A Black Lives Matter vigil was held to mark the death of George Floyd and to protest against institutional racism in our own country. Thousands of people attended, but this isn’t why the city was in the news.
A statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth century MP and slave trader, which had stood watch over the city he loved since 1895, was torn down and rolled to the harbour where his ships docked and dumped there, reminiscent of the way unruly slaves were disposed of on the voyages back from the African Continent.
This event was, to say the least, controversial.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion to share. The Mayor, Marvin Rees, and a number of cabinet ministers took to the airwaves, alongside a selection of the city’s citizens. There were even reports of people trying to fish the statue out of the dock with their bare hands. While the city as a whole might be glad the statue got pulled down, many in the nation felt it was done in the wrong way.
Some argued that this was erasing history, that Colston himself gave so much money to the city that he deserves to be remembered, while others said that statues glorify people, such as artists, war heroes and soldiers, why would they give that treatment to someone who sold human lives?
The debate still goes on today, and the plinth where Colston stood is still empty. This week it witnessed another crowd gathering, as people met to remember the events of 7 June 2020.
Colston’s Plinth was surrounded with messages written in chalk, including one prominent one proclaiming “Glad Colston’s Gone” which was certainly a sentiment shared among the crowd. They were even selling mugs with the message on, all money going to the fund established to support the “Colston Four”, who face charges related to the destruction of the statue.
Many of the messages made reference to the fallen statue and how a subsequent exhibition at the local M-Shed didn’t tell the full story as to why it was kept up for so long. One man I spoke to pointed out the influence of a group called the Society of Merchant Venturers, who in 2018 vetoed a proposal by the Mayor to alter the plaque that adorned the plinth to reflect Colston’s ambiguous history.
Indeed, the Society has been involved with the statue since it was erected in 1895, over 170 years after the man died and 61 years after the abolition of Slavery across the Empire. They were the ones who funded it and looked after it. Why, one man asked, didn’t the new exhibition mention them once?
Then, as people gathered, organisers started to speak. A poem was read out. Called “The Bristol Bubble”, it referenced the country’s treatment of BAME people & issues and how the city hit international news. The crowd fell silent to listen.
After this poignant speech, Ros Martin, who had been arrested outside the Magistrates Court where the Colston 4 were being prosecuted, addressed the crowd. She related the events leading up to her arrest and detention and her alleged mistreatment by the police. Ros went on to give a personal account of what it was like to be a black person living in Bristol over the past 25 years.
All in all, the event was a celebration as well as a wake. There was an air of mourning, for George Floyd, for the Colston Four, whom many say were wrongly targeted by the police, and also for all the unnamed people who were carted off from their homes to a strange land.
Overnight a plaque had been erected at the spot on the harbour where the statue was dumped. It describes what happened that day and carries the words of the Bristol Poet Laureate at the time, Vanessa Kisuule, made shortly after last year’s event.