of enslaved Africans.” (quoted in Lowe 2018)
No white Bristolian is ever going to know that feeling. We can try and construct analogous situations and imagine how we’d feel if it was a statue of someone who had committed atrocities that still negatively impacted our daily living in a negative way, but that still won’t tell us what it’s like for it to be an inescapable part of our reality that must be reckoned with every day. So when the black citizens of Bristol try to explain how this statue, and all the other things glorifying Colston, impact how welcome they feel in their own city, the very least we can do is damn well listen.
Unfortunately, that’s something white Bristolians have failed to do for a very long time. Again, here’s David Olusoga:
No British city is more wilfully blind to its history than Bristol. Having lived in Liverpool and London, two cities whose connections to slavery run deep, I can say that Bristol stands head and shoulders above the competition in its capacity to obscure its past and obfuscate its history. (Olusoga 2017)
Now, obviously, people didn’t just sit around and grumbled that the statue was an offensive monument to historical revisionism and glorification of a slave trader. People tried to do something about it – and not just about the statue, but about the way the whole city is riddled with monuments to a version of Edward Colston that never really existed. And many understood that whilst the statue was symbolic of a problem, there were other problems that needed their attention more pressingly – people have been trying to get Bristol to do a lot more to acknowledge this part of its history (Cork 2020b). Which, y’know: not exactly an unreasonable request. What exactly is there to object to in ‘hey, we seem to be not ever mentioning this particular part of our history – let’s correct that’?
There’s been so much laudable work done by so many black and minority ethnic people to try and fill in the gaps in Bristol’s – and Britain’s – history. There are small protests every year as the Colston Society holds its annual services to give thanks for how super awesome Colston was. In a staggering twist of irony, in 2017, the service was held on the same day as the UK’s National Anti-Slavery Day, whilst campaigners from a group called Countering Colston, whose goal is to ‘decolonise Bristol’, stood outside with signs, and wrote chalk messages on the floor outside the church that detailed some of Colston’s non-philanthropic activities.
In 2018 several groups – Countering Colston, the Bristol Radical History Group, Countering Colston, the Long John Silver Group, and The Welsh Back Association – proposed a plan to turn the last remaining empty harbourside warehouses into a museum that would explain Bristol’s role both in the slave trade and in the abolition movement (Cork 2018b). In a statement emphasising how important the proposal was, the Long John Silver Trust said: ‘Most importantly there is no major Slave Trade Memorial in Bristol where people can go to remember and reflect.’ (Long John Silver Trust Blog 2018). The Council, however, wanted to turn it into 3 more restaurants (Cork 2018b). The Welsh Back Association represented the residents of the area where the empty warehouses lay. They felt there were quite enough restaurants in the area already, thankyouverymuch. They initially offered alternative plans for the buildings to be turned into offices, but then backed the proposal for the museum (Cork 2018b). Campaigners pointed out that Bristol was severely lagging behind other cities, both within the country and internationally, in terms of acknowledging and tackling its past involvement with the slave trade. One campaigner said:
“Wherever you go to other parts of the world, you see a lot of recognition of history, and I shocked at how much they’ve got to challenge you as a tourist or visitor, from somewhere like Germany or Poland to America,” (quoted in Cork 2018b)
That campaigner, by the way, was Marti Burgess. Another member of the campaign was local councillor, Cleo Lake, who was then Lord Mayor of Bristol. Which, just to let you know, is not the same position as Mayor, the Mayor at the time was Marvin Rees. The campaign was not successful (Cameron 2019).
This is just a small amount of the things that activists, campaigners, and educators have been doing for years and years. There has been so much unpraised work done by black historians in Bristol to try and get Bristol to teach those parts of its history. I mention all this not just to fill out the context of the disputes around Colston, the slave-trade, and racism that have been happening in Bristol for decades, but because I also want to make it really, really clear, that the statue and it’s plaque, even though they’re the focus of this episode, are just a synecdochical focal point for far bigger issues. The statue and the plaque were a problem. It was not the only problem. The city’s current mayor, Marvin Rees, elected in 2016, campaigned in part on a platform of working to get Bristol to acknowledge its history. His stance on buildings, roads, and other things in the city named after Colston, and on statues of the man dotting the city, was that there were more important parts of the problem – like the current racial inequality in the city – that needed to be tackled first (Cork 2020b).
