Picture: courtesy of J. Backhouse

Introduction

After months of secrecy instigated by the Mayor’s Office finally M Shed are launching their ‘Consultative Display” entitled The Colston Statue: What Next? For many of us the Colston statue should have been left to ‘sleep with the fishes’, where many thousands of his Company’s victims ended up during the middle-passage. But a mixture of paranoia in the Mayor’s Office about a public backlash which might have affected his chances for re-election or perhaps seeing an opportunity to up visitors figures at M Shed we have ended up with a half-way house solution. This temporary ‘consultative display’ is very much in keeping with the Mayor’s approach that if ‘we all have a chat about things’ then the City will be ‘brought together’; whatever that means?

BRHG historians have been at the forefront of recent research into Edward Colston and have been debunking myths concerning the leading slave-trader for several years. Yet despite this BRHG were not consulted by M Shed throughout the planning and design of the exhibition. It was only at the very last stages that we realized that the M Shed curators lacked comprehensive data for their timeline of protests concerning Edward Colston. This is something BRHG and Countering Colston have been researching and have recently published. After one of the M Shed curators praised the content of our timeline, we managed to get an audience with the lead organisers of the display. This meeting was on the grounds that BRHG, like just about everyone else, had no idea about the form or more importantly the content of the display due to the lack of transparency.

So what’s in the display and what’s out?

From our very brief look at a PowerPoint describing the ‘consultative display’ we noticed several problems. First, the history of Edward Colston is very light and has significant omissions, particularly with reference to his involvement in transatlantic slavery. This is partly down to a reliance on out-of-date secondary sources and a lack of engagement with more recent research. This is also reflected in errors in the display in documenting his philanthropy. Far more significant, however, were the omissions in the display’s timeline of dissent and protest, particularly over the last few years.

In 2015 Countering Colston campaigners were not particularly focused on the statue. Instead they specifically targeted for protests the physical celebrations and commemorations of Edward Colston organized by the Society of Merchant Venturers and various Colston societies and hosted by the Church of England. Up until 2008 two private schools were central to the Colston celebrations, Colston’s in Stapleton and Colston’s Girl’s School (CGS) in Redland whose pupils attended the Charter Day and Commemoration Day ceremonies at the Cathedral. However, after 2008 the Society of Merchant Venturers began taking control of a group of state schools under the academy system and CGS entered the state sector as part of that scheme. This meant that hundreds of school children from the state sector along with those at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple Secondary School were being made to go and worship Edward Colston’s philanthropy each year without being informed of his numerous crimes against humanity. This was an important driver for the activists to demand change in 2015.

Over the succeeding years after protests, meetings, public argument in the media and debate with institutions, such as the Bristol Cathedral and diocese, Countering Colston and their supporters managed to achieve a number of significant changes and concessions, particularly in 2017. These included:

  • April 2017 – After protests and lobbying by Countering Colston, Bristol Music Trust decided unanimously to change the name of the Colston Hall.
  • October 2017 – Colston’s Girl’s School announced that all reference to Edward Colston will be removed from the annual Commemoration Day service and “we will no longer be asking the students to wear a chrysanthemum in his memory”.
  • October 2017 – The Dean of the Cathedral referenced Edward Colston’s involvement in slavery at the Colston Society commemoration event at St Mary Redcliffe at which pupils from the school attend.
  • November 2017 – St Stephen’s church canceled the annual Colston Day celebrations saying they want “nothing more to do with [Edward] Colston”. This celebration including a march led by the Society of Merchant Venturers had been ongoing for almost 300 years.
  • December 2017 – Colston’s Primary School in the state sector decided after a three-month consultation with teachers, parents and pupils to change their name to Cotham Gardens Primary School.
  • January 2019 – St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School drop Colston from the names of their pupils’ houses, modernising them in the process.

All of these important changes were omitted in the timeline in the M Shed display. Effectively this removed the successful actions of Countering Colston activists from the history of protest and dissent.

