An excellent and informative thread about the Colston statue toppled in Bristol at the weekend. It absolutely destroys the argument that it could have been removed legally, especially as people had been calling for it to be removed, for the plaque to be changed, and had expressed indignation and anger for years...
First published in June 2020.
People who say - authorities should take statues down after discussion. Yes. But it isn't happening. Bristol's been debating #EdwardColston for years and wasn't getting anywhere. In 2018, it was agreed that statue would bear a plaque noting his involvement in the slave trade. BUT
Then it proved impossible to find a wording that everyone accepted. The first plaque that it bore, added when it was erected in 1895, said 'Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city'. NO mention of slavery. (2)
Later in 2018, Bristol Council unveiled the wording for the second plaque, “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 (3)
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 (4)
political beliefs were not allowed to benefit from his charities'. The wording had been discussed by various groups, including children from Colston Primary School (name now changed). But it proved impossible for the Council to get it through. (5)
Some councillors objected. And then the Merchant Venturers got involved and pushed for various changes, including removing the reference to 12,000 children and to focus on his philanthropy (and not to note it was selective) (6)
The new plaque read, 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 (7)
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 (8)
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. (9)
As you can see, the language on the two plaques is radically different. The second says his wealth came from sugar etc and he was 'also involved in the transportation' of slaves - rather as if he sort of built boats but didn't know what was going on. Focus was on philanthropy (10)
The Council refused this altered plaque and the Office of the Mayor, Marvin Rees, who has been on TV today, rightly said it was 'unacceptable', particularly the lack of reference to those enslaved. That was in Spring 2019 and the plaque has been under discussions ever since. (11)
Some Bristolians said to me privately that they were pessimistic about the likelihood of an agreed text and thus that the only plaque for ever more on Colston would be the one calling him 'virtuous and wise'. (12)
So everyone saying, why couldn't Bristol just discuss it and bring it down through agreement? It's not that simple. While statues are being discussed and changes blocked, black people have to pass them daily, seeing the congratulation of slave trading, their horror and pain. (13)
For great information on the debates over #Colston in Bristol, the newspaper The Bristol Post (who is covering the events today in detail) on their site Bristol Live is excellent and proof if anyone needed it of how needed are our local newspapers. (14)
a long thread, I know. But language matters and the debates over the plaque epitomizes to me so many of the big questions we must confront in this country as so much of this country's riches gained in the past stem from the misery of others.
and thanks for coming to my public history class on statues and power in Britain. Now you all need to write your essays...
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