Episode 29

Edward Colston’s Statue Part 3 – One Year Later

Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous texts and what they do, and don’t, tell us.

I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and I’m back. Sorry for the year-long hiatus. Turns out 2020 was pretty hectic. This is the final episode about the statue of Edward Colston, which… at the time I started writing the episode, had recently been torn down. Now, as I finish the episode, it’s been just over a year. So let’ talk about what’s happened since the day the statue took an unscheduled dive into the Bristol harbour.

Last episode we learned about the long saga of the efforts to try and correct a huge historical omission, and get the city, in various ways, to acknowledge its historical involvement in the slave trade. One small part of those efforts was an attempt to get a second plaque added to the statue of Edward Colston to try and undo the whitewashing of his deep involvement in the slave trade. This whitewashing, as we know from the previous two episodes, was a prolonged project by the various societies that sprang up after Colston’s death that traded on being associated with his name, and thus had a vested interest in keeping his reputation squeaky clean. They were aided by another society that existed before Colston was even born – the Society of Merchant Venturers. Edward Colston had been a member in his lifetime, and the society persists to this day. It was primarily because of the Merchant Venturers that a second plaque was never added to the statue – they vetoed the proposed wording on the plaque, submitted their own, sanitised version, that renamed ‘trafficking’ as ‘transporting’ and implied that Colston, and the Royal African Company in which he had a very high position, were simply a delivery service, rather than directly involved in purchasing enslaved people.

Just as a plaque had finally been made, the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, stepped in and vetoed the wording due to being distinctly unimpressed with the meddling of the Merchant Venturers, an unelected, secretive group, accountable to no one. Rees ordered the wording to be rewritten again, but before that could happen, the citizens of Bristol took matters into their own hands. I don’t know if things would have been different had a second plaque actually been installed. I’m inclined to suspect not. Though it might have helped explain to people why protestors pulled the statue down. Turns out statues simply existing in public spaces don’t actually teach history, and many people still hold a very sanitised view of Colston.

So what has happened since the statue was dumped in the harbour? Let’s start with the bunch of rich people accountable to no one who didn’t want it either removed, or to have a historically honest plaque: The Merchant Venturers. What did they think of what happened? One member of the secret club, Marti Burgess, who, I remind you, is the Society’s first – and only – black member, and who joined their club at the start of 2020, said those resistant to change had “squandered” opportunities to “contextualise” or put the statue in a museum (Cameron 2020). And she’s definitely not wrong.

What about the rest of the Merchant Venturers? On the 12th of June, 5 days after the statue was toppled, they released a statement. It’s not lengthy so I’m just gonna quote it in full:

Following the Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol on 7th June, the energy for change across our city continues to grow.

The statue of Edward Colston was removed from Bristol’s city centre last weekend and the fact that it has gone is right for Bristol.

To build a city where racism and inequality no longer exist, we must start by acknowledging Bristol’s dark past and removing statues, portraits and names that memorialise a man who benefitted from trading in human lives.

It was inappropriate for the Society of Merchant Venturers to get involved in the rewording of the Colston statue plaque in 2018 and we have listened to the constructive comments put to us over this past week.

As we look forward, we are examining our own role within the city, how we collaborate with others and accelerate our part in ensuring that Bristol overcomes inequality and disadvantage wherever it exists.

As the co-sponsor of Colston’s Girls’ School, we are fully supportive of their plans to conduct a transparent consultation to consider renaming the school. We welcome a new name that accurately reflects the school’s vision and values. We also support Colston’s School as they too enter a process of discussion about the school’s name.

It is inexcusable that racism and inequality still exist today. We share a determination for Bristol to become an inclusive, sustainable and successful city where the place of your birth or the colour of your skin is not an obstacle. (SMV Website)

Inappropriate to get involved with rewording the plaque? Y’don’t say. These are fine words. And hey, if this event gets them to actually wake up to the problems of racism in Bristol today, and to stop whitewashing Colston’s history, then that’s great. But this is a society that, according to Countering Colston, refused to meet with them on multiple occasions to discuss such issues (Countering Colston Website). So y’know. Not much inclined to just take them at the word. We’ll have to wait and see if their words are backed up with action.

If they survive, that is. On the 29th of June Countering Colston released a statement calling for the group to be disbanded. It’s a longer statement than that by the Merchant Venturers, so I’m not going to quote it all – but there’s a link in the show notes to the full statement:

The toppling of Colston is beginning to expose to all, at home and abroad, the whole Colston myth, the veneer behind the Colston facade, the Society of Merchant Venturers propping him up, supported by Bristol Cathedral and St Mary’s Redcliffe churches (who are now seeking to distance themselves), elected politicians of all colours and the University of Bristol.

Edward Colston and his colleagues at The Society of Merchants Venturers were architects of UK’s slave trade, but the Merchants are not just a historical relic. They are an elite network who continue to run or be financially involved in a huge number of Bristol’s public services, schools and public spaces.

If one scratches below the surface of this Society of Merchant Venturers charitable works, what emerges is a colonial history of mercantile exploitation of one’s fellow beings for personal gain, self interest, self preservation and patronage.