Why should this be so? The problem with highlighting the physical celebrations and commemorations of Edward Colston, was that they were organised and hosted by Bristol institutions such as the Society of Merchant Venturers, the Colston societies and the Church of England. In 2015 the Countering Colston activists recognized very rapidly who had power over the legacy of Colston and who did not. Whilst angry letter writers to the Bristol Post or on social media required responses, they did not have control over Colston’s legacy; it was the Merchant Venturers, their allies and the Church who did. It is noticeable that the very institutions that had a financial and historical interest in defending Edward Colston’s legacy and actively did so, were completely absent from the M Shed display.

No Merchant Venturers?

During a private viewing of the display this week a journalist asked an M Shed spokesperson “why is there no mention anywhere here of the Society of Merchant Venturers” a question to which he had little response. If you remove the powerful from the equation than essentially you reduce the protagonists to the powerless, something which certainly suits the powerful. For example, posing angry Bristol Post letter writers versus Black Lives Matter protestors, whilst the people really with the power over the legacy of Edward Colston, the Society of Merchant Venturers, remain in the shadows.

In contrast, what we do find in the M Shed timeline are the initiatives of the Mayor (through the History Commission) and the Deputy-Mayor (through the Slavery Legacy Group), arguably of little relevance to the Colston protests; the former was only set up after the statue had been toppled and the latter failed to be anything more than a talking shop. The fact the Mayor from the moment he was elected in 2016 stated he had no interest in the Countering Colston campaign, actively distanced himself from it and encouraged his colleagues to do the same, has been quietly forgotten. Although the much lauded but failed 2018 project to place a ‘corrective plaque’ on the statue appears in the timeline, even this has been censored. The project which had been given the go-ahead by the Mayor, ended in fiasco with Council Officers blaming the Mayor for intervening at the last minute after a member of the Merchant Venturers and his supporters had sanitised the wording. The Merchant Venturers apologised for their intervention a year later. However, there is no mention of the Venturers or the Mayor or in fact anyone in this entry of the timeline. This suggests that the whole content of the display has been vetted to remove institutions that defended the Colston legacy, any events which expose their involvement and any which are politically embarrassing for the Mayor and his colleagues. It’s all a bit 1984 isn’t it?

The masking of the powerful defenders of Colston in the display and the writing out of the successes of the Countering Colston Campaign to be replaced with facile Mayoral initiatives may be a product of ignorance or fear of upsetting the powerful who still exercise significant influence in the city. Either way it empties the display of a lot of its important contentions and effectively sanitises the history of dissent and protest.

Argument and counterargument

Another aspect of the display, that you might imagine would be important in a public consultation, but which was also sadly lacking was the posing of arguments and counterarguments about the memorialization of slave-traders. Foregrounding dubious arguments in defence of Colston’s memorialisation such as ‘erasing history’, ‘Africans sold Africans’, ‘it was legal at the time’, ‘everyone was at it’, ‘slavery can be balanced by philanthropy’ etc. and, more importantly, systematically refuting them helps inform the public of the content of debate that has been raging over the last few years. It allows them to make better judgements and not to revert to simplistic or emotive soundbites. Yet, none of this vital, nitty gritty material is present in the display. Instead we are merely left to fill in a survey with some vague comments about the History Commission reporting their recommendations to the Mayor who will then decide on the ‘long-term future of Colston’s statue’. This looks like another ‘kicking the can down the road’ scenario. Bearing in mind these critical omissions, was the proposed consultation flawed from the start?

Finally, it should be pointed out….and I hope the Mayor is listening…none of this would have happened without the actions of the brave Black Lives Matter protestors last June whose historic actions have reverberated around the world. In particular, the Colston 4 who await their trial. Let’s hope the Mayor and Bristol Culture don’t forget them, as they seem to be forgetting quite a lot of important things these days.

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