The focus on the statue, and on other statues and buildings or places named after Colston came to the fore in 2017, when the city’s main concert venue, Colston Hall, announced at the start of a renovation project scheduled to start the next year that when it reopened, it would be under a different name (Cork 2020b). I read, watched, and engaged in some of the debate that happened around that, and one thing that became painfully clear was that many people who opposed the name change didn’t even know why it was named after Colston in the first place. They thought it was because he had paid for the building. He did not. The Hall-formerly-known-as Colston-Hall’s own website explains this: the hall was built when Colston had already been dead for 146 years, and there is no material connection between the building there today and Colston. Seems rather like another problem for the argument of ‘erasing history’. The statue of Colston frequently came up during those discussions, and I learned very quickly that most of the people objecting weren’t aware that the plaque underneath said nothing about his role in the slave trade. And when it was pointed out that there were other options to help the city remember the legacy of the slave trade, many people seemed open to those ideas.
Following this announcement, other public displays of memorialising Colston came into the spotlight. A primary school named after him changed its name after much consultation from ‘Colston Primary School’ to ‘Cotham Gardens’. A pub that had been called ‘Colston Yard’ changed its name to ‘Bristol Yard’. Much like the former Colston Hall – the new name of which has not yet been announced – these buildings didn’t actually have anything to do with Colston either (Cork 2020b).
But when it came to the names of things that actually had been connected with Colston – or the societies that sprung up after his death, or the Society of Merchant Venturers, there was more pushback. Colston’s School, a private school, and Colston’s Girl’s School, declined to change their names (2020b).
These changes – or the lack of changes – brought renewed focus to the statue. In 2018, during Black History Month, Thangam Debbonaire, the MP for Bristol West, called for the removal of the statue during an event at City Hall, saying:
"Having statues of people who oppressed us is not a good thing to be saying to black people in this city… Edward Colston did many things, but he was not completely defined by that, and it's an important part of saying to black people in the city 'you are welcome'.” (quoted in Canning 2018).
The response to this appears to have been silence.
Debbonaire’s statement was not the first time someone had said that they statue should be removed. It was something that had been bubbling under the surface for years. In 2014, a retired journalist called Mike Gardner wrote a piece in the Bristol Post saying the statue should be pulled down. This prompted the Bristol Post to poll its readers on whether they thought the statue should stay or go. Of around 1,100 respondents, 56% thought it should remain and 44% thought it should go. For reference, the population of Bristol in 2014 was around 437,500 people.
There have also been numerous petitions over the years to get the statue removed. The standard response has remained that removing the statue – even, apparently, to put it in a museum – is an attempt to erase history. Removing it would be – and this was said non-ironically – “whitewashing history”. David Olusoga rightly rejects this argument as ‘contemptibly disingenuous’ (Olusoga 2017).
I honestly find it baffling when people otherwise capable of making very logical arguments and erudite observations trot this one out. And Colston’s plaque is a very much the exemplar of why this idea is nonsense. How can removing something that doesn’t even convey history be an act of erasing history? As I mentioned last episode, Colston isn’t even the city’s biggest benefactor, so… if it’s just about acknowledging the contribution that historical figures made to the city, then… where are all the statues to Richard Reynolds, the 19th century Quaker? Why isn’t his birthday known as ‘Reynolds’ day and celebrated in the city?
But that isn’t the only reason this argument about removing statues being an attempt to erase history is utterly silly. Firstly, as I said before: a statue teaches us that the people who erected it thought that person worthy of commemoration – even if that turns out to be actually just one person who was worthy of commemoration. It should not teach us that we should hold them worthy of commemoration. And if they’re not, why are we still preserving these monuments in our public spaces, as if respecting the values of the city’s long dead inhabitants is more important than respecting its current citizens?
Like, I don’t see a way around that other than to tell people that they need to get over it. Which means that you’d be telling people ‘okay, you have to learn about this history, and it’s very important you remember it, but like… don’t care about it to the extent that you actually have feelings about it’. It’s asking people to ignore that part of Colston’s legacy, through the slave trade, is part of the racism black people still experience today. Why is that a reasonable thing to ask them to do?
