In June of 2020, a Bristol crowd looped a rope around the statue of Edward Colston, pulled it down, and dumped it in the harbor, firing a British version of the usual debate around who owns history, although as far as I know no one put it that way.
But let’s put history in general to one side and start with who Edward Colston was and why he ended up in the drink.
Colston was born in 1636. You’ll forget that within seconds, but it gives you a century and a set of clothes to imagine him into. He came from a prosperous merchant family whose links to Bristol went back to the thirteenth century. The family bet its chips on the Royalist side of the Civil War, which was first a bad move and then a good one. Somehow they ended up in London. When the king was restored, Eddie’s father went back into business trading in oil, wine, and raisins.
That isn’t particularly relevant, but it is thorough. Are you impressed?
Edward was apprenticed to and then became a member of the Mercers’ Company. In London. He never did move back to Bristol. Except as a statue.
Mercers? They dealt in fabrics, usually expensive ones–silks, velvets, that kind of thing.
Colston established his own business, trading mostly in cloth and wine and acting as a money lender. He had interest in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and that should send send up red flags: Britain controlled much of the West Indies, and the economy was based on plantations worked by slave labor. Britons made profits both from selling slaves and from selling the products of their work. Slavery was an important slice of Britain’s economy and the people who ran both the trade in slaves and the slave plantations wielded a hefty slice of political power.
In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. More red flags, waving wildly. The company held the British monopoly on the slave trade between African and the Americas. During his time with it, its ships embarked 84,500 people from west Africa, bound to the Caribbean.
Notice the wording there–embarked. By one estimate, a quarter of the people who boarded the ships as slaves–or cargo–died en route from disease, from murder, from the occasional suicide, although in the conditions suicide wasn’t easy. They were branded and shackled so tightly together that they lay in their own filth.
The crossing took six to eight weeks.
I’ve shifted focus from Colston to the company because no one seems to have sorted out how much of his fortune came from the slave trade and what came from ordinary mercerizing. By one account, he owned forty ships. By all accounts, he made what’s commonly known as a shitload of money. What is known is that he played a major role in the company, becoming a deputy governor.
The profits from his slave trading financed his money lending.
During the 1690s and 1700s, he sold off his ships, withdrew from the RAC, settled into retirement in Surrey, and got to work philanthropizing. He was High Church, and he knit that tightly into the fabric of his philanthropy.
High Church translates to–oh, hell, someone else should really be the one to explain this, but it’s the Catholicky end of Anglicanism. It’s formal and heavy on ritual and priests and fancy clothes. That should hold us until someone better educated in churchly stuff comes along.
One scholarly paper describes his brand of both Christianity and philanthropy as authoritarian, and that seems fair. A foundation he set up required students “‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism.”
The Whigs? They were the politicians who weren’t the Tories. The differences between them were both political and religious.
His approach to religion was that the “holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.”
If you have nothing better to do, you might want to see if you can untangle that sentence. I gave up. What the hell, it’s a quotation, I can claim not to be responsible. But we could fairly safely sum up the content as, Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.
Philanthropy sounds selfless, but it gave (and still gives) a person a lot of political clout, and his made him a revered figure in Bristol.
He never married. I found one intriguing quote saying, “he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke.”
You figure it out. I got lost trying to figure out which sex is the opposite of Tory. Whatever his purity or sexual interests, he left his money to a niece–and of course her husband, because in those days a lady didn’t soil her hands with money, even if she wanted to.
Bristol was a focus of Colston’s philanthropy and over the years it got to be thoroughly be-Colstoned. Buildings were named after him, along with streets, schools, pubs, a hill, an almshouse, and of course that statue. I could go on, but enough. Twenty things have carried his name according to a local paper.
And for ages Colston was commemorated in a yearly service at St. Stephen’s Church, where he was buried. Three charity groups held a procession from his statue to the church, complete with top hats and tails and double lines of expensive-looking men. All of them white. They did that until 2017, when Colston’s reputation was getting too ripe and the church refused to host the service, although it offered to hold one thanking the groups themselves for their charitable work.
In what seems to have been a separate commemoration, schoolkids were rounded up to sit in the cathedral, contemplate a window in Colston’s memory, and listen to a sermon about his good works.
My point here is that it wasn’t just Colston’s statue, standing there and minding its own business. This was in-your-face, behold-the-great-man Colstonizing. I’m not sure the statue wouldn’t have been torn down anyway, but with all that worshipfulness, you could argue extenuating circumstances.
Why people didn’t use legal channels
It’s not like people didn’t try to get rid of it legally. Over the years, petitions to have the statue removed had been created, circulated, signed, submitted, and ignored. Demonstrations had been held, not necessarily aimed at the statue but at other bits of the Colston cult.
Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not exactly a cult, but the alliteration was so tempting.
At some point, a home-made plaque appeared on the statue, noting that Colston was a slave trader and filling in as much of his history as you can fit on a plaque, and that sparked several years of effort to replace it with an official plaque.
What should the official plaque say, though? A group of historians were asked for a draft, which was nitpicked to dust. Someone objected to the word trafficking being used to describe the slave trade. Couldn’t it just say Africans were transported? And that word enslaved. Doesn’t that sound kind of harsh?
No blood was shed in those meetings, although I don’t know why.
Okay, I don’t know if they actually held meetings. If they didn’t, that might explain it.
When a compromise was finally–somehow–reached, the mayor took a look at the wording and ordered a rewrite.
At his point, they were fifteen months into the project. They’d agreed on the words and and but, but not the.
Then some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters converged on Colston Square. It took them four minutes to topple the statue.
And at various points along the way, some of the things named after Colston were quietly renamed, including one of the pubs. Some organizations are still working on it and some dug a hole and pulled it in over themselves.
But what about History, with a capital H?
You can’t talk about people toppling statues without someone saying that they’re erasing history.
No. Let me try that again: You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter protesters toppling statues without etc., because when statues of Sadam Hussein were torn down–with the help of the US Army, if memory serves, because the crowd wasn’t large enough and maybe he was glued down, because he didn’t leave his pedestal without a fight–I didn’t hear any complaints about rewriting history. It was all whoopee! The dictator was being torn down. The people were taking revenge.
Ditto the statues of Lenin. Or Stalin. No articles in the paper saying that it was an attempt to erase history.
But statues aren’t history any more than my junior high history textbooks were history. They’re mythology. At best, they’re one version of history–the version convenient to whoever’s in power. At worst, they’re bullshit–an attempt to glorify the inglorious, simplify the complicated, cover up the inconvenient, and (although this never gets said) remind the governed who still rules them.
When Black Lives Matter protesters pull down the statues of slave owners and slave traders, they’re making history. They’re demanding that the official history of their city, their country, their world include them, not just the people who made fortunes by driving and selling their ancestors.
Colston’s statue will end up in a museum–when they open again–where it can be presented as part of genuine, difficult, complicated history.