Someone who died nearly three centuries ago, Edward Colston, a slave trader who died in 1721, has become a target for the Black Lives Matter Movement in Britain and a source of conflict between the authorities and protesters.
The toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, on Sunday by anti-racism protesters was greeted with joyous scenes in recognition of the fact that he was a notorious slave trader, a badge of shame for one of Britain’s most liberal cities.
Demonstrators attached ropes to the statue before pulling it down, and footage of the moments after the statue crashed to the ground saw hundreds of local people in ecstasy.
After the statue was toppled, a protester was pictured with his knee on the figure’s neck, reminiscent of the video showing George Floyd, the black man who died while being restrained by a white Minnesota police officer in the US, in a similar situation.
The statue was then rolled into the nearby Bristol harbour, again to rapturous scenes.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which started in the US after the killing of Floyd, have resonated around the world, but no more so than in the UK, which has a long and troubled history with colonisation and the slave trade.
“Look in the mirror” was the call by many of the protesters during the widespread demonstrations in the UK over the last two weeks.
The legacy of colonialism and racial discrimination is still strongly present in Britain today, not only through statues of historical figures and street names, but also through class divisions and income inequalities between whites and blacks in Britain.
British people of African and Caribbean descent are still among the least educated and the poorest of the country’s population, and they have made up a large number of coronavirus victims. There has also been a history of disproportionate police action against black and minority people in the UK.
The toppling of the statue of Colston in Bristol drew much attention and has left the door open to a difficult examination of Britain’s imperial past, its present economic, social and political fabric, and the systematic racism still felt by minorities in the present time.
Colston helped to oversee the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans in the 18th century. It is believed that around 19,000 of them died in the stagnant bellies of his company’s slave ships during the infamous Middle Passage from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the new world.
On his death, Colston bequeathed his wealth to charity, and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets today. For 125 years, his statue has overshadowed the city centre and become a source of controversy.
For many, including city mayor Marvin Rees, the statue was “an affront.” Rees said he felt no “sense of loss” after the statue was pulled down, adding that the authorities would retrieve the statue from the harbour “at some point” and it was likely to end up in a museum.
“I think circumstances came to a head and people felt the need to take the statue down,” Rees said. “I can’t and won’t pretend the statue of a slave trader in a city I was born and grew up in wasn’t an affront to me and people like me.”
“People in Bristol who don’t want that statue in the middle of the city came together, and it is my job to unite, hear those voices, and hold those truths together for people for whom that statue is a personal affront,” said Rees, who is of African descent.
Colston’s statue and others that glorify slave merchants, adventurers and politicians who contributed to the building of British colonies in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean have long received mixed reactions.
Some criticised the removal of Colston’s statue and others from public places as erasing part of British history and thus of not fully understanding it. But the idea has received support from Black Lives Matter protesters in the UK.
For British historian David Olusoga, “removing statues is not erasing history. Statues are not the mechanisms by which we understand history. We learn history through museums, books and television programmes,” he said.
“Statues are not about remembering history; they are about adoration. This is a city that has 14 per cent BME [black and minority ethnic], with a statue of someone that was not just of a slave trader, as he was involved in the Royal Africa Company, the company that trafficked more people into slavery than any in British history,” Olusoga told the BBC.
In other British cities there are statues to men no less controversial than Colston who also grew rich through the slave trade. The toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol has reignited the campaign to remove a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University.
Rhodes is a controversial 19th-century figure, who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa. The University said previously that the statue would stay, with modifications that “draw attention to this history [and] do justice to the complexity of the debate.” It had been warned of the possibility that it would lose about £100 million in gifts should the statue be taken down, but it insisted financial implications were not the primary motive behind the decision.
Opening the debate about British imperial history and the statues which dominate Britain’s urban fabric has sparked unease within the Conservative Party government, especially while black and Asian minorities are among the worst affected by the coronavirus.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, tried to downplay the UK’s relevance to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“I think, thankfully, that this is all based in response to events in America rather than here, but we also must continue the drive here for tolerance and genuine equality of opportunity,” Hancock said. Asked whether the UK was racist, he said that “I don’t, but I do think there’s injustice that needs to be tackled, and I’ve spent my political life fighting for equality.”
Dawn Butler, a former Labour Party minister for young people, said suggestions that the protests largely related to America were a sign that the government was “again not listening and shows no commitment to resolving the issues of racism in our own country.”
Butler, the first black woman to speak at the dispatch box in the House of Commons, said that “people are angry in the UK for many reasons. We know there’s systemic racism in the UK. Covid-19 has highlighted the grave consequences of discrimination and poverty… So, to say that it’s an imported problem is again not listening and shows no commitment to resolving the issues of racism.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly