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Bristol’s Reckoning with its “Most Wise and Virtuous Son”

Edward Valentine | Lancaster University

Figure 1: The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, (7th June, 2020).

The City of Bristol held its first widescale Black Lives Matter protest on the 7th June 2020. Approximately 5,000 protestors marched from Bristol’s College Green, down Park Street, to the docks. It was here in Bristol’s dockyard where, in 1497, John Cabot’s ship The Matthew set sail to North America, an act which kickstarted the European colonisation of the continent. A replica of that ship now sits by the M-Shed Museum, inaugurated as part of the 1996 ‘Festival of the Sea’ in Bristol. That festival, unfazed by the fraught and hollowed stories these currents told, uncritically celebrated Bristol’s heyday in the Georgian era when it was one of the big three British slaving cities (alongside London and Liverpool) and popular among merchant slavers who would dock here at the start or end leg of their Trans-Atlantic slaving route.


It was in this city that Edward Colston, philanthropist and slave trader, lived and in these waters that his statue was subsequently dumped on the 7th June 2020.

In the days following 7th June, Colston’s statue was quietly fished from the docks by the Council. It is currently being restored to be exhibited at a local museum, and Bristol is now a case study of how the British colonial cityscape can be contested and reformed; understanding how it reacts during this period of change seems of national significance. But how did we get to this point?


Colston’s relationship to Bristol


Edward Colston (1636-1721) was the son of William Colston, an initial investor in the Royal African Company (RAC), which held a parliamentary monopoly for trading in slaves. In 1680, Edward joined the RAC as an assistant and was tasked with making decisions about shipping and cargo logistics. Following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, King William III made Colston Deputy-Governor of the RAC, the highest de facto position in the RAC (the title of ‘Governor’ belonged to the King). From 1689 until 1691, the RAC traded 84,000 slaves, taken from the West African Coast and transported to the Americas. Records of Colston’s estate (revealed upon his death) show his wealth grew by £90,000 in this period. He left his post in 1691 and began lending money to merchants, before becoming MP for Wells (1708 to 1713). During his later years Colston made frequent donations, totalling £71,000, to Bristolian churches, theatres, hospitals, and schools. This continued after his death as his philanthropic endowment was left under the custodianship of the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV), a Georgian mercantile guild who evolved into a charitable organisation in Bristol. He thus went from merchant to banker to MP to philanthropist before his death and burial at All Saints' Church, Bristol in 1721.


The statue to Colston was sculpted by John Cassidy with funding from the SMV and erected in 1895. The plaque on the stone plinth reads:


“ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF BRISTOL AS A MEMORIAL TO ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS AND WISE SONS OF THEIR CITY. A.D. 1895


Colston was memorialised as a philanthropist with his slaving legacy forgotten. At least twenty-five locations in Bristol were named and dedicated to his legacy during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Colston Hall and Colston’s Girls School were perhaps the most prominent, renamed as The Bristol Beacon in July 2020 and Montpellier High School in October 2020 following the removal of the statue. To understand this sudden flurry of change to Bristol’s toponomy, it is important to consider the interventions at Colston’s statue in the last thirty years, the site at which his legacy as ‘slave trader’ or ‘philanthropist’ was most ferociously fought.


The first significant public re-evaluation of Colston’s legacy in Bristol was in 1992, when artist Carole Clarke depicted a replica of Colston’s statue being hung by the neck with a rope made of his favourite flower, chrysanthemums. The installation was part of a ‘Trophies of Empire’ exhibit at the Arnolfini, a prominent local art gallery. Explaining her artwork in 1994, Clarke said, ‘I was rejecting the collective Western amnesia which denies the sources of wealth which built trophies of Empire’. Every 13th of November, pupils at Colston Girls School celebrate his memory on ‘Commemoration Day’ at Bristol Cathedral where they all wore a bronze chrysanthemum lapel (this practice has stopped since the statue was torn down). In choosing the chrysanthemum, Clarke was symbolically suggesting that Colston should be hung by his own legacy.


As well as artists, politicians in Bristol during the late 1990s began questioning Colston’s uncritically celebrated legacy. His statue was turned into a symbolic space in the memorial heritage of Bristol where a contest over the city’s identity was held. In early 1998, Councillor Ray Sefia proposed ‘a plaque on his statue that explicitly says that Colston was a slave trader’. Sefia’s proposal was ignored. Partially in response to the lack of action through the official channels, a tradition of guerrilla memorialisation began at Colston’s statue. In late 1998, the first stone was thrown when ‘Slave Trader’ was graffitied across Colston’s plinth. It was removed the next day. Other acts challenged the purity of his legacy by dousing his statue with white paint. Dismissed as vandalism rather than a meaningful commentary on Colston’s legacy, activists began to adopt more formal guerrilla approaches, such as gluing unofficial corrective plaques to his plinth which explained his role in shipping 84,000 people across the Atlantic as Deputy-Governor of the RAC. These were a more durable form of protest because they were difficult to remove without damaging the plinth.


