Edward Colston: Debate rages on after calls for the removal of his statue

Edward Colston: Debate rages on after calls for the removal of his statue

A local Member of Parliament (MP) has called for the statue of Edward Colston to be torn down due to his links to the Transatlantic slave trade.

Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West, believes the city should not be honouring the memory of Colston as he “benefited from slavery”.

Mrs Debbonaire said at an event celebrating Black History Month that “Having statues of people who oppressed us is not a good thing to be saying to black people in this city.”

The topic of remembering Edward Colston has become a heated topic in the city in recent years, correlating with the growing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population in the city.

Thangam Debbonaire. Image credit: https://www.debbonaire.co.uk/

Bristol City Council had planned to add a second plaque to the statue, which would describe Colston’s role in the slave trade.

The plaque was suggested as part of a campaign reassessing the ways Bristol remembers its history with the slave trade and how the city deals with the legacy of Colston.

The statue of Edward Colston was erected in the city centre in 1895 and designed by John Cassidy, to commemorate Colston’s philanthropy.

Proposed wording of the plaque. Image credit: Bristol City Council.

This comes after the announcement in 2017 that the Colston Hall would no longer be named as such, due to his links with the Transatlantic slave trade.

The city of Bristol became an important place in the Transatlantic slave trade, due to its location on the Atlantic coast and of its history of trading with Europe, with Bristol becoming the second city of England as a result of the vast wealth it had achieved.

The owners of the music venue, the Bristol Music Trust, were concerned that the links to slavery would tarnish the reputation and put off acts and investors.

It came after a petition to change its name received over 2000 signatures, pressure from anti-racism protestors and a boycott of the venue from Bristolian band Massive Attack, putting pressure on the owners to change the name.

Chief Executive of the Bristol Music Trust Louise Mitchell said: “The name Colston does not reflect the trust’s values as a progressive, forward-thinking and open arts organisation.

“Effectively, I’ve been selling a toxic brand up to now.”

Leader of Countering Colston – Campaign to Decolonise Bristol, Katie Finnegan-Clarke, was pleased with the name change.

“We really are delighted. We will now continue to target all of the buildings named in honour of Edward Colston.

“We want his statue taken down and put in a museum. The schools must also be renamed.”

The Grade II listed Colston Hall was first opened in 1867, on the site of a school that Colston founded on its location.

Edward Colston, the merchant, philanthropist and politician who played an integral role in Bristol’s history, is remembered across the city.

But there was a significant number of people in the city who were clearly opposed to the name change.

Max Barton, a UWE Masters History student, began a petition to counter the name change which received over four times as many signatures as the petition calling for the name change.

“As a historian you naturally aim to preserve history and to research and contextualise