Secondly, this argument implies that somehow that particular statue, in that particular location, is the one and only way a certain part of history can be remembered. Move it to a museum, where you can actually supply even more information about it? Nah. Erasing history. Replace it with a statue that also represents that part of history, without glorifying a slave trader? Nah. Erasing history. Leave the plinth bare and design a plaque that explains the whole story? Nah. Erasing history. Guys, this argument just… Makes. No. Sense.
Finally, people who suddenly care so much about Colston’s statue when someone wants to remove it generally don’t give a damn about it the rest of the time. They forget it exists. As an example of how little attention gets paid to the statue outside the times when people want to change it, I present Exhibit 1) On the 20th of April 2017 the Bristol Post reported that the statue’s face had been spray painted white. And you can tell how super important this statue was to all the history buffs in Bristol by the fact that the Post’s article includes this sentence: ‘It is not known exactly when the 19th century statue was targeted but one pedestrian claimed it has had a white face since February (my emphasis)’ (Wood 2017).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: okay, if they’re too stubborn to remove the damn statue, and they really care about history, then surely the obvious thing to do would be to update the plaque to lay out his full deeds and legacy, rather than just the highlights reel. Well. Here’s the thing: people tried that too – both officially and through acts of guerrilla art – and it hasn’t happened.
In August 2013 the then Mayor George Ferguson – who’d resigned his membership of the Society of Merchant Venturers in order to run as Mayor – replied on Twitter to someone from Bristol who’d tweeted: ‘’Bristol still perversely celebrate the slaver Colston every year! It's time for a victims' plaque on his statue! Not flowers.’ Ferguson replied agreeing that it ‘seemed perverse’ and added that he would not be joining in the in the celebration (Koch 2013). His reply, you will notice, is only a response to the first half of that tweet. He didn’t say anything about the statue. And he do anything about the statue, either.
In August of 2017 – whilst Colston’s face was still bright white after his encounter at the start of the year with a can of spray-paint – a new plaque appeared on the base of the statue. But it wasn’t put there by the City Council. It was designed to look like plaques that can be found all around the country, put up by groups such as English Heritage to commemorate certain people and places, but it was, in fact, a piece of guerrilla art. It read:
UNAUTHORISED HERITAGE BRISTOL Capital of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1730 – 1745 This commemorates the 12,000,000 enslaved of whom 6,000,000 died as captives.
The City Council had it removed a couple of months later, in October. According to a spokesperson for the Council they removed it because it had started to discolour and damage the stone (Davies 2017). The person behind the appearance of the plaque was artist Will Coles, who, having researched Edward Colston, thought it was really rather weird that the statue wasn’t in a museum, and was on public display ‘as if people are proud of such a despicable person, someone that profited from selling humans whose race made them sub-human in his eyes’ (Pipe 2017). And I agree. It was really rather weird.
Finally, a few months after that, in February 2018, Bristol Council announced that they would be adding a plaque to the base of the statue that filled in the omitted history (Cork 2018a). But by the time the statue was pulled down in 2020, the second plaque had not appeared. So… what happened to it?
The addition of a new plaque was part of a larger history programme planned between the City Council, a group called Journey to Justice, and The Cotham Gardens Primary School – the one that had just changed its name from ‘Colston’s Primary School’ (Cork 2018a). The lead historian for Journey to Justice, professor Madge Dresser, was to work with the children in that school to come up with the new wording for the plaque (Cork 2018a). And let me reiterate this was not going to replace the white-washed plaque, it was just… also going to be there. The smallest of small concessions.
In July that year the wording for the proposed second plaque was revealed:
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. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans.
Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.
All of which is entirely factually accurate. Colston did those things. In a report to council planners outlining various reasons the new plaque should be installed – including trying to discourage all the recent vandalism – the author(s) wrote this:
The over-riding need is to provide a better historic context for the statue that explains some of the background to the man and his business interests so the Bristolians and visitors can view the statue with more understanding. (quoted in Cork 2018c)
The report also acknowledged that there had also been calls for the statue to be put in a museum instead – somewhere that would be able to provide a lot more historic context than a plaque. But, apparently, in the view of the Council, ‘keeping the statue in the public realm with the additional context provided by a plaque encourages further debate about these important issues concerning Bristol’s heritage’ (quoted in Cork 2018c). Public museums, of course, are not in the public realm.