Consequently, Mayor Rees commissioned an official second plaque in 2018. However, in late 2019, the project was indefinitely delayed. The consultation process to agree on the wording between the SMV and Countering Colston became fraught with contention over what the plaque should include. The process stalled until the 7th of June 2020 when these various guerrilla protests were replaced with coordinated anger. A peaceful protest began with a rope and ended by the waterfront at which Colston’s ships had docked a few centuries earlier. The waves of decolonisation had been crashing at Colston’s plinth since the 1990s, but it was not until 2020 that he was consumed by them.


Reconsidering the heroes of the Empire


The removal of Colston’s statue has provoked a debate as to what should happen to it. Bristol City Council has said the statue will be restored and exhibited in a local museum. As such, curators at either the M-Shed or Bristol Museum will soon be grappling with Bristol’s colonial legacy; how they do this will be of national significance.


Black Lives Matter placards left at the base of Colston’s plinth at the protest were collected by the Council and are now stored by the M-Shed, who hope to use them to form a future exhibit, with or without the statue. Meanwhile, the SMV released an apology for how they acted over the wording of the proposed plaque at Colston’s statue, and even endorsed the renaming of Colston Girls School in October 2020 (of whom they are still custodians). Therefore, on the local level, there are signs of reconciliation between those who wish to highlight Colston’s links to the slave economy and those who previously wanted him to remain depicted as a benevolent philanthropist. The decision to move Colston’s statue to a museum, the flurry of name changes to places named after him, and the apology from the SMV show how the toppling of Colston’s statue has progressed Bristol’s reckoning with its colonial past.


If at the local level in Bristol there has been some progress and reconciliation, we should now consider the national debate regarding how Britain should address its colonial legacy. In October 2020, The Telegraph reported that Johnson had empowered Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP with ‘veto’ power over any council proposal to remove or rename memorials to Empire, concluding that: ‘We are proud of this country’s culture and history and traditions’. Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to museums and galleries to inform them that their funding could be rescinded if they removed imperial statues or artefacts from their exhibits. Arguably, the British Government is demonstrating a reluctance to acknowledge Britain’s involvement in past atrocities because it would mean rethinking British national identity. The result is a jarring discord between national and local discourse. In Bristol, local politicians have accepted the changes to Colston’s legacy. From the Mayor to MPs or even local councillors, the majority have embraced the changes as progress.


This puts the heritage sector in a difficult position, stuck in limbo between local and national directives. Signs of reconciliation on the local level are being undercut by national level warnings that they must 'Retain and Explain', which now is the Government’s express approach to contested heritage. This approach seeks to keep the statues in place with the addition of plaques to better explain the debate. Events surrounding the Colston statue demonstrate how this approach can prove to be inadequate and unsuccessful. The suitability of a literal ‘footnote’ – a plaque at the foot of a statue – for dealing with contested heritage is also disputed, for example, by historians James Young and Page Benoit in relation to the recontextualising of Confederate monuments in the United States. There is thus a great deal of interest in examining the extent to which the British Government’s approach is suitable as the wrong track could be extremely detrimental.


Since Colston’s statue was removed, Bristol has become a petri dish in which to experiment with an alternative to ‘Retain and Explain’. Putting Colston’s statue in a museum signifies that the era of uncritically celebrating his legacy is coming to an end. Consigning artefacts or objects to museums suggests that they are of historical, rather than contemporary significance. There is an opportunity now for Colston’s statue to be repurposed in an exhibit which continues the process of reconciling Bristol with its colonial past. Bristol is on the verge of a unique exhibit that could become nationally significant in directing the course Britain takes in reckoning with its once ‘wise and virtuous sons’.


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Further Reading

  • Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

  • Marc Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2015).

  • Alan Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic (Liverpool University Press, 2011).

  • Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, ‘Memory and Counter-Memory’, no. 26 (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24.


Edward Valentine is a Masters student in History on the Heritage Pathway at Lancaster University. Edward’s research focuses on critical imperial history, memory studies, visual and material cultural studies, and architectural histories by exploring the traces of Empire in Britain’s built environment with a particular focus on the city of Bristol.