Whether or not you think it was right for protesters in Bristol to take down the statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston, it sends an important message, and reminds us of the bigger picture of racial injustice.
Consider why protesters tore down the statue. Why, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, does this statue, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, incite anger? Because the killing of Floyd, and so many other black people, is rooted in the context of centuries of oppression. It is not a problem isolated to the police, or to America.
The removal of the statue makes it clear to those in doubt that the UK does have a racism problem.
Edward Colston was an active member of the Royal Africa Company, which traded in slaves, complicit in the dehumanisation, exploitation and deaths of thousands of enslaved African people. The legacy of the slave trade lives on through the treatment of black people in the UK to this day, from disproportionately being excluded from our schools, to receiving longer prison sentences.
One protestor knelt on the statue’s neck with his knee, in an imitation of how Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd. This demonstrates how the former status of African people as slaves, fostered by people like Colston, has contributed to their deaths through police brutality in the modern age. It shows that we cannot fully understand the violence that persists now without examining the treatment of African slaves – and our country’s own complicity.
The UK’s refusal to confront its complicity in slavery has isolated black communities. There was deep-seated anger and discontent at the fact that the statue of Colston was still in place. The petition to have the statue removed gained 11,000 signatures, yet the statue still stood until Sunday. Since 2018, there have been attempts to re-write the plaque on the statue, written when the statue was first erected in 1895, to fully detail Colston’s involvement in the slave-trade. But a consensus was never reached about what wording to use on the plaque – and so the plaque still read ‘a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city’, making no mention of slavery.
This is emblematic of the attitude of the UK in trying to gloss over the realities of its complicity in slavery, and its colonial past. Erecting a statue in itself is an inherently celebratory act – but this plaque heightens the sense of honouring the memory of Colston for his philanthropy, instead of declaring his involvement in slavery. We choose to remember the small positives of his contribution, but are too ashamed to confront the deplorable inhumanity of his trading.
Crucially, the UK’s refusal to face up to its colonial history in ways such as this has hindered the fight to dismantle, or even acknowledge, the institutional racism that persists in our systems to this day.
The damaging effects of colonialism are not taught in our schools, and many are unaware that the UK was involved in the slave trade. Many are unaware that the oppression of black people is still rooted in our institutions and systems. Many are unaware that as recently as 2015, the UK government was using our own taxpayers’ money to repay debt to the descendants of slave owners, an agreement made in 1833 as reparation for the loss of ‘property’.
Whether individuals decide to support or condemn the removal of the statue, we as a country must not lose sight of the message: that the UK has failed to adequately address its colonial history, or its institutional racism. That we do not teach Colston’s involvement in the slave trade, or the impact it has had, in the Bristol school that was named after him.