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The fall of Colston is not the erasure of history – it is history in the making

Professor David Lambert, a Professor of Caribbean History at the University of Warwick, comments on the bronze statue of Edward Colston, who profited from the Royal African Company’s trade in enslaved men, women and children, being toppled and tossed into the harbour in Bristol.

"Colston has fallen. The sight of the bronze statue of Edward Colston being toppled from its pedestal in the centre of Bristol and tossed into the harbour is an arresting one, though the presence of such figures is not unique. Britain’s landscape is full of sites named after men like Colston and funded by the spoils of the trade in enslaved people, slavery and colonialism, universities among them. In the Caribbean, where most of the enslaved men, women and children whose sale enriched Colston were taken, Britain’s former colonies continue to struggle with this symbolic legacy.

"One of the criticisms of toppling Colston is that it ‘erases history’. This is fatuous. If you want to learn about the past, reading a history book is a good place to start. Rather, the fall of Colston represents the convergence of different histories, both local and global. Colston profited from the Royal African Company’s trade in enslaved men, women and children, who were taken from West Africa to England’s colonies in the Caribbean and America in the seventeenth century.

"The statue was erected in the late nineteenth century to commemorate Colston’s philanthropy in Bristol – though the source of his wealth went unmentioned. For decades, there have been calls to remove it or at least to explain who he really was with a new plaque. But Colston’s fall also came amid #BlackLivesMatter protests across the world focused on the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer and against longer histories of racial injustice.

"Such monuments reveal what a society deemed to be important at the time when they were first established – or at least what those with the wealth and power did. But monuments also had to be maintained, both figuratively and literally, so they could live on. As such, they signal what values and actions remained important in the years that followed. What does it tell us that Colston stood throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries?

"For some, the focus now goes on to which other statues should fall. That of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, a politician who delayed the abolition of the slave trade, will no doubt come under even greater scrutiny and the calls that #RhodesMustFall have intensified. In Bristol itself, there is talk of a new statue to Paul Stephenson, who led the city’s civil rights campaign from 1963, or perhaps a memorial to the tens of thousands of enslaved African men, women and children transported by the Royal African Company – or to the millions more taken from their homes over the course of the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people.

"As for the Colston statue itself, move it to a museum alongside the placards carried by the #BlackLivesMatter protestors, though scandalously Bristol no longer has anything like Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum to house them. There it would stand as an object not only to the reality of Bristol’s mercantile past, but also to a time when enough rich and powerful people thought it was appropriate to commemorate such a man and to a moment when other people acted because it was not. The fall of Colston is not the erasure of history – it is history in the making."


11 JUNE 2020

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Alice Scott
Media Relations Manager
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 7920 531 221
E-mail: alice dot j dot scott at warwick dot ac dot uk