Predictably, within days of the proposal being announced, at least two people had objected to it. In a letter to the Bristol Post one of them, whom we shall call ‘Mr. Angry Man’ wrote:
The new plaque could be a positive step towards a sensible resolution of the Colston debate, and help start healing some of the divisions the pressure group Countering Colston have been causing, if it provided a fair, objective, and truthful summary of the main pros (great philanthropy) and cons (involvement with the slave trade) of Colston, a major character in the history of Bristol who lived through one of the most turbulent periods of our history… the draft wording of the plaque (limited to 100 words) is a hatchet job on Colston, with one word that might be construed a pro, and that being criticised, and over 90 words of con! … It also includes misinformation and cheap political shots unworthy of a permanent public monument. And of course it doesn’t make a lot of sense when added to a statue with the original plaque describing Colston as ‘virtuous and wise’. (quoted in Cork 2018c)
I mean, let’s just acknowledge to start with that ‘the problem is people protesting the glorification of a slave-trader rather than the actual glorification of a slave-trader’ is really not a good take on this. It basically lets you know that he’d be totally fine with the statue how it is if only those pesky protestors would shut up about it. It paints Countering Colston not as a group of actual citizens of Bristol who care about their own city and history, but as some sort of external instigators stirring up trouble between people in the city. This is not a promising opening. Secondly, there’s a distinct lack of him explaining what exactly the “misinformation” is. I would hazard a guess that that’s because there isn’t any.
The cheap political shot, I presume, is identifying him as a ‘Tory’ MP rather than just as an MP. I do however agree with him that it ‘doesn’t make much sense’ when put beside the original plaque describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’ and like, oh Mr. Angry Man, you’re So close to getting it. A description of how Colston made his money does mean that the older plaque, doesn’t make much sense. Maybe… maybe that’s because you can only consider him virtuous if you ignore the slave-trader part.
The very next day, the Bristol Post ran another story about the new plaque, because a Tory councillor, Richard Eddy, suggested that:
someone taking the law into the own hands and ‘unilaterally removing [the plaque]… might be justified’. (quoted in Cork 2018d)
He also called this second plaque ‘revisionist’ and ‘historically-illiterate’ (Cork 2018d). So that’s what he thinks. Adding actual, well-documented historical facts is ‘revisionist’ and ‘historically-illiterate’. Not mentioning that a slave-trader was a slave-trader? Good. Historically literate. Mentioning that a slave-trader was a slave-trader? Bad. Historically illiterate. Revisionist. He also said this:
“If it goes through, it will be a further slap-in-the-face for true Bristolians and our city's history delivered by ignorant, left-wing incomers.” (quoted in Cork 2018d)
People who don’t agree with him can’t be “true” Bristolians, they must be ‘ignorant’ and ‘left-wing incomers’. Which is a pile of nonsense, obviously. You don’t have to be left-wing to think that keeping up a statue glorifying a slave-trader and not even mentioning that he’s a slave-trader is kinda’ Not Great, and frankly, conservatives should be deeply offended by that implication.
But you probably wouldn’t understand what Mr. Eddy really meant with his comment unless you’ve spent some time in Bristol. The ‘ignorant’, ‘left-wing incomers’ are students. Bristol is a student city. It’s a small city with a big student population. And every year when new students arrive, some of them do something like… walk around the city. And see this statue, and google who Edward Colston was, and then they go ‘wait, what? *why is there a statue of a slave-trader here? And why is there a plaque calling him “virtuous”??? What the flipping flippity-flip??’ And when students then go ‘hey, what’s up with this racist statue?’ People who’ve lived in Bristol for a lot longer tend to get upset that these students are coming in and asking them why they still have a racist statue up. So what Mr. Eddy was really saying was ‘anyone who disagrees with me about this is an ignorant student at one of those bastions of liberal thinking, and not a true Bristolian. So he absolutely wouldn’t care about my opinion on the statue.
