Today, the 25 January 2021 four people, Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 32, and Sage Willoughby, 21, will appear at Bristol Magistrates Court charged with causing criminal damage to the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol City Centre during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on 7 June 2020. The BLM demonstration attracted thousands of protestors. These four young people were selected out of a crowd of hundreds who cheered as the statue of Edward Colston, a leading organiser and profiteer from the enslavement of African people, was dumped into the Floating Harbour. Whilst we do not endorse criminal damage, we do not support any prosecution as it is neither in the public nor Bristol’s interest in terms of where we are presently as a city. Non-prosecution would be a step towards reconciliation and healing.
There has been a century long history of dissent and protest in Bristol over the celebration and memorialisation of Edward Colston. The prominence given to the statue of Colston in the City Centre has been symbolic affront to many Bristolians. Despite protests and petitions over more than three decades, and particularly over the last five years, Bristol City Council (BCC) has largely failed to listen to people’s concerns over idolising a slave trader in the centre of our city.
Instead in 2018 Bristol City Council redeveloped the statue’s setting, spending millions of pounds on its location which had the effect of making the slave trader’s sculpture even more prominent. The failure to address the concerns and feelings of Bristolians, particularly of African-Caribbean heritage, led to the statue being repeatedly ‘damaged’ by the application of unofficial history plaques, posters, graffiti and props telling ‘the truth’ about Edward Colston. In each case the statue was speedily repaired by BCC.
In 2017, as public institutions such as schools and concert halls began to remove the ‘toxic brand’ of Edward Colston the question of the statue became prominent. This led BCC to launch a project in 2018 to add a ‘corrective plaque’ to the statue. This project failed after interventions by the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV) and their supporters sanitised the wording on the plaque, leading Mayor Rees to halt the project. With no public forum to enable people to voice their concerns and with no apparent inclination or will in BCC to deal with the issue the situation became untenable. This state of affairs was aptly summarised by Prof. David Olusoga:
‘I wish it [Edward Colston’s statue] had been removed 20 to 30 years ago by the authorities, and it would have been if there had not been people in Bristol determined to defend the life of a mass murderer’.
Prof. Olusoga, we believe, is referring in part to undemocratic and unelected organisations of wealthy business people such as the SMV. Edward Colston and his colleagues in the Venturers were architects of the English slave trade, but the Merchants are not just a historical relic; they are an elite network who continues to run or be financially involved in a huge number of Bristol’s public services, schools, cultural and public spaces. The SMV have sustained the narrative of how Colston has been remembered in the city, celebrated his accumulation of wealth, yet ignored his crimes against humanity. The SMV has both financial interests in the brand of Colston as well an outmoded need to defend their icon’s dubious ‘tradition’.
Without the actions of BLM demonstrators on 7 June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston would have remained in place and the city would have continued to carry this embarrassing and damaging burden into the 21st Century. Instead, the fall of Colston has galvanised individual and institutional soul searching locally, nationally and internationally, re-assessing relationships to the history of slavery and colonialism. Bristol’s international reputation as a progressive city has been significantly enhanced by the events of June 7th but there is still plenty of work to be done. The prevalence of inequalities in Bristol outlined by the 2017 Runnymede Trust report  and the lack of a dedicated memorial and museum to remember the victims of transatlantic slavery remain neglected issues. Nationally and internationally, Bristol’s reputation and lack of will to examine its past over the decades, has been noted. The eyes of the world will now fall upon how it chooses to proceed.
Countering Colston (CC) is a network of individuals committed to the decolonisation of Bristol through:
-Remembering the full, true history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and exploitation
-Commemorating and mourning the people who suffered and died as a result of the slave trade, and recognising the coerced economic contribution that they made
-Celebrating the people who courageously resisted slavery and fought for abolition and emancipation
-Acknowledging and repairing, as far as possible, the negative effects in the present day of historical slavery
-Promoting ideas of human dignity, equality and freedom
We aim for a world where we can all coexist as equals and with respect, dignity and equity.
- Runnymede report https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/CoDE%20Briefing%20Bristol%20v2.pdf [Back...]