To say that the toppling of the Edward Colston statue has been controversial would be an understatement. The statue is 5.5 metres tall and has stood straight on Colston Avenue on a plinth since 1895.
Edward Colston was an English merchant, Tory Member of Parliament and slave trader. He was also philanthropic, building homes for the poor and vulnerable and his statue was built as a memorial to his works. However, he developed his charitable works as he was making money from selling African women, men and children.
Born in a wealthy merchant family in Bristol, Colston went to school in London and became renowned as a wool and textile trader. In 1680, he joined the Royal African Company, becoming a senior executive during the Atlantic slave trade in the 1680’s.
He moved forward the transportation of many enslaved people from Africa through the Atlantic Ocean. These enslaved people were forced to work the sugar plantations in Virginia and the Caribbean, branding them with the RAC initials on their chests. It’s believed he assisted with the transportation of over 100,000 enslaved people.
He sold his shares in the company to William, Prince of Orange, in 1689. Afterward, he began donating to fund schools, hospitals, and other causes in London and Bristol. There’s an independent school named after Colston, a concert hall, a tower, a street, and an avenue.
On June 7, 2020, protestors against systemic racism and oppression vandalised the monument, spray painting it with red and blue graffiti, and employing ropes to tear it down from its plinth, then rolled it through the streets. The bronze statue was retrieved by the Bristol City Council and moved to the M Shed Museum alongside placards from the protest and a timeline of events.
The M Shed website said: “This is an opportunity to have your say about how we move forward together.” They were open to suggestions about what to do with the statue.
The Colston statue was replaced with another life-size statue of a black woman with her fist raised, created by British sculptor Marc Quinn. This Black Power move aimed to raise the issue of Black people’s lives in the public eye and do what he could to promote their image. The statue was removed by the Bristol City Council on the next day, as Quinn lacked permission from the authorities to erect it in the first place.
The defacing of the Colston statue sparked a conversation about the management of historical monuments that depict colonial figures, especially after the onslaught of hate crimes against black people after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Words by Sebastian Caledron.