We believe The Merchant Venturers should be disbanded as it is inappropriate for an unelected, undemocratic body to be so heavily involved in Bristol’s public serving institutions. We do not believe that they have the expertise to serve our schools, children or young people well. The Society must be removed from local democratic decision making. The Merchants are highly unrepresentative, they bring a toxic, historic culture of racism and classism into our institutions. Now is the time to make real change happen in Bristol, now is the time to disband Colston’s elite business Guild. (Countering Colston website)

And it’s not just Countering Colston who thinks the Society of Merchant Venturers isn’t fit for purpose. John Whitehead, a former head teacher of Colston’s Girls’ School, who held the position for three years until the summer of 2019, also thinks the Merchant Venturers need to back off (Cork 2020c). Mr. Whitehead explained that he had tried to begin a consultation about the name of the school, and potentially changing it, but was blocked by the Merchant Venturers.

Tristan Cork, writing for the Bristol Post reported that Mr. Whitehead said that:

The efforts of he and his senior leadership team to modernise the school, and its practices that commemorated the slave trader Edward Colston, were something of a battle with the Society of Merchant Venturers, which runs the school and had installed one of its members, Anthony Brown, as its chair of governors.

Mr Whitehead said his experiences in six years at the school led him to conclude the Society of Merchant Venturers were not a fit and proper organisation to run educational establishments in Bristol. (Cork 2020c).

Mr. Whitehead became headteacher of the school in 2016, but first joined the staff in a “senior leadership” position back in 2013. During his time there, he said, they fought to get the idolisation of Colston removed from school events. When he became Head he’d chucked a sheet over the smaller replica of the Colston statue that stood in the school (Cork 2020c). In October 2017 in their commemoration service – which was traditionally supposed to be about “remembering” what a super awesome and virtuous man Colston was – they actually managed to do the whole event without mentioning his name, and instead made the focus of the event the enslaved people Colston saw fit to exploit and murder. At the same time, the staff in the school started talking about changing its name. Mr. Whitehead gave a presentation to the Merchant Venturers. Not so much about what they’d actually change the name to or anything, just… how they’d do a consultation for it. How they’d get students and parents involved.

The Merchant Venturers, of course, were not keen. Supposedly they were worried that it would be a big political issue (Cork 2020c). Unlike the big political issue of refusing to acknowledge that you’ve got a school named after a slave trader. They were apparently worried that Countering Colston would make sure the consultation was ‘very publicised’. And apparently they were also supposedly worried that the students and their parents would get “pressured” by groups like Countering Colston (Cork 2020c). Presumably by doing such things as explaining historical facts.

Before Mr. Whitehead could make any progress though, the man the Merchant Venturers had installed as Chair of the Board of Governors, Anthony Brown, appeared. According to Mr. Whitehead:

“He came in and had the senior leadership team in, and he basically read us a long paper that had been written by a university in America as justification why they were not going to change their name, but he’d adapted it to Bristol and Colston… And that was the end of the discussion.” (Cork 2020c).

The school released a statement the next month saying they wouldn’t change the name. The statement, according to Mr. Whitehead, was not written by any of the teachers at the school, or himself, but by Anthony Brown (Cork 2020c). Wonderful. This put Mr. Whitehead in the unenviable position of having to defend a decision he didn’t make and didn’t agree with. All because the Merchant Venturers were more worried about negative publicity than the legacy of racism.

Mr. Whitehead’s comments on the Merchant Venturers are fairly damning. He told the Bristol Post that:

“The SMVs have been very careful to project a more progressive image in recent times. It is important that we ask whether this outward facing image reflects the real values that members express in their internal conversations… Is it possible that they pragmatically shift their position to retain credibility, as opposed to making the right ethical decisions for those they claim to serve?" (quoted in Cork 2020c)

And added:

“My instinct is that they only change when they have no choice. Their instinct is self-preservation… This instinct is more important than their commitment to improving schools. This is why they are not fit sponsors for an education trust.” (quoted in Cork 2020c)

Which does kinda match what we’ve seen with the statue of Colston and the renaming of buildings they’re associated with that bear Colston’s name.

So that’s one aspect of the fallout of the toppling of the statue. All that attention that the Merchant Venturers tried to avoid by doing nothing is finally catching up with them. Because they did nothing. And it’s definitely about time the SMV received some scrutiny. I wish I could have told you more about them in previous episodes, but there’s not much out there, and the one book on the subject, by the Bristol Radical History Group, I couldn’t get hold of.

On October 6th, after consultation with students, parents, staff, and the public, Colston Girls’ School announced that it would be changing its name. The school got a group of staff and students to work together to produce a longlist of ten potential names, which was then presented to the ‘Venturer’s Trust’, the arm of the Merchant Venturer’s that runs the school. They shortlisted three names, which then went back to the students for the final vote. In November 2020 the school announced its new name – Montpelier High School (Cork 2020i). Montpelier is the area of Bristol in which the school stands.

