Bristol torn apart over statue of Edward Colston: But is this a figure of shame or a necessary monument to the history of slavery?

Bristol is not the only UK city struggling to agree on a way to face up to its role in slave trading

Edward Colston is fondly remembered in Bristol. A grand bronze statue on a pedestal of Portland stone was unveiled almost 120 years ago in the city centre, dedicated to the 17th-century merchant and MP. Depicting a middle-aged Colston leaning pensively on a stick, its inscription reads: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”

Not mentioned are the thousands of slave victims that Colston and his family trampled over to obtain much of their wealth. He served as deputy governor of the Royal African Company – which held a monopoly on the trade – while his brother Thomas supplied the glass beads that were used to buy slaves.

The debate over how Bristol should commemorate Colston, if at all, has reared its head again in recent days after the Bristol Post asked whether the statue should be pulled down. Just over half (56 per cent) of the 1,100 respondents said it should stay – 44 per cent wanted it to go.

It followed a passionate article arguing for its removal by the retired journalist Mike Gardner in which he calls Colston “one of the most evil men in British history”. Bristol has more than a dozen streets, three schools, other buildings and an annual church ceremony named after Colston, but Mr Gardner said the 18ft statue was the worst reminder of all. “It’s time to rename the streets, the concert hall, the office block – everything,” he argued. “It’s time to stop little girls wearing flowers to celebrate his birthday. And it’s time to pull down that statue.”

Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, has described the annual Colston celebrations as “perverse”, but his city remains divided. Many residents rage against what they view as sweeping history under the carpet should the statue disappear.

One said that Colston “built a load of schools, hospitals and almshouses for the poor. I imagine the people of Bristol were grateful, regardless of how he came by the money.” But another commented: “Whatever ‘good’ deeds he has done, he did it out of the proceeds of slavery. No one would condone a statue of Adolf Hitler as ‘the great builder of superior motorways’.”

Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, said the many calls for an additional plaque acknowledging Colston’s role in the slave trade to be added to his statue was “a start” and should be replicated nationwide. “The National Portrait Gallery started to do this in 2007 and it would be nice to see this line of action taken by the City of London on monuments such as Nelson’s Column rather than the wholesale pulling down of statues.”

Bristol is not alone in paying homage to those who profited from slavery. Plymouth’s Sir John Hawkins, acknowledged as England’s first slave trader, made three voyages to Sierra Leone, violently taking 1,200 inhabitants to what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti between 1562 and 1569. Meanwhile William Beckford Snr, the only Lord Mayor of London to have a statue in the Guildhall, is known as “the uncrowned king of Jamaica” as his fortune came from more than 20,000 acres of plantations there.

Liverpool has a much more open relationship with its dark past, having built the International Slavery Museum. But dozens of its streets – including Penny Lane (James Penny) and Sir Thomas Buildings street (Sir Thomas Johnson) are named after local merchants who made their fortunes from the slave trade.

Britain’s cities are at different stages of addressing their history in the slave trade, according to Dr Nick Draper, of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project. “Liverpool has now made it an official part of its civic identity. London is too large and has so much history  that this issue falls off the edge,” he said. “In Bristol the slavery issue is front and centre – and it’s still at the confrontational stage..”

And to this day there is no public monument to the  thousands of Africans slaughtered or enslaved by British traders such as Hawkins, Beckford or Colston. “The despicable pirate Hawkins is honoured, but those such as the British navy crews who fought the slave traders at sea have been forgotten,” Mr McQuade said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?