Colston slept with the fishes

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Section: Blog
Projects: Edward Colston
Subjects: Slavery & Resistance
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Prophetic subverting of Colston’s statue in 2019

In April 2019 The Saint-Just Mob subverted the statue of Edward Colston with the word DROWN. The following article first appeared on the BRHG Facebook page in the same month. Republishing it here seems apposite as he slept with the fishes for a few days at the bottom of the very docks where slave ships bound for Africa would have moored and now skulks in the basement of M Shed.

The statues of Samuel Plimsoll and Edward Colston stand within half a mile of each other and share one thing in common – the sea. But the way they understood the sea was diametrically at odds. For Plimsoll it was a place of great danger that had become the grave of countless thousands of sailors while for Colston it was simply the means by which the transport of slaves and goods could increase his wealth. And this is elaborated if one looks at one of the bronze plaques that adorn his statue. It shows a dolphin’s entire body plugging a hole in one of Colston’s ships to save it from foundering. Out of this very generous act by the animal grew the legend that Colston chose the dolphin as his mascot and hence the four bronze dolphins that are fixed to the plinth of his statue.

This story links Colston to Plimsoll for it was the so-called coffin ships that became the focus of his campaign that led, after decades of struggle, to the requirement of all ships to display the Plimsoll line. He had discovered that unseaworthy ships were often sent to sea in the full knowledge that they might founder with the loss of all on board. This did not perturb the owners as their ships were insured and the cargo would still be profitable on the sea bed.

Research into how many of Colston’s ships were insured would be enlightening. The death of slaves during transport was commonplace. Sharks would learn to follow slave ships so as to feed on sick slaves who would be thrown overboard alive. So the charge sheet against Colston goes far beyond the insurance, or lack of it, of the ships involved.

The Saint-Just Mob decorated his statue with the word DROWN not only to point to this story of death at sea but also to summon an iconoclastic resolution to the problem of his statue as blot on the cityscape. First thoughts were with Paul Kelleher who had a simple answer when asked by the police why he had decapitated the statue of Margaret Thatcher in London’s Guildhall in 2003 – he said “I think it looks better that way.” More fitting though would be to topple it and accompany it to the dockside and with due lack of ceremony hurl it into the water so that it could simply DROWN.

Saint-Just Mob July 2020

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