So that’s the school. What did other people think in the aftermath of the removal of the statue? What about people like, say, a local Tory councillor who thought that vandalism of a second plaque would be entirely justifiable, and thought that racist caricatures were totally appropriate mascots? Richard Eddy disapproved, of course. Strongly. He called Edward Colston a ‘hero’ and said:

“I am horrified and appalled by the rank lawlessness which was exposed in Bristol on Sunday when the famous statue of Edward Colston was attacked and vandalised by a criminal mob." (Cork 2020a)

Yeah, big surprise. The guy who didn’t want to acknowledge history still doesn’t want to acknowledge history, and is still happy to glorify a slave-trader. And weirdly objects to vandalism now. He claimed that he’d had more people contact him in the 24 hours after the statue was torn down than he’d ever had contact him about a single issue before, and that they were totally all outraged (Cork 2020a).

And would any of you be at all surprised to hear that Richard Eddy has continued to be somewhat of giant excremental nugget? At a Council meeting discussing plans to transfer 200 staff from its cleaning and security services to Bristol Waste, which is owned by council, Ricard Eddy decided to once again display his vast historical literacy by comparing the people he didn’t agree with to Nazis. Senior management were trying to justify the move to the Council, and claimed that the staff and their union were happy with the move and supported it. They did not. So Eddy compared the managers to Nazis.

I don’t know enough about the issue to know how this will shake out for the workers involved, but I do know enough about it to decisively say that there is absolutely no way that anyone said anything at that meeting that warrants comparing them to Joseph bloody Goebbels (Postans 2021)

Of course, Councillor Eddy just can’t see anything at all wrong with what he said and tried to imply the fact that there’s now an investigation into him underway after a complaint was lodged after he literally compared people wanting to reallocate workers to a damn Nazi, is not, in fact, anything to do with the fact that he compared people he disagreed with to the chief propagandist of the Nazis. It’s just to do with trying to smear him before local elections (Postans 2021). I dunno, Eddy. Maybe if you didn’t compare people to Nazis for proposing some workers be shifted around then you wouldn’t have to worry about the potential impact it might have on your career when other people bring up the things you willingly said with your own face. But hey, you probably don’t need to worry much anyway. After all, you used a damn Gollywog as your campaign mascot and you seem to have survived being a giant racist just fine.

Across the rest of the City Council reaction to the statue being torn down was divided along party lines. Tory councillors were upset about it, Labour thought those councillors were ‘out of touch’ (Cameron 2020a). The leader of the Conservative group in the City Council, Councillor Mark Weston, said: “I do not believe that anyone has the right to deface or destroy public property, no matter how warranted they believe their actions or motivation to be.” (Cameron 2020a). Which, presumably, was news to his colleague, Mr. Eddy. Weston also called the protestors a “violent mob”, and the felling of the statue a “wanton act of criminal damage”, for which he believed those involved should be prosecuted (Cameron 2020a).

Another Tory councillor, Steve Smith, stated in a tweet that ‘there’s a real debate to be had about how we recognise and learn from our history’, but “violent mobs” can’t be the answer (Cameron 2020a). If only anyone had tried to have a debate about it before. If only people had been trying to discuss if for literally years. If. Only.

Senior Tory politicians around the country, such as the Home Secretary Priti Patel, also expressed strong disapproval of the events, and called the action of tearing down a monument glorifying a slave trader’ “utterly disgraceful” (Gogarty 2020). Actions she didn’t declare “utterly disgraceful” include having a statue of a slave trader, and refusing to add a plaque to acknowledge that the slave trader was, in fact, a slave trader. Instead, she trotted out the same old line that comes out every time anyone engages in a form of protest that other people disapprove of: the old lie that you shouldn’t do things like that because you’re hurting the cause you say you care about (Gogarty 2020). Which, to be clear, is saying that people who are oppressed should only protest their oppression in ways in which their oppressors approve of, and kind of very much ignores that the type of peaceful protests Patel thinks protestors should use were precisely the ones that protestors had been using for years, and which got them absolutely nowhere because it just so happens that those forms of protest are very easy for people like Patel to ignore.

Senior Labour politicians, such as Kier Starmer, the party leader, said that the statue shouldn’t have been up, but it was still wrong to pull it down (Buchan 2020). Because, once again, it should have been done democratically. To be fair, he did do an awful lot more than his Tory colleagues to acknowledge who Colston was and that the statue shouldn’t have still been there. To be even fairer, that’s a bar so low you’d have to dig a hole to find it before you could even trip over it.

And look, they’re public figures with reputations to consider and all that malarkey, so I can understand that they might not have the guts to make a principled stand about the matter and say that they don’t really have a problem with people removing a statue of a slave trader. Which makes the most interesting response, from my point of view, that of the Shadow justice secretary, David Lammy. He too, said that it should have been removed democratically, and that he didn’t condone violence, but then… he also said this:

"We have a tradition in our country of protest. We have had great men and women, like Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes who have faced imprisonment because of their protest.

I'm quite sure that those young people who brought that statue down knew that they would be facing the law but that was a price they were willing to pay and there are many examples throughout history, from Martin Luther King to Harvey Milk, who protested on behalf of gay rights.

Many, many men and women [are] following these people and [are] prepared to break the law because they believed the issue of justice they wanted to shine a light on was a bigger project.” (ITV Good Morning Britain Interview, quoted in Buchan 2020).

Which seems rather like paying lip service to the ‘shouldn’t break the law’ line, whilst also making it clear which side of history, as it were, that he thinks the protestors were on.

