Vandalism — or correcting historical errors?

After the fall of the Colston statue in Bristol, many local institutions that carried his name decided to drop it, while others reviewed their histories

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 13 Jan 2022, 10:32 PM

One of the first things you notice when you visit Bristol in south-west England is its laidback ethos, a city relaxed with itself. I knew very little of the place when I moved there in 2003 to take up an academic position. At first, it did not resonate much, except for a vague memory of a cigarette brand of that name that was popular decades ago; and the image I had of the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge.

But the port city’s history and links with the British Empire soon became apparent through structures and statues in public spaces, besides at least two links with India: social reformer Rammohun Roy died there in 1833 while visiting his Unitarian friends (he is interred in the Arnos Vale Cemetery), and one of the schools Indira Gandhi went to is the local Badminton School. It is not long before you are gushingly told of Bristol’s famous graffiti artist Banksy, local boy and Hollywood legend Cary Grant, its former MP Edmund Burke of the press-as-the-fourth-estate fame, and the city’s tradition of activism in politics, environment and anti-racism, reinforced last week in the Edward Colston statue toppling case.

Colston (1636-1721), long idolised for his philanthropy as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol, was also a prolific slave trader through his links with the Royal African Company, responsible for the death of thousands of slaves at a time when slavery was a norm in England and much of Europe. His nearly nine-feet high bronze statue was installed in 1895 in the city centre near the Avon river waterfront, a popular leisure site.

Several schools and institutions in the city bear his name (the Colston’s School founded in 1710 near my university campus has now decided to drop his name). Local protests and dissent against celebrating Colston have been recorded for nearly a century, from the 1920s, gathering momentum for some time, only to peter out and revive again, but never disappearing. Matters came to a head during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over George Floyd’s killing in the United States on May 25, 2020.

Days later, a group of mostly white anti-racism protestors pulled down Colston’s statue on June 7, some jumping on it, daubing it in red and blue paint, and one protestor placing his knee on the neck just as a police officer had knelt on Floyd. The statue was rolled down the street by the cheering protestors and pushed into the harbour.

The police did not intervene on the ground that doing so would have led to a riot, but saw it as criminal damage and after investigations, identified 17 individuals responsible for it. Three days later, Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking at Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Texas, noted: “All over the world I’ve seen grandchildren of slave masters tearing down slave masters’ statues — over in England, they put it in the river”. Most of those identified by the police were let off with minor penalties, but four — Sage Willoughby (22), Jake Skuse (33), Milo Ponsford (26) and Rhian Graham (30), now called the Colston Four — were charged with criminal damage and faced a trial in December 2021.

Part of a global movement

There was much public support for the four, with Banksy producing a T-shirt and many queuing up to buy it to support them. In court, the four accepted their involvement in pulling down the statue, but argued that they were on “the right side of history”, that they had acted in a just way, such was the egregious nature of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade, and that the statue’s continued existence in the centre of Bristol was grossly offensive.

Their defence team told the jurors that their decision would “reverberate around the world”, and presented a comprehensive history about Colston and the long battle to have the statue removed, including petitions spanning 30 years. The jury accepted the defence and acquitted them. Graham, one of the four, later noted that Colston’s dethronement was not a standalone event, but part of a global movement.

Historian David Olusoga, who backed the Colston Four, called the verdict a landmark in a Britain coming to terms with its past, adding that the real offence was to allow a statue to a mass murderer to stand for 125 years: “Jurors were asked to rule that Edward Colston’s heinous crimes were immaterial, but they chose to put themselves on the right side of history… [The prosecution’s] strategy failed because the lawyers defending the so-called Colston Four were able, through their own legal arguments and the striking eloquence of the four young defendants, to place history at the centre of this trial. In this, I played a small part, appearing as an expert witness for the defence. They successfully demonstrated that the real offenders were not the Colston Four, but the city of Bristol and those who have done everything in their power to burnish the reputation of a mass murderer.”

The verdict was expectedly hailed and panned equally, amidst raging debates about culture wars, cancel culture and wokeness. The Guardian called it “a welcome sign that Britain is changing”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not comment on the verdict as it is “a matter for the court,” but said his “feeling is that we have a complex historical legacy all around us which reflects our history and all its diversity for good or ill. What you can’t do is go around seeking retrospectively to change our history or to edit it. It’s like some person trying to edit their Wikipedia entry — it’s wrong”. There is talk of the state appealing against the verdict, which also raised hackles. A key point is that jury verdicts do not act as legal precedents, which means that another jury with the same set of facts before it could reach a different verdict.

