With the toppling of Colston’s statue, British history is being made

As a historian of Bristol’s culture, I took part in this weekend’s Black Lives Matter march. When the slave trader’s statue finally fell, screams of joy exploded through the multicultural crowd

Melissa Chemam
in Bristol
Monday 08 June 2020 14:14
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Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pull down statue of 17th century slave trader

Bristol’s Black Lives Matter protests this Sunday concluded with the toppling of the public statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, celebrated for decades by the city as a mere “philanthropist”. I was among the protesters gathered, and when the statue came down we felt our fight against the oppression of people of colour had finally hit a new, important level.

I came to Bristol in 2015 as a foreign journalist to write about the city’s culture and tradition of protests, based on the journey of its most famous artists. Once I started researching my book, I never stopped hearing about Colston. I chose to move back here again recently because I felt, as I explained to a friend earlier this year, that most of the problems of the 21st century started in England, and this is one place where we’re going to start to solve them.

The Bristol protests started, like so many others, as a response to the killing of George Floyd, with a few speeches on social justice and coming together to kneel, in silence, for eight minutes. Then the march started, peacefully, towards the centre of the city and the infamous statue of Colston. When the Black Lives Matter protesters finally pulled it down – at about 2.30pm, just an hour and a half after the march began – screams of joy exploded through the multicultural, multigenerational crowd.

Protester John McAllister declared: “It says ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol, as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city’. The man was a slave trader. He was generous to Bristol, but it was off the back of slavery and it’s absolutely despicable. It’s an insult to the people of Bristol.”

A group then dragged the remains of the statue towards the city’s river, and threw it in the water in a location facing Pero’s Bridge, named after a Caribbean man known to have been a slave of the merchant John Pinney.

What happened in Bristol this Sunday shows that the debate on Britain’s colonial legacy has been postponed for far too long. If up until the 19th century it was considered politically correct to celebrate this sort of “philanthropy” based on slavery, change had been long overdue. Colston’s company alone is reported to have transported more than 100,000 slaves from west Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689.

For me, as my own family has been deeply affected by colonialism elsewhere in the world, it is puzzling to hear some English people still defending the statue based on the understanding of our shared history. France wouldn’t erect statues of Petain, or Germany of Hitler, just for the sake of remembrance of our criminal pasts.

Change is upon us. In France, slavery has been recognised as a crime against humanity since 2001. Yet it took until a few days ago for the statue of Victor Schoelcher to be taken down in Martinique.

The fall of Colston’s statue in Bristol is a bellwether of attitudes – a sign that the UK will now have to deal with its past differently. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga wrote last night that the statue might “be fished out at some point” and “put in the city museum, where it has long belonged”.

A few artists born in the city had been voicing this message for years, including the band Massive Attack. They were among the marchers, and tweeted: “The elevation of a slave trader clashed badly with our civic identity. A philanthropy derived from crimes against humanity is as hollow as the statue itself.”

This weekend, history has been made in the UK. And it started in Bristol.

Melissa Chemam is freelance journalist, associate lecturer in journalism at UWE Bristol and author of ‘Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone’ (2019). She has reported on migration issues in east and central Africa and western Europe for the BBC World Service and other international broadcasters

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