Back in Bristol, in the days after it was toppled, the former Mayor Mr Ferguson – the one who’d given up his position in the Merchant Venturers so he could run for office – weighed in on the matter. Remember, this is the guy who agreed with someone that it was perverse to celebrate Colston Day, but daintily sidestepped responding to the idea that the statue should be removed. He said:

"I now regret us not removing the Colston statue when I was Mayor to place it in Bristol Museum with full historical narrative - even though it would have been flying in the face of majority Bristol opinion." (quoted in Cork 2020b).

Yeah, suddenly, when the world started to hear about it, most people wanted to know why on earth the statue was still there in the first place, and suddenly Ferguson decided he should have done something about it after all. 2020: the year of hindsight. Of course, his statement is caveated by pointing out that he would have been “flying in the face of majority Bristol opinion”. And whilst it’s certainly true that informal polls gave the ‘statue remainers’ group a lead – 66% in one poll by the Bristol Post, I think it’s important to point out that neither Ferguson, nor anyone else in a position to do so, actually bothered to hold a public consultation about the statue. His estimation of public opinion was, one presumes, based on that poll conducted by the Bristol Post. The one that 1,100ish people responded to.

The current Mayor, Marvin Rees, said that:

“I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. However it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity and make the legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality.” (quoted in Grimshaw 2020a)

He also said, regarding the future of the suddenly empty plinth, that:

"The future of the plinth and what is installed on it must be decided by the people of Bristol. This will be critical to building a city that is home to those who are elated at the statue being pulled down, those who sympathise with its removal but are dismayed at how it happened and those who feel that in its removal, they’ve lost a piece of the Bristol they know and therefore themselves. (quoted in Brock 2020a). Which, y’know. Is a fairly reasonable statement, when you’re the mayor of a city and need to try and represent everyone, but still want to point out that the statue was incredibly offensive.

What else has happened? Let’s hop back to the 11th of June – 4 days after Colston’s statue was dumped in the Harbour. At 5.00 AM the statue was retrieved by the City Council. It was taken to a secure location until it could be worked into the Museum’s collection in an appropriate way (King 2020b). So… Where the people who objected to having a racist statue in the centre of the city suggested it should be moved to. Some people would definitely have preferred it had the statue stayed at the bottom of the harbour, but I can see why the Council figured they had to remove it. Apart from the fact that it is a working harbour, and not particularly deep at that point, a small group of men in swimming shorts and socks had already tried to retrieve the statue the very next day. They seemed to think they might be able to get it up by… poking it with a long pole? (King 2020b). It wasn’t a particularly… well-planned effort.

There was also a racist backlash, of course. Because pulling down racist statues tends to upset racists.

On the 13-14th of June - the weekend after the Black Lives Matter protest, white nationalists came out around Britain to hold their own… protests? To… protect statues… which were already being protected by the police, against protestors who weren’t there. In order to… protest themselves against… people opposing racism? And then got into fights with the police who were protecting the statues that they wanted to protect (Brazell 2020). Look, trying to protest an anti-racism movement without just outright saying you’re pro-racism is difficult, okay?

Apparently they were there to “protect” the Cenotaph – a monument to those killed during the First World War. It’s not clear who they thought they were protecting it from, since literally no one had said anything about the Cenotaph, but they decided they needed to carry around signs saying ‘all lives matter’ and ‘we are not far right’. Which, like. Hm. They can say that all they like, but they’re literally there counter-protesting the concept that the lives of black people are important. And in London, there were demonstrators chanting support slogans for Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a neo-fascist white nationalist who co-founded the far right, racist ‘English Defence League’. So sure, dude. Have your little placard saying you’re not ‘far right’. But your actions say otherwise.

And these wonderful defenders of… statues that weren’t threatened showed how much they really truly cared about protecting history or whatever, by… pissing on things. Including, in London, someone who urinated literally centimetres to the side of a memorial erected to the memory of Keith Palmer, a police officer who died during a terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge in 2017. That man was identified as Andrew Banks, who claimed he was in London to help “protect statues” but didn’t know which exact statues he was there to help protect (Shaw 2020). He also didn’t notice the memorial and wasn’t aware of its significance (Bowcott 2020). And in Bristol multiple demonstrators were photographed urinating on the walls of the courtyard of Saint Stephen’s Church, a Grade-1 listed building built in the 14th century (Brock 2020b). So we can all really move past this idea that these people think they’re protecting history.

In Bristol there was further retaliation after the toppling of Colston. On the night of the 16th of June the two gravestones marking the final resting place of an enslaved 18 year old young man known as Scipio Africanus were smashed. The attacker made it very clear that this was retaliatory, because whoever they were, they scrawled a delightful message on some flagstones nearby, which read: “Now look at what you made me do. Stop protesting. Leave Elliott’s grave alone. Put Colston’s statue back or things will really heat up.” (Cameron 2020b)

Let’s just take a moment to respond with the appropriate level of derision to that ‘now look at what you made me do’. Because there’s a racist trying to blame other people for making them commit a racist act. That’s someone using the same words that have spewed out of the mouths of abusers and thugs for centuries. That’s someone who likes to make other people afraid.