Seriously, any time anyone says someone is not a true something – not a true Christian, not a true comics fan, not a true Bristolian, just because they have a different opinion, that’s a red flag that you shouldn’t take that person’s opinion very seriously. Oh, and also, if someone happily adopts a goddamn gollywog as their mascot, as Mr. Eddy did back in 2001, then maybe his opinion on racism belongs in a bin (Cork 2018d). Yeah. He did that. In This. Century. For those of you who don’t know what a golliwog is, The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia describes golliwogs thusly:
The Golliwog… is the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States. Golliwogs are grotesque creatures, with very dark, often jet black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild, frizzy hair. Typically, it's a male dressed in a jacket, trousers, bow tie, and stand-up collar in a combination of red, white, blue, and occasionally yellow colors. The golliwog image, popular in England and other European countries, is found on a variety of items, including postcards, jam jars, paperweights, brooches, wallets, perfume bottles, wooden puzzles, sheet music, wall paper, pottery, jewelry, greeting cards, clocks, and dolls. For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol. (Pilgrim 2000)
Yeah. We’re still having to debate whether something that looks like that is racist or not. If you want to see a picture of one yourself, you can find a lovely photo of Mr. Richard Eddy delightedly posing with his golliwog mascot on the twitters. Link in the show notes. Now, that particular racist stunt did at least force Mr. Eddy to resign as the Tories’ deputy-council leader (Cork 2018d). That, however, only lasted six months. And then he was reinstated (Cork 2020a). Because: racism. Oh, yeah, and shortly after the mascot incident, he felt it necessary to comment that the Council should hire 'more attractive lesbians' (Cork 2020a). So he’s a real nice chap all round.
Anyway. Just put that name and opinion in your pocket for now. Richard Eddy, Tory councillor, condoning vandalism of an officially installed plaque explaining that someone was a slave-trader, because he thinks facts are ‘historically illiterate’ and ‘revisionist’ and it’s just those nasty lefty-outsider students who want it changed, conveniently ignoring the actual people that even he’d have to admit were real citizens of the city who thought the statue should go, or needed a second plaque giving historical details.
At the end of August 2018, pretty much a month to the day since the announcement of the wording of the plaque, the Society of Merchant Venturers leveraged its mysterious and unelected power to veto the wording on the plaque, claiming it was “too harsh” on Colston (Cork 2018e). Facts. Too harsh.
So Dr Madge Dresser worked with council officer, Pete Insole to tweak the wording on the plaque. The wording on this second attempt ran as follows:
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant, long honoured as the city’s greatest benefactor. He made vast donations to restore churches, establish schools, almshouses and various charities in Bristol and across the country.
Much of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods.
When a high official of the Royal African Company (1680-1692) (which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698), he played an active role in the trafficking of over 84,000 enslaved Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died on their way across the Atlantic.
As MP for Bristol (1710-1713) he worked to safeguard Bristol’s slave-trading interests. His role in the exploitation of enslaved Africans and his opposition to any form of religious or political dissent, has in recent years made him the focus of increasing controversy. 2018 (quoted in Cork 2018e)
So this one’s dropped that super awful contentious fact that he was a Tory MP, and also scrapped mentioning that you had to fit his religious ideology to benefit from his charity, and watered that down a broader statement about why he’s contentious today, and it’s added stuff about his philanthropy. So everyone should be happy now, right? Historically accurate, more “balanced”, doesn’t mention he was a Tory.
Well. Someone else – a man called Francis Greenacre – made a proposal too:
Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant and the city's greatest benefactor. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.
Some of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced commodities. From 1680 to 1692 he was an official of the Royal African Company, which had the monopoly of the English slave trade until 1698.
Thus, he was involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on voyages to the Caribbean and the Americas. (quoted in Cork 2018e)
Here’s how Tristan Cork, writing for the Bristol Post describes him in the article covering the controversy of the wording of the second plaque:
Mr Greenacre is a long-standing stalwart among Bristol’s history experts. He was a member of the Arts Council Exhibitions Committee, the South Bank Art Advisory Group, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Trust and the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust. He was the curator [of] fine art, at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for almost 30 years, and an art historian, fine art consultant and valuer, lecturer and author. (Cork 2018e)
That was in 2018, by the way, and he’s since retired from many of those roles. Anyway. This plaque introduces the dubious claim that he was the cities “greatest” benefactor. It reduces the claim that “much” of his wealth came from the slave trade to “some” of his wealth. It demotes him from a “high official” of the Royal African Company to just “an official”. It removes the fact that 12,000 children died on the voyages.
