Until this Sunday two statues stood in Bristol’s historic Centre. Both statues were cast at the end of the nineteenth century, both of single-term MPs for the city: you might be forgiven for wondering what it was about the 1890s that had made Bristol so nostalgic for men it hadn’t wanted to re-elect. Growing up in Bristol, I was always more of an Edmund Burke girl. Not out of any knowledge of, or affection for, the old statesman but because his pose, captured in mid-oratory, was more welcoming to the Saturday-night traffic cone, his raised hand inviting the yo-yo that was placed there on at least one occasion.
Edward Colston was a more introspective figure, leaning on a cane in thought, and he was less often subjected to the affectionate vandalism that indicates that a statue has won a place in the hearts of the people.
Not that there was any doubt as to the significance of Colston in Bristol. Burke and Colston’s statues were both parked on a traffic island opposite Colston Avenue. On the other side of the street, and behind the 15-storey Colston Tower, Colston Road (one of two in the city) winds past the Colston Hall, a music venue built on the site of one of the three schools that were named after Colston. And before that there was a sugar refinery on the site, in which Edward Colston’s company refined sugar bought with the profits of human traffic.
The boys’ school moved out to Stapleton in the 1860s, which is when Bristol experienced its flurry of enthusiasm for Colston, one of “the most virtuous and wise sons of the city”, as the inscription on his statue would have it. This meant that my own state comprehensive, which teachers told us was the most racially diverse in the country, was the closest state alternative to the fee-paying boys’ school. Years later, at a wedding reception in one of the London livery clubs, I found myself seated awkwardly next to a barrister, who, it turned out, I had been paired with because he had attended that school. Less than a mile and a world separated us but, he told me, many of his schoolmates’ sisters had been sent to my school. I didn’t believe him at the time. Fees for a single boy at Colston’s School today far exceed half the average salary in the UK. Teachers in our school told us they received a premium because of the challenges of teaching there. Surely, I thought, there is no family that would choose to invest that much in a male child whilst paying nothing for their girls. He must have mistaken the school. I’m not so sure now. Other former Colston’s Boys have told me the same thing.
The Frome, into which the statue was pushed on Sunday afternoon, runs underneath Colston Avenue, having been covered over at the end of the nineteenth century after the former quays of the city had become an open sewer. It would be tempting to see a metaphor here for the filth that Bristol overlooked but which always ran through the wealth of the city, but it would be wrong to pretend that we didn’t know it was there. Our city was built on sugar and tobacco and we knew the misery that had bought those products for England. It would be wrong, too, to see Colston as a penitent, who attempted to buy his way into heaven with his philanthropy as a means of atoning for his sins on earth. Much of Bristol’s enthusiasm for Colston is a late nineteenth-century imperial creation paid for not out of Colston’s pocket but out of those of the patrician classes of that time. This was true of the statue of Colston, and that of Burke, and of the immense window commemorating Colston in the Cathedral. At the time cities were looking for figures to justify civic pride, and Colston, who lived in London most of his life and endowed schools there too, seemed a suitable candidate.
In real life, Edward Colston was a harder man to admire. His uncompromising attitudes to education brought him into conflict with the city authorities, who refused to endow an existing school with his money, since he attached the condition that his money should be used to educate Anglican boys only. When Colston’s School was finally established, boys who were found to have attended a Dissenter service were to be expelled. This looks less like the philanthropy of a man who wanted to atone for his past and more like the act of a sectarian who wanted to use his money to advance his cause. This detail too tells us that Colston was not a harmless rich benefactor who lived by the standards of his time: his stance caused difficulty in the eighteenth century too. Indeed, Colston’s whole style of post-mortem philanthropy was regarded as suspect and selfish at a time when the wealthy were being encouraged to give during their lifetime and not simply promise money that they wouldn’t be able to use.
It is not as if Bristol woke up on the morning of Sunday 7th June and discovered that Colston was a slave trader. Numerous art installations focussed on the statue have made the point in recent years, including one set up on 18 October 2018, anti-slavery day (see the lead photograph above), taking the shape of a hull in a slave ship and identifying modern forms of servitude.
On other occasions the statue has been attached to a ball and chain, of the sort that an enslaved African would have worn. Nor would it be true to say that there was no attempt to contextualize the statue short of tipping it into the river. Two years ago, the Society of Merchant Venturers objected to the wording of a corrective plaque, expunging the proposed mention of the political affiliation of Colston (Tory) and the fact that he had defended Bristol’s “right” to trade in enslaved Africans. The expurgated plaque was unacceptable to the council and nothing was put up.
If we cannot agree on how to talk about our statues, is the heart of the city the right place for them? The dispatch of Colston into the river has taught more people about Bristol’s relationship with slavery, patrician patronage and class than the statue ever taught leaning on its cane. I like to think that Edmund Burke’s gesture could be seen as a cheery wave to his former companion. Burke too was slung out of Bristol — electorally — after championing trade with Ireland to Bristol’s detriment, on the grounds that it was the right thing to do, although it was not popular with his constituents. His fate, like that of Colston’s statue, shows that politicians are amongst us only until we choose to remove them. The relocation of Colston has prompted other cities to look at their statues. Already a statue of Scottish slave trader Robert Milligan has been removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands. Statues of Leopold II, King of the Belgians and genocidal enslaver of millions, have once more been covered in red paint across his former European kingdom. Colston’s motto, like that of the schools he founded, is Go and do thou likewise. Perhaps, at last, we’re learning the lesson.
Catherine Emerson grew up in Bristol and studied French and History in Oxford and then in Hull. She lectures in French at the National University of Ireland in Galway, where she lives. She is the author of Regarding Manneken Pis: Culture, Celebration and Conflict in Brussels, which examines the way citizens of one city have used a 60cm-high statue over more than 500 years.