That reference to ‘Elliott’s grave’ was a reference to a grave over in East Sussex roughly 150 miles away. There was a music hall star by the name of G.H. Elliott whose act was a delightful blackface routine, and whose stage name I’m not going to repeat because it includes a racial slur. His gravestone, and the gravestone next to it, that of Alice Banford, a dancer in his show, both use that racial slur on their headstones. So yeah. Gravestone with a racial slur on it. Nice.

So let’s talk about this gravestone for a sec. When I was writing this episode back in 2020, all I could have told you want that the church in whose graveyard the headstones were situated, St. Margaret in Rottingdean, had temporarily covered up the two stones with the racial slur on them, whilst the Reverend and Parish Council tried to find the next of kin and figure out what they could do (Churchman 2020). On the 15th of June a petition was made to the Consistory Court of the Diocese to have the headstones placed somewhere safe whilst they figured out what to do with them. The petition was granted, and they had until the 15th of December to figure out what to do about the situation ([2020] ECC Chi 4).

Obviously we are now passed that deadline, and a document containing the judgement in the case was published on the 1st of February 2021. It also has a lot more details of the whole affair. It turns out that the first time someone had complained about the headstone was back in 2019. They had emailed the church to comment on the gravestone. Here’s part of that email:

I grew up in England in the 70s and 80s at a time when the word [cn] was offensive and was used against people like me with Caribbean heritage. Today it is still offensive. I note the grave dates from 1962 ... and relates to a performer who ‘blacked up’ but that hardly makes the appearance of the word [cn] on the headstone acceptable, especially today. ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.3)

After some dialogue with the emailer, the representatives of the church – the Parochial Church Council – agreed that the emailer would ‘petition the Consistory Court’ to get the racist slur removed. For some reason the PCC didn’t think it could issue the petition itself, which… I get the impression they could have, based on the wording of the judgement, which states ‘for reasons that are not explained, the PCC did not feel it could initiate proceedings by issuing a petition itself…’ ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.3). They agreed with the emailer that the emailer would do it instead. But… In the end no petition was issued because the emailer discovered they would have had to pay a fee to do so. And they didn’t think that was particularly fair. And I agree. Victims of racism shouldn’t have to pay to get a church to deal with the racist headstone on their property ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.3)

Fast forward to the toppling of the Colston statue and the heightened awareness of racist monuments in the country. The Vicar of the church was made aware of the fact that there were posts circulating on social media suggesting something should perhaps forcibly be done about the headstones ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.4). So that’s when the Parish went to the court to get permission to cover the headstones and then remove them to somewhere safe.

And then, of course, as we know, that decision attracted not just local attention, but the attention of at least one unpleasant person in Bristol, who responded to the removal of the stones in order to prevent them being damaged by vandalising the gravestones of Scipio Africanus in Bristol. And it also attracted the attention of others. Here’s the description from the judgement itself:

The temporary removal of the headstones attracted local press coverage critical of the church for yielding to pressure from the politically correct and supporting a ‘cancel culture’. On 20 June 2020, the Pie and Mash Squad, a far right group affiliated to the English Defence League, targeted the church exterior with stickers bearing union flags and images of men in black balaclavas pointing guns. The vicar was subjected to abusive emails and telephone calls over several weeks. The majority of the views expressed were critical of the church for removing the headstones. ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.4).

Yeah. That’s the same English Defence League I just mentioned a few minutes ago. The one co-founded by Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a neo-fascist white nationalist. So these are not exactly the best people humanity has to offer, here.

What the Church decided to do in the end was to recut the inscriptions on the two headstones to replace the racial-slur-stage-name with the phrase ‘Music Hall Artiste’. They’d managed to track down the surviving heirs of G. H. Elliott and Alice Banford, and they all agreed to this change ([2021] ECC Chi 1, p.9). Imagine getting threatened by white nationalists because you want your Christian graveyard to reflect your Christian values of being inclusive. Wild.

As for Scipio Africanus’ grave: as far as I can tell, the racist vandal was never caught. But a funding effort set up after the attack, which aimed to raise £1000 to help restore the stones, raised, in total, £6,180. The restored gravestones were placed back in their original positions in the Churchyard of St Mary's Henbury on 25th May 2021.

From that slightly happier note to a far worse note, to really hammer home the point that tearing the statue down didn’t magically make racism in Bristol disappear, on the 22nd of July a young black man was struck and rammed into a wall by a dark blue Honda Accord, at around 4.30 pm, whilst he was walking between two areas of Bristol known as Southmead and Horfield (Cork 2020d). But this wasn’t just a hit-and-run. It was deliberate. Some people – at least two – saw fit to deliberately drive their car into a young black man and shouted racist abuse as they fled the scene (2020e).

The young man, an NHS worker, choosing to be referred to only as K, or Kdogg, the name he uses for music performances, survived the attempted murder. He was left with a broken leg and injuries to his face that the Bristol Post described as ‘horrific’ (2020f), including a broken nose and cheekbone and lacerations so bad that the doctors wouldn’t show him the extent of his facial injuries, and he only saw the injuries fully when he got home. There was grit and glass that the doctors were initially unable to remove. In an interview with the Bristol Post he told reporters that the doctors had told him that were he not so fit, he would have died at the scene. There are photos of his injuries in the Bristol Post articles, and yeah, they’re horrific.

