Erasing the Enslaved

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

John F Kennedy

No sooner had the jury reached a verdict on the charges of criminal damage to the statue of dead slaver Edward Colston than a petition was launched to try and overturn their decision. One wonders how many of the more than 28,000 people who have so far signed the petition would oppose a second referendum on Brexit because “you can’t just keep asking the same question until you get the answer you want”? They certainly aren’t familiar with the concept of double jeopardy, or how the appeals process works. And few, if any, of them will have all the information that the jury would have received in order to come to their decision.

For the same reason, we do not feel it is our place to comment on the fairness or unfairness of the outcome of a court case, except to say that we are not aware of any irregularities that would render the verdict invalid. We would, however, reiterate our objection to one of the most common arguments used against the defendants, the idea that “you can’t rewrite history.” The Colston statue was an attempt to do just that. It was not erected by Colston’s family, nor was it paid for with Colston’s blood money. Rather, it was sculpted in 1895, 174 years after Colston’s death, and commissioned by Whig charity The Anchor Society in response to the erection of a nearby statue of the abolitionist Tory MP Edmund Burke. The statue was part of an attempt to rehabilitate Colston as a kind of “father of the city”, concentrating on his philanthropy and erasing any discussion of how he got the money to pay for it. The Bristol establishment has long been active in trying to suppress the role of the Atlantic slave trade in the city’s history, most notably in a very public freak-out over the BBC’s 1998 dramatisation of Philippa Gregory’s novel A Respectable Trade. And Bristol’s most obnoxious councillor, Richard Eddy (who has a golliwog as his mascot, because of course he does) suggested in 2018 that had the council added a second plaque to the statue which expanded on Colston’s role in the slave trade (a move which would have prevented its toppling, which was in part a protest at Bristol City Council’s inaction in this matter), then vandalism would be justified. It seems some people are not opposed to erasing history when it suits them. In fact, far from erasing Colston’s name, the toppling of the statue has made it known around the world. Just not in the way that the Society of Merchant Venturers and other establishment figures would have wished.