Opinion: Like Him Or Not, You Can’t Just Throw Edward Colston In The River

I unlocked my phone and checked my notifications. I expected a message or two for some of the items for sale, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to read: Statue of Colston toppled.

I stared at the screen for a moment. I had to remember who he was and what this meant, Colston, Colston who, what was this about? I looked at the website address and then I remembered, Edward Colston!

For a while, my heart felt sad. I had no warm and fuzzy feelings towards his past, but Colston was still a huge part of my city. I’ve walked past the statue several times and I know what he represents, even after his toppling. Like it or not, Colston is still a part of Bristol.

By chance, today was also the first time I saw my family since our socially distanced walk about a month ago. Now that families can finally reunite in groups of up to six, we decided to seize this opportunity for a not-exactly-socially-distanced BBQ. We all tried to stay out of one another’s way, but when it started to rain, it became a little more difficult for four people to stay two metres apart under a 3 x 2 metre gazebo.

As I sat down to eat, there was another news story on my phone; Statue of Colston thrown into the river. I stopped being sad at the point, sad was replaced with a new emotion – now I was simply angry.

Over the fence, I was reunited with a lady, an old neighbour and a reader of mine, Jayne. Jayne is normally lively and sociable, but this time around, Jayne and her family were disgusted and angry. Honestly, I think we all were.

But this isn’t just about Colston, this is about Bristol.

Bristol is a city on the River Avon which is steeped in vast amounts of history. From the famed pirate Blackbeard to serving as the starting point from which John Cabot set sail when he discovered America and right through to more positive stories like the creation of IMDb, Ardman Animations and the biggest hot air balloon in the world, Bristol has made history for some many great things. Unfortunately, though, Bristol still hasn’t shedded its morbid past.

As the bus bumbles up the steep hill, I can’t help but feel a pang as I remember the meaning behind the road name that it displays. “40A Blackboy Hill” is written across the LED display in glowing yellow letters. Blackboy Hill is just another part of that past.

If you walked down Blackboy Hill today, you’d never associate it with such inhumane atrocities. Shops and houses adorn the street and people bustle between them. Had you not known better, Blackboy Hill could mean anything at all. Alas, BlackBoy Hill was where the black slaves were marched on their way to the trade, a fact that I too find too horrific to think about in modern times.

What about Whiteladies Road, the adjoining road, perhaps something more celebratory?

You could be forgiven, Whiteladies Road was where the white ladies socialised while their husbands haggled for black slaves. There really was no mercy.

The statue of Edward Colston was erected in 1895 to commemorate his contributions to our city. Even if he is connected with the slave trade, in Bristol, he was also to be celebrated for his donations to charities after his death. For a lot of modern Bristolians, Colston was both a hero and a villain, a contributor to our wonderful city but also a perpetrator of unimaginable crimes which he used as funding to build Bristol. He is no longer a man who is celebrated but his contribution to our history is still at least accepted, and with it, his name was allowed to live on.

Martyna Bober – Unsplash

Because of its location, Bristol has a long history of maritime trade, dating as far back as the Roman “Abona” which later partially gave name to the River Avon. Bristol is immensely proud of its industrious past and even today, many Bristolians love nothing more than a stroll along the harbourside where they can walk under the cranes behind the M Shed. Bristolians don’t hide the fact that black slaves were once bought to their city and traded, but nor do they embrace it. Bristolians prefer to take in the history of our city and be grateful that the slave trade is a thing of the past. Bristolians don’t see it as a cause for celebration, they see it as a cause for solidarity and remembrance, something that seemed to evade many of the protesters.

In more recent times, Colston’s name has been the cause of a lot of controversies. Understandably, for those who understand the abhorrent conditions that ethnic minorities were forced to endure as slaves, then individuals like Colston are a name that they want to be removed from their city. For people like me though, who come from at least four generations of Bristolians, our message to this complex problem is alarmingly simple – You can’t just rewrite Bristol’s past.

This is the problem, you can’t, you just can’t. Yes, I endorse change. Yes, I endorse equality, I endorse freedom from racism, freedom from slavery and justice for all, but this is Bristol, this is my city and the statue of Colston has long been a part of that. Even if I don’t like it very much, his atrocities are still a part of us and should be a part of us, a reminder of what we don’t want to go back to.

I understand that some people may see folk like Colston as an attack on your freedoms and I understand that an apology will never undo the crimes he committed. I understand it, and I understand why you are angry. Instead of vandalising historical structures, though, we need to have a discussion and we need to understand each other so that we can all agree on the right way forward. When we act without understanding and talking to one another, we don’t promote peace and acceptance of each other. Instead, we only encourage more anger, more hatred and more violence. To stop it, we need to be tolerant of one another.

Photo by Jumana Dakkur on Pexels.com

According to the reports, ten thousand people turned up for a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, 10,000 in a city with a population of 686,000 is still only a 1.4% turnout. It’s not that most of us are racist, we’re just increasingly aware of the current coronavirus pandemic and we’re not willing to risk ourselves or others, especially knowing that our BAME brothers and sisters are the most at risk if we pass it on. It is also worth noting that the toppling of Edward Colston happened after the protest, and the Black Lives Matter movement have since distanced themselves from this event.

I’m not saying that I’m proud of our past, and I absolutely don’t condone racism in any way, but to me, tearing down a statue of Colston isn’t achieving anything to a vast amount of people, and if anything, it’s just causing heartbreaking damage to our otherwise wonderful and diverse city. In the wake of the toppling, one suggestion was that a monument of Paul Stephenson OBE be erected to take its place. I was so confused, I had to take some more time to research who he was. Paul’s achievements are remarkable, Edward Colston wasn’t entirely all bad news.

I fully back commemorating black Bristolians in our city as modern contributors, but why do we need to replace one with the other? History does not end when the next chapter starts, so why can’t two monuments coexist in our modern city? The past, and the present – what Bristol was, and what Bristol is today.

For me, today’s events just got worse and worse as the day went on. Toppling the statue without a democratic vote was bad enough, but dousing it in paint was disrespectful to our history, and the protester who knelt on the neck of the statue made me feel physically ill. Doing so was not only incredibly disrespectful to the people who would want the statue left alone, but also to George Floyd, after all, George’s death had nothing at all to do with Edward Colston. The individual who did it also had white hands, which he placed into his pocket, impersonating Derek Chauvin. Is anyone else seeing the irony in this? Surely for a white man protesting against racism and police brutality against the black community, impersonating a white former police officer who brutally murdered a black man would be the very last thing he wants to do?

Tonight, Bristol is ashamed and hurting and confused as to what we do next. Re-erecting the statue might be seen as being complacent to racism, but leaving it at the bottom of the floating harbour might mean to suggest that we’re willing to continue allowing a small group of individuals to make all of the decisions and makes Bristol harbour a navigational nightmare for the hundreds of boats that visit every day. By the time I got home this evening, the actions of a few had already put our city in the global news, and who knows how this will end? Bristolians might not be willing to accept racism anymore, but they won’t tolerate criminal damage, either.

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