Kdogg also told reporters of the mental trauma caused by the attack, and the impact it’s had on his family and friends:

"Obviously mentally as well, I'm traumatised. I don't even know if it might happen again. No-one has been arrested yet so the suspects are still at large. For my family, for them going to the shop and so on, they probably have started to feel like it's not safe for them. Even some of my mates now, they're kind of watching themselves every time they are on the road. They're always looking around. In your life, it shouldn't be having to look over your shoulder all the time and just not feel safe. It's definitely affected me and my family and people around me in different ways. Even let's say I recover, I don't feel like I'm safe anymore to do anything." (quoted in Cork & Hayhurst 2020)

Friends set up a fundraiser aiming to try and raise £5,000 for Kdogg. Two days in the total donated was already twice that much. By the time the campaign ended, it had raised £58,330.

On August 1st two 18-year-old boys were arrested on charges of attempted murder (King 2020c). Another man – 22 years old – was detained the following day and released under investigation (Farell Roig 2020a) They arrested another man, aged 23, the day after that. But on the 4th of August police announced that all four had been released ‘under investigation’ (Cork 2020g). Which means that they’re suspects, but there’s not enough evidence or sufficient grounds to charge them. On the 16th of September the police renewed their appeal for witnesses and released new images to help with their investigation. As of yet there have still been no charges made in the case.

Let’s circle back to our statue. What happened to those who pulled it down? Police began an investigation into the toppling of the statue after a formal complaint from the Bristol City Council (Cork 2020h). By the 8th of June – the day after the protest – police said they had identified 17 potential suspects (King 2020a)

By the 22nd of June police had launched an appeal for help in finding 18 people they wanted to speak to in relation to the toppling of the statue, and issued photos of 15 of those people. The Bristol Post declined to help the police investigation and refused to publish those the photos (Mayhew 2020). Kudos to them.

By the 1st of October police had managed to identify 9 - or 10 - of the 18 people they wanted. Five - or six (the number changes between different articles) of them were fined for causing criminal damage to the statue and accepted what’s called a ‘conditional caution’ (Cork 2020h, Farell Roig 2020b). In a condition caution you’re offered the chance to admit to the offence, and also given some conditions. If you fulfil those conditions within an agreed timescale, then the case ends there, you don’t go to court, you don’t get charged with a crime, and you don’t get prosecuted. So you can still genuinely say ‘no’ if, say, a job application form asks whether you have any criminal convictions or not. But if you were applying for a job that, for example, required you to work with children or vulnerable adults, then you’d have to do a DBS check, and it would show up on that check. For a few years. The caution will always be recorded somewhere, but after 6 years it won’t automatically appear on a DBS check… unless it’s for an offence on the ‘serious offence’ list. And that list does not include ‘pushing a statue of a slave trader that should have been removed years ago into the nearby harbour’.

And I have to say… despite not agreeing that they should be charged at all, I can sort of see why giving conditional cautions might help to ease community tensions – those who thought the statue shouldn’t be removed would probably be outraged if there were no consequences at all. But when you look at the actual conditions applied to these specific cautions… well. They had to pay a £100 fine, which is the maximum fine that they could be given based on the offence admitted to. And that money was sent to a local charity called Nilaari, which describes itself as:

We are a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic led registered charity with over 20 years experience delivering social care support, talking therapies and training to adults and young people across Bristol. We help to deal with (re)offending behaviour, mental health and problematic substance use. We use our understanding and experience to advocate for equality and social justice in key strategic policy forums. (Nilaari website)

Regardless of how one feels about Colston, it’s preeetty hard to object to money being given to such a charity. And to be honest, if they’d set up an event where you could donate £100 to charity and be allowed to help drag the statue into the harbour, they’d have probably found a lot of people happy to pay up.

Those accepting the caution also had to put in two hours of “environmental improvement works” supervised by the City Council. That can include litter-picking, removing graffiti, or something like that. Oh, and they also had to complete a questionnaire for a commission set up by the City Council, in which they could explain the reason for doing what they did and give other “concerns and thoughts going forward”, whatever that means (Cork 2020h). The Commission, titled the ‘We Are Bristol History Commission’ is kind of… vague. It’s aim is to… look at Bristol’s history. And then… do something, to help people learn about the history? Somehow? Not exactly clear what’s it’s going to do. Make recommendations maybe?

Anyway.

The files of the remaining four people the police identified were forwarded to the Crown Prosecution Service to make the decision on whether they should be prosecuted or not (Cork 2020h), who of course decided that it was in the public interest to charge them with criminal damage (Grimshaw 2020c).

Their first court hearing was on the 25th of January, and there was visible support in the city for the four defendants, who pleaded not guilty. Police tried to curtail a planned demonstration outside the courthouse by supporters of the Colston Four, citing corona virus lockdown laws. Some people still turned up which resulted in the police arresting four of them (Cork & Farell Roig 2021). The police pretended that the four had been warned that they needed to move on, and then had arrested them when they hadn’t. Which turned out to be a giant pack of lies. They didn’t give those people chance to leave the area after being warned that they shouldn’t be there. They just immediately arrested them. Which was totally absolutely just an honest mistake of the cops misunderstanding the covid lockdown laws. The police ended up having to apologise and pay out compensation to four they arrested (Cork 2021a).

The Colston Four appeared in court again in March this year and renewed their ‘not guilty’ pleas. Their trial has been set to begin on December 13th this year. There’s currently a fundraiser on GoFundMe to help cover the legal fees of the defendants. I’ll put a link in the show notes to it.

And to bring it once again back to that statue and that plinth… what is happening with that empty plinth? On the 15th of July – just over four weeks after the statue of Colston was removed – a new statue appeared on the plinth. It was a statue of a black woman, raising her first in a black power salute. The woman in question was protestor Jen Reid, who had actually climbed the plinth the day the statue was torn down and struck that very pose (Bland 2020). It was made by artist Marc Quinn and installed by his team in the early morning. Mayor Marvin Rees’s response to the statue was to point out that Quinn is a London-based artist with no ties to Bristol. He said that the future of the plinth must be decided by the people of Bristol. Which: fair point, I think. Buuuut, Jen Reid is from Bristol. And given how reluctant the Council were to ever have to confront the statue of Colston, the fact that they managed to remove a statue of a black woman from the same plinth only a day after it’s installation is… y’know.

Quinn paid the costs for the statue’s removal, but I’m not actually sure where it is right now. The council removed it and said they would keep it for Quinn to decide what to do with – either he could come pick it up, or donate it to the museum’s collection. There’s an effort to try and get Jen Reid’s statue back on the plinth for a period of two years, but a final decision hasn’t been made yet (Cameron 2021).

Finally, let’s talk about what’s happened to the statue a year later. They said they were going to put it in a museum. Have they?

Yes. Work began on the exhibit display arrangements in April, and on the 4th of June a local museum called the M-Shed opened its doors (carefully, because… Covid) to the public. The statue will be on display there until the 5th of September. It’s being displayed lying down, as it appeared after it was pulled from its plinth – still splashed with red paint. Around it are BLM protest signs from the day of the protest that were placed around the plinth. There’s an online version of the display that you can see. I’ll include a link in the show notes to that, too.

Of course, some people are upset by the museum display. There’s a campaign called ‘Save our Statues’ who want to… “save our country’s illustrious cultural heritage” (Cork 2021b). And I can only assume they don’t know that “illustrious” means, because otherwise they’re simply making a claim that a slave-trader should be respected and admired, as should the whole history of rich merchants mythologising him in order to maintain their own non-democratic power in the city. And that would be a really weird thing to say.

Anyway, this campaign encouraged people to reserve the slots for the exhibition and then not turn up, thus stopping the people who wanted to see the exhibit from going (Cork 2021b). Because… the best way… to make sure history doesn’t get erased… is by stopping people going to museums. Once again: This was never about trying to preserve history. Joke’s on them, I guess, because the museum is operating a traffic-light system. So if people who booked slots don’t turn up then anyone turning up will be able to enter.

So that’s where things stand – or lie, in the case of Colston’s statue – a year on. People are still trying to deal with how the city as a whole feels about Colston.

Just over a year ago, on the 16th of June 2020 Bristol Post published an excellent piece by Dr Joanna Burch-Brown, a member of the Countering Colston group since it began. She writes about the kind of conversations she’s had with people who have opposed the attempts to change the names of buildings, remove statues, or add plaques. About how ‘innocent parts of people’s identities get caught in the crossfire of politics’.

She gives an example of an exchange she had with a lady who was a former student of Colston’s Girls’ School:

She was about 80, and she told me how in her childhood she had longed to go to Colston Girls’ School. It was her passionate dream, and in the end she managed it. Being a Colston’s Girl had meant so much to her all her life. (Burch-Brown 2020)

When this lady was young, the name of Colston wasn’t that of a slave-trader, or even of a philanthropist. It was the name of a school she aspired to attend. She was proud to get into that school, and it’s at that school she would have been taught the sanitised history of Colston. It’s not her fault that the school she wanted to attend was named after a slave trader. It’s not her fault that the school didn’t teach a nuanced version of Colston, and it’s not the school’s fault that they didn’t know to teach that the myth of Colston had been constructed by the Society of Merchant Venturers and the various Colston groups. Because this is literally what those societies were aiming for. This was their plan. This is its legacy. This is exactly what the building and road names and statues were supposed to achieve. They were propaganda.

This woman’s very reasonable pride in her academic accomplishments is interwoven with the experience and memories of attending that school. That school, which celebrated Colston Day and taught a sanitised version of Colston’s life, is part of the network of ideas related to an event in her life of which she is proud.

To criticise Colston by saying Colston’s day isn’t something that should be celebrated anymore feels like a personal attack on her for having attended Colston day events at her school in the past. In a sense, it’s someone telling her that a memory she is fond of is a racist display. That she was involved in a racist event. Any reasonable person would be horrified to think they had joined in something that was racist, and thus the criticism of Colston’s Day as a celebration of the whitewashed history of Colston becomes a criticism of her for having been unwittingly involved in them.

Dr Burch-Brown describes questions and fears that this lady expressed to her:

When we started talking she was trembling with distress. Why were we picking on Colston? He was a man of his time, and there were much worse people who took the money and did no good with it. Slavery was legal back then. Africans sold fellow Africans, so why are we picking on Bristolians? Bristolians were exploited too. Are we supposed to just feel guilty all the time? We can’t change the past. Why not focus instead on modern slavery? (Burch-Brown 2020)

That question about whether ‘we’ are supposed to feel guilty all the time is really important, I think. From reading comments and talking to people, there’s this pervasive idea among white people that someone is demanding that they be personally ashamed of the past, that they feel bad for the sins of their forebears. But no one is. But I guess if you’ve grown up feeling proud of something, someone suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t be proud of it feels like a suggestion that we should be ashamed of it. The history is shameful, but no one’s suggesting anyone should be ashamed of events that happened before we were born. The request is that we acknowledge the legacy of events in the past that still impacts communities today, and that we help dismantle mechanisms in society that uphold oppression.

And it's not an unreasonable request.

That’s it for this episode. 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. There will be an episode next week, because I’ve already written it. Not sure whether I’ll be aiming at every week or every other week after that. Research and I are currently not on speaking terms with accurately estimating how long something will take.

If you have questions, comments, corrections, feedback, want to suggest a topic, etc. You can find the podcast on twitter: @poisonroompod
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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’s back, hopefully.




Bibliography

Nilaari Charity Website 'About Us'

Countering Colston Statement

— (2020) Statement by the Society of Merchant Venturers, 12 June.

—— (2020) ECC Chi 4 ’In the matter of St Margaret's Rottingdean’

—— (2021) ECC Chi 1 - ’In the matter of St Margaret, Rottingdean (No. 2)’

Bland, A. (2020) ‘Edward Colston statue replaced by sculpture of Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid’, The Guardian, 15 July.

Bowcott, O. (2020) ‘Man given 14-day jail term for urinating near PC Keith Palmer plaque’, The Guardian, 15 June.

Brazell, E. (2020) ‘Far-right protesters in violent clashes with police at London demonstration’ Metro, 13 June.

Brock, A. (2020a) ‘Mayor reacts to statue of Black Lives Matter protester on Edward Colston plinth’ Bristol Post 8 July.

—— (2020b) ‘Cenotaph protesters accused of urinating against site of historic church’, Bristol Post, 16 June.

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Burch-Brown, J. (2020) ‘It was right for Colston statue to fall but let’s embrace friendship across our differences’, Bristol Post, 16 June.

Cameron, A. (2020a) ‘“A wanton act of criminal damage” - Tories react to Edward Colston statue toppling’, Bristol Post, 8 June

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Cork, T. (2020a) ‘Edward Colston was “a hero” for Bristol says outraged Tory councillor’, Bristol Post, 9 June.

—— (2020b) ‘How the City Failed to Remove Edward Colston’s Statue for Years, Bristol Post, 10 June.

—— (2020c) D ‘Society of Merchant Venturers “not fit” to run Bristol schools says former headteacher’, Bristol Post, 13 July.

—— (2020d) ‘Pedestrian injured in hit and run crash near Southmead Hospital’, Bristol Post 22 July.

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—— (2020f) ‘Bristol deluges fundraised for NHS worker left scarred by racist attack’, Bristol Post, 30 July.

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Cork, T. & Farell Roig, E. (2021) ‘'Colston 4' deny criminal damage of statue’, Bristol Post, 25 January.

Cork, T. & Hayhurst, C. (2020) ‘Victim of racist hit-and-run attack in Bristol “left traumatised and scarred for life”’, Bristol Post, 31 July.

Farell Roig, E. (2020a) ‘Third man arrested for “attempted murder” after racially-aggravated attack on NHS worker’, Bristol Post, 3 August.

—— (2020b) ‘Police end Edward Colston statue investigation - CPS to decide on charges’, Bristol Post, 18 September.

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—— (2020b) Group of men try to get Edward Colston's statue out of Bristol Harbour with a pole’, Bristol Post 9 June.

Grimshaw, E. (2020a) ‘Mayor Marvin Rees issues statement on the Black Lives Matter protest and the toppling of Colston's statue’, Bristol Post 7 June.

—— (2020b) ‘Pictures show damage to car used to try to kill NHS worker in racially-aggravated attempted murder’, Bristol Post 16 September.

—— (2020c) ‘Edward Colston statue: Four suspects who will appear in court named’, Bristol Post, 9 December.

King, J. (2020a) ‘Police identify 17 suspects responsible for tearing down Edward Colston statue’, Bristol Post 8 June.

—— (2020b) ‘BREAKING: Edward Colston statue retrieved from Bristol Harbour’ Bristol Post 11 June.

—— (2020c) ‘Two arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after racially-aggravated attack on NHS worker’ Bristol Post, 1 August.

Mayhew, F. (2020) ‘Bristol Post editor refuses to publish images of people wanted over Edward Colston statue damage Press Gazette 22 June.

Postans, A. (2021) ’Two Bristol city councillors under investigation after comparing officers to “Nazis”’ Bristol Post 15 April.

Shaw, N. (2020) ‘Man jailed for 14 days for urinating on Pc Palmer memorial’, Bristol Post, 15 June.