Dr Madge Dresser wasn’t a fan of this one. She pointed out that it:
“Leaves out how many children were trafficked and changes the wording so as to focus on West Africans as the enslavers, and so sanitise the role of the West in fueling demand for slaves: note that 'transporting' is substituted for 'trafficking'… It also omits altogether his sectarianism and the point that his statue has become a matter of controversy.” (quoted in Cork 2018e)
Dr Dresser’s comments are On. Point. These are valid objections. “Transported” is a verb that can refer to moving cargo, or moving people. But it doesn’t exactly make the circumstances explicit in the way “trafficked” does. “Trafficked” makes it very clear that this “transportation” was being done against the will of the enslaved people. Let’s look at how the UN defines “trafficking”:
“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (General Assembly resolution 55/25, 2004: 42)
Gosh. That sure does sound like what The Royal African Company was doing. So why did Mr. Greenacre feel the need to change this very accurate term for a vaguer idea of “transporting”? I’m sure it was absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that he’s also a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers. Nope. No way that’s relevant.
If you can’t tell, that word tweaking really bothers me. There is no good reason for it – it doesn’t make the sense any clearer, it’s not a more technically accurate term. All it does, as Dr Dresser said, is ‘sanitise’ this history. It’s just a little tweak that swaps out a word with rightly negative connotations for one that’s more neutral.
And when you put it in the context of the rest of that sentence, it becomes really obvious that sanitising Colston’s role is what Greenacre was aiming at. Colston was merely “transporting” human beings who’s already been “traded as slaves in West Africa”. Which makes it sound like a third party was hiring the Royal African Company simply to “transport” enslaved people. It basically reduces the role of the Royal African Company – and Colston – to that of delivery drivers. Which is obviously why the Royal African Company branded all men, women and children with their logo. Because they were just a delivery service.
It’s subtle, it’s insidious, and it’s indefensible. And why did Greenacre even get to propose his wording in the first place? It wasn’t an open call for submissions as to what it should say. He wasn’t part of the initial plan for how the wording on this plaque should be decided. And given that he’s a member of a society that has had a vested interest in whitewashing Colston’s story, and maintaining the myth that he was a saintly and virtuous figure so they could continue to benefit from being associated with his name… I’d suggest they’re the last people in Bristol who should get a say in the wording on that plaque.
Anyway. Finally, the wording of the plaque seems to have been settled on and by March 2019 the plaque had supposedly actually been produced. The Bristol Post reported that the wording on it was:
Edward Colston, 1636-1721, MP for Bristol 1710-1713, was one of this city’s greatest benefactors.
He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.
A significant proportion of Colston’s wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods.
As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. (quoted in Cork 2019)
So we’ve reverted to ‘one of the city’s greatest benefactors’ rather than ‘the greatest benefactor’, and acknowledged that it was a ‘significant proportion’ of his wealth that came from the slave trade rather than just ‘some’. But he’s still just ‘an official’ of the Royal African Company, rather than a ‘high official’, and we’ve lost the figure about how many children died whilst being trafficked on the South African Company’s ships.
On 25th of March 2019 the BBC reported that the entire plan for a second plaque had been axed (BBC News 25 March 2019). It hadn’t. What had happened was that the Mayor, Marvin Rees, and stepped in to veto the wording on the plaque (Cork 2019). The Mayor’s office released a statement explaining that:
It was extremely naive of the Merchant Venturers to believe they should have the final say on the words for a new plaque for the statue of Edward Colston without reference to the communities of descendants of those Africans who were enslaved and treated as commodities by merchants like Colston.
It’s an oversight to put it mildly not to even have had a conversation with Mayor Marvin Rees, Europe’s first mayor of African heritage and the mayor of a city whose wealth has been inseparable from slavery and plantations and who is himself the descendant of enslaved Africans.
The proposed words are unacceptable. We will pick this back up as part of our wider work on improving our cultural offer around the transatlantic slave trade.” (quoted in Cork 2019)
Yeah. A private society accountable to no one and elected by no one, thought actually consulting the city’s own mayor, a black man descended from enslaved Africans, on what the wording of a plaque explaining that a man they’ve mythologised was a slave trader wasn’t that important. I’d call that “an oversight”, too.
As I said, the BBC article was wrong. The whole idea of a second plaque hadn’t been axed, Rees had just vetoed that specific wording, and sent it back to the drawing board (Cork 2019).
