It’s been twenty-four hours since the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and already, opinion in Bristol is divided now more than ever. There are those who have said good riddance, those who want Colston back and those, like myself, who are simply asking “what happens now?”.
Many Bristolians have spoken out against the toppling, with some likening it to an attack on Auchwitz, many years after its liberation by the Soviet Union. For Bristolians perhaps, the senitiment is much of the same. We’re not proud of our past, but we want to remember it if only to stand in solidarity against racism in the future. We don’t hold pride in how Edward Colston funded swathes of our prosperous city, but he did, and we want to remember those dark days to make sure they never get to happen again.
In the hours that have passed since my last blog post, I have read up even more about the history of this statue and its longstanding history within our city, and I too am appalled that Bristol City Council decided to sit on their hands and not give our people the freedom to decide its future, but that is a Bristol City Council problem, and Bristol City Council are my enemy too. The statue does belong in a museum and it should have happened long ago, and yes, I would have supported that, but hindsight is always 20/20 – Right now, part of Bristol’s past is at the bottom of the river.
Following the toppling (and subsequent sinking) of the statue, a petition emerged immediately to have Colston restored. On local news sources, Bristolians called out for the statue to be restored and the individuals who toppled it to be bought to justice. “Mob mentality” they cried, don’t let them win. The removal of the statue may been liberating for many black Bristolians, but for many white Bristolians, Colston will always be a part of our history.
Calls for a statue of Paul Stephenson OBE to be erected in place of Colston has now received more than 24,000 signatures. It sounds a lot, but 24,000 makes up just 4% of Bristol’s population, we also need to be asking what the other 96% think. Right now, opinions and feelings are so rife that it simply won’t be possible to mount one in favour of the other, this needs to be resolved by listening to the voices of the people – all of the people/
When I first herd his name, I needed to research who Paul Stephenson OBE was as his isn’t a name that I’ve heard mentioned before. Paul led the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 which resulted in the Race Relations Act and is a campaigner for the British African-Caribbean Community to this day. His actions are commendable, but replacing the statue of a white man which was removed undemocratically from Bristol and replacing him with with a black Bristolian is unlikely to end the issue. After all. Paul Stephenson doesn’t represent the white Bristolians, and nor does he represent the Asian community who now live and work here, or the Europeans who have made Bristol their home. Whatever we have, if we have anything at all, the new monument needs to reflect Bristol’s new multicultural future.
Yet when I expressed opposition to the mounting of a statue of Paul Stephenson OBE, I was dubbed “slightly racist” for my decision. If we’re saying what Edward Colston did is now history, then what Paul Stephenson did is history too, even if racism and oppression of black people is still a matter that needs addressing today. If history belongs in the museum, then that means all history, not just the bits we no longer want to see on our streets.
But if not Paul Stephenson, then what?
One suggestion that I have heard of was for a statue of Wallace and Gromit be mounted in place of Edward Colston. I applauded at this idea, I loved it, and so did my inner 90’s child. This has nothing to do with racism or human rights, and everything to do with Bristol.
Wallace and Gromit are some of the trademark characters of Aardman Animations, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who are both Bristolians themselves. Their headquarters is still in Bristol today, along with large exhibits to their work and “Gromit Unleashed” trails which take place every year to raise money for chhildren’s hospitals in the city. Every year, Bristolians can be seen excitedly pointing and posing for pictures when they find one of the fibreglass sculptures dotted around the town. Nobody cares for race, families laugh and talk and enjoy the moment together, just as it should be.
Another idea was simply to remove the plinth and pave it over- no stone, no commemoration, no nothing. Feelings are strong against this on both sides, for various and understandable reasons. For black Bristolians, doing so is to deny the persecution of their ancestors, not least the 19,000 who perished in squalid conditions before even reaching British soil. For white Bristolians, it is to allow “mob mentality” to become a new form of law, deciding what is best for our city. For others still, paving over where Colston was is akin to paving over history, both present and past. Whatever it is, Bristol would somehow be better off with something in place of Colston, rather than nothing at all.
I’ve suggested a sculpture of a ship which symbolises our naval history, but also one that somehow symbolises freedom and peace. Perhaps something styled on the SS Great Britain rather than John Cabot’s Matthew, given Cabot’s own links to the slave trade. We need to be sensitive to the feelings of our black Bristolians and we need to listen to their desires, but we need to make sure that the outcome is something that everyone can agree upon to help keep acts like this from ever happening again.
Today, Bristol’s dock is no longer a port for trade but rather for leisure and entertainment. Canoeing, steam boats trips and passenger ferries are now the norm and everyone from every race and religion is welcome to enjoy them. In the summer, we have Bristol Harbour Festivals where Bristolians come together to for a display of boats and music, dancing and food from across Bristol and far beyond.
Bristol is still a long way from perfect, but I firmly believe that we will get there. We are more diverse than ever before and a willingness to talk and listen will surely reflect that. We need to celebrate this positive change towards acceptance and equality, but with it. we must still make peace with the past.