Says human rights barrister Adam Wagner on the Colston verdict: “This is an unusual result but also a prosecution which always gave rise to the risk of a jury not convicting. This is what juries sometimes do, a kind of societal pressure release valve. This doesn’t set a legal precedent as it is jury decision and on its own special facts — anyone damaging property in future would have no way of knowing if a jury would convict or acquit them. The law is as it was. It is still a criminal offence to destroy or damage other people’s property without a lawful excuse. Juries will continue to convict where the facts are clear — but on very rare occasions, such as this, they won’t probably for reasons of conscience.”

International ripples

Toppling the Colston statue not only made headlines across the globe but also inspired several such acts, besides galvanising long-run campaigns. The Bristol Radical History (BRH) group compiled a timeline of connected events in various countries since the statue was removed, noting that “The felling of Colston’s statue by a mass movement has been described as ‘a massive distraction’ by some commentators. What they have failed to understand though, is hugely symbolic actions can produce some concrete outcomes, as they open up debate, energise latent opinion and effect change in public views. This can spur institutions and local and national governments to act.”

In Barbados, a constitutional review commission had recommended republican status for the island country in 1998, but it was only in November 2021 that it parted way with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and became a republic. In capital Bridgetown, the BLM movement and the fall of the Colston statue reopened the debate on British slavery defender Admiral Horatio Nelson’s statue that dominated the centre. The bronze statue was unveiled in 1813 to commemorate Nelson and the British Royal Navy’s victory over the French and Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It was daubed with graffiti many times, most famously after the fall of the Colston statue, with the words ‘Tek me down’. Barbados’ minister of culture announced that the statue would be taken down, and within months it was removed and placed in the Barbados Museum.

In July 2020, the bronze bust of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town, South Africa, was decapitated. Rhodes, a white supremacist, led the British colonisation of parts of southern Africa during the 19th Century and made a fortune from mining. In the same month, in the US, two statues of Christopher Columbus were removed by Chicago city authorities, while his statue in Baltimore’s Inner Harbour was also pulled from its pedestal and thrown into the water. According to BRH’s compilation, in the US alone, nearly 200 Confederate statues and memorials have been removed since the fall of the Colston statue. In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II (1835-1909) became targets due to the death of millions of Africans during his rule, when he seized a huge swathe of Central Africa in 1885. His statue in Antwerp was set on fire, while elsewhere his statues were daubed with red paint in Ghent and Ostend and pulled down in Brussels.

Impact in Britain

Campaigns against racism and demands to de-colonise curriculum in universities were already bubbling in Britain when the Floyd protests swept the country. In 2017, the students union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) demanded that white philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle be dropped from the curriculum and be replaced with the work of Indian, Asian and non-western philosophers, as part of its campaign to “address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism within our university”.

The union wanted “to make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or its diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora)…If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint”. The campaign drew criticism of political correctness going out of control, but struck a chord among many.

There was also the raging campaign in Oxford to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, where he studied and left it £100,000 in his will, which paid for the college building. A wire mesh was put around the statue for protection, while the college had long negotiations with campaigners, donors and others, finally deciding to retain the statue but to put an explanatory plaque next to it in October 2021. The plaque says Rhodes was a “committed British colonialist”, who “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of southern Africa.

Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since. In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice”.

After the fall of the Colston statue in Bristol, many local institutions that carried his name decided to drop it, while others reviewed their histories. In London, the mayor set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, while major charities such as the National Trust declared their links with colonialism and slavery in their history and holdings, adding fuel to acrimonious debates. In Cambridge, Jesus College returned to Nigeria a Benin Bronze that was looted from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897 and was given to the college in 1905 by the father of a student.

One of the main targets of BLM activists was the statue of imperialist Robert Clive in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where he was born. Thousands petitioned in support of the demand to remove or retain the statue that has stood since 1860. The first governor of the presidency of Fort William, Bengal, Clive died in London 1774. Local councillors agreed he reflected one of the painful periods of British history, decided not to remove it, but resolved to put up an explanatory plaque next to it, expected to be installed next month.

Says Cecilia Motley, the Shropshire Council’s cabinet member for communities, place, tourism and transport: “The Council has previously agreed to provide an interpretation panel beside the Clive statue. Unfortunately, its installation was delayed due to Covid-19; however, a panel has been displayed nearby in Shrewsbury Museum. Current legislation surrounding contested history is to ‘retain and explain’ and the Council is working to that expectation. A detailed interpretation panel is currently being manufactured and will be installed beside the statue in The Square, in Shrewsbury.”

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