As a student at the University of Bristol, it was almost surreal seeing the photos and videos of the protests against police brutality take place in the city. The same relatively sleepy streets I walk each day to the lecture hall were crowded with protesters with banners and a whole heap of passion.
The decision taken by the protesters to bring down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol has stirred debate amongst the public. Is it right that this statue was taken down unlawfully by these protesters? In this instance, I say yes.
Edward Colston, whichever way you look at it, was a nasty man. In my first term of university, as part of a module of the ‘Global South’, I did a deep dive into the Bristol slave trade history and the findings were alarming. Colston was a merchant and slave trader who was involved with the Royal African Company, investing in the company as well as serving as governor-general. His support for the trade grew as he became more profitable, evidenced by the fact he campaigned for the expansion of the slave trade and became a major investor in the slave-trading South Seas Company. His name today is deeply connected with the city of Bristol, and venues and streets signs bear his name across the city.
Critics of the statue’s removal appear to be less critical of the fact that it was removed and more concerned with the way it was brought down – unlawfully. Whilst this is a perfectly reasonable view to hold, it is important to consider the context. Although clearly triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the disgust at a statue of Edward Colson in Bristol is not a recent phenomenon or a form of knee-jerk hysteria. Many in Bristol have been trying to get the statue removed for years. In 2019, a plaque which aimed to explain the context and history behind the statue was axed, and in 2017, the music group Massive Attack announced they would not perform at Colston Hall. The venue announced they would ditch the ‘toxic’ name soon after.
Following the protests, the Avon and Somerset Police Superintendent Andy Marsh was criticised for not preventing the illegal vandalism of the statue and not intervening. There were thousands of protesters and only 80 police officers. Why turn an otherwise peaceful protest into a potential riot? The superintendent made the right call in my view and acted smartly and reasonably given the context and circumstances. The reason why our protests haven’t generally erupted into violence is because generally our police force and lawmakers prefer to act with restraint, as opposed to in the United States where they are more provocative: ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’.
The same people who proclaim that ‘it is only a statue’ to protesters surely wouldn’t want a confrontation between police and said protesters which could potentially turn violent? Surely it wouldn’t be worth it?
In my hometown of Shrewsbury too, people have been inspired by the removal of Colston’s statue in Bristol, causing them to take a deeper and more critical look at our town’s own history. Robert Clive helped established colonial control over India by force, as a leading agent of the East India Company, and a petition has been created to lobby for his statue’s removal in the town square. The petition has amassed over 9,000 signatures in 4 days. A rival petition to keep the statue has been created too. A commenter supporting keeping the statue wrote that ‘it is important to know what we did wrong in the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future’. This completely misses the point. It would be one thing for the statue to have a thorough and detailed plaque explaining the context and local history behind the statue, but currently, that is not even in place.
At the moment, that statue is not ‘explaining’ anything, as very few know about Clive and his historical legacy associated with colonialism. Perhaps if people did, they would be more sympathetic to the idea that the statue should be removed. I reached out to a number of friends asking their opinion on the issue and received similar responses. ‘I don’t even know who the statue is supposed to be’ was a common reply. Perhaps these statues should be placed in a museum, surrounded by relevant information that explains who these figures are and the dark history behind their unassuming faces. Why do we feel the need to glorify them in the public square? What about teaching local history and the basics of the colonialism in schools? It was only at university I learnt about some of the terrible aspects of the British Empire and discovered about Robert Clive through reading independently.
Following WWII, statues relating to Nazi Germany were taken down, but the past was not forgotten. By prioritising teaching about the past, rather than warped memorabilia in the form of statues, we can learn from history without having to commemorate these figures. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.