And that is why, in 2020, there was still no second plaque. And now there certainly won’t be a second plaque, because protestors pulled the statue down, dragged it to the harbour, and dumped it in the water. I keep describing that event because it makes me happy.
A few days after the statue had been dumped in the harbour, my partner cycled through the city centre to see the new historical site. Someone had edited the original plaque with white spray paint. Instead of reading ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol’ it now reads ‘rejected by the citizens of Bristol.’
There’s more of this story to tell – a lot of things happened after the statue came down, and things kept happening as I was trying to write this, and the episode started to get unreasonably long, so there’ll be one final episode on this saga, and then… something different.
I’ll leave you with a final point by David Olusoga:
The real victims of forgetting are the men, women and children who were enslaved by Colston, a deputy governor of the Royal African Company – the entity that transported more Africans into slavery than any in British history. (Olusoga 2017)
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please subscribe on whatever podcatcher you’re using. Rate and review the show, especially on Apple Podcasts. I would very much appreciate it if you did.
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Alternatively… write a plaque dedicated to the podcast, then rewrite it. Then let someone else rewrite it. Then rewrite it again, and then do nothing with it.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that strongly agrees with the idea of Bristol reckoning with its past.
The voice reading the various proposed wordings for the plaque was: Tom Embury.
The voice in your ears most certainly rejects Edward Colston.
—— (2004) ‘United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol Thereto, United Nations.
—— (2014) ‘The Population of Bristol September 2014’, Bristol City Council.
—— (2018) ‘We want a Slave Trade Memorial and Abolition Shed on Welsh Back, Bristol’, Long John Silver Trust Blog, 1 May.
— (2019) ‘Edward Colston: Plaque to Bristol slave trader axed over wording, BBC News, 25 March.
Cameron, A (2019) ‘£1.4 million barge deal to go ahead but call-in councillor brands majority decision “wrong”’, Bristol Post, 25 July.
Canning, T. (2018) ‘Edward Colston statue should be removed says Bristol MP’, Bristol Post, 12 October.
Cork, T. (2018a) ‘Plaque marking slave trade victims to be put on statue of Edward Colston in Bristol’, Bristol Post, 28 February.
—— (2018b) ‘Campaigners want historic harbourside spot earmarked for three new restaurants transformed into slavery museum’, Bristol Post, 26 April.
—— Cork, T. (2018c) ‘The wording of the second plaque proposed for Edward Colston statue linking him to 20,000 deaths’, Bristol Post, 22 July.
—— (2018d) ‘Theft or vandalism of second Colston statue plaque “may be justified” - Tory councillor’, Bristol Post, 23 July.
—— (2018e) [‘Row breaks out as Merchant Venturer accused of “sanitising” Edward Colston’s involvement in slave trade](https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/row-breaks-out-merchant-venturer-1925896, Bristol Post, 23 August.
—— (2019) ‘Second Colston statue plaque not axed and will still happen but mayor steps in to order a re-write’ Bristol Post, 25 March.
—— (2020b) ‘How the City Failed to Remove Edward Colston’s Statue for Years, Bristol Post, 10 June.
Davis, K. (2017) ‘Unofficial plaque calling Bristol “Capital of the Atlantic slave trade” removed from Edward Colston statue’, Bristol Post.
Koch, E. (2013) ‘Bristol mayor: City's celebration of Edward Colston is "peverse”(sic)’, Bristol Post, 30 August.
Lowe, Y. (2018) ‘Bristol MP calls for slave trader's statue to be removed from city because it offends local residents’ The Telegraph, 12 October.
Morgan, K. (1999) Edward Colston and Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets.
Olusoga, D. (2017) ‘Bristol’s Colston Hall is an affront to a multicultural city. Let’s rename it now’, The Guardian 26 February.
—— (2020) ‘I shared my home with Edward Colston for more than 20 years. Good riddance’, The Guardian 11 June.
Pennock, L. (2017) ‘Edward Colston “effectively ran” Bristol slave trade and memorialising him is an “embarrassment to the city”, historian claims’ Bristol Post.
Pilgrim, D. (2000) The Golliwog Caricature, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
Pipe, E. (2017) ‘New plaque on Colston statue brands Bristol slavery capital’, Bristol 24/7.
Wood, A. (2017) ‘Vandals paint face of Edward Colston statue white’, Bristol Post.