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Edward Colston Statue in Bristol City Centre Has Been Toppled   Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

Edward Colston Statue Sunk in Bristol Harbor

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A historic but very controversial statue has been toppled in Bristol, England. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors pulled down a statue of a figure who was prominent in the development of the Atlantic slave trade. This action has divided opinion in the city and country.

Since the death of George Floyd on the 25 th of May in the USA, the world has witnessed a wave of protests calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequality. In Bristol, BLM protestors focused their anger on the statue of Edward Colston. Footage on social media show protestors pushing the statue of Colston off its plinth, spraying it with paint, and rolling in into Bristol Harbor.  As it was pushed into the water, a large crowd cheered.

No Intervention by Police

The statue dates from the 19 th century and is listed as a grade II monument and technically its toppling is a criminal offence. The local Somerset and Avon Police did not intervene when the protestors pushed the monument down. A police spokesperson told The Guardian that they, “Made a very tactical decision - to stop people from doing the act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do, in terms of our policing tactics.”

Erected in 1895, on 7 June 2020 the statue was defaced, toppled and thrown into Bristol harbor during the George Floyd protests. (William Avery / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Erected in 1895, on 7 June 2020 the statue was defaced, toppled and thrown into Bristol harbor during the George Floyd protests. (William Avery / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The tearing down of the monument is controversial. Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary is quoted by The Guardian for stating, “I think that is utterly disgraceful and that speaks to the acts of public disorder that have now become a distraction from the cause in which people are protesting about.”

However, many believe the removal of the statue from the plinth is a historic moment and is important in changing society. Sir Keir Stammer leader of the main opposition party in Britain stated, “You can't, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue,” according to The Telegraph .

Previously, campaigners had gathered a petition of 11,000 signatures as part of an effort to have the statue removed. The local council had concealed the monument beneath black trash liners because it was aware that the statue of Colston caused grave offence to many, especially among the Black community. Many people in the city believe that it should have been taken down and put in a museum many years ago.

Bristol Philanthropist and Slaver

The statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) has stood for over 120 years and it was erected to honor a man who was believed to have greatly contributed to the city. He was one of the leading entrepreneurs of the early 18 th century and he played a crucial role in the city’s emergence as a major trading center in the British Empire . Colston served as a Tory Member of Parliament. Colston was very generous and endowed many charitable foundations, many of which are still active to this day. The statue was erected in recognition of his charitable work.

However, Colston made an unknown percentage of his wealth out of the slave trade . He became a merchant and joined the Royal African Company , a corporation that was very important in the slave trade. During his time with the company, he was instrumental in the transportation of tens of thousands of West Africans to the West Indies . They were often kidnapped and branded by their captors. During the journey to the West Indies many died of disease and ill-treatment and those who did survive had to endure terrible conditions on plantations, where they were often subjected to all manner of degradations and violence.

Interior of a Slave Ship (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Interior of a Slave Ship ( Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Controversial Monuments

While no one is denying that Colston gave generously to the city and especially its poor, many protestors believe that it is wrong to commemorate someone who was a slaver. This is perhaps especially true for a multicultural city such as Bristol. John McAlister, one of the protestors, told The Independent , “The man was a slave trader. He was generous to Bristol, but it was off the back of slavery and it’s absolutely despicable.”

Since the emergence of the BLM movement, historical monuments have become controversial. Many American protestors have torn down or campaigned successfully for statues of Confederate leaders to be removed. They are seen as symbols of a racist past and white privilege. In Britain, there is an ongoing campaign to remove the monuments of those who were prominent in the slave trade and colonialism. There is a movement to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, whom many condemn as a racist and for his role in the colonization of Africa.

Top image: Edward Colston Statue in Bristol City Centre Has Been Toppled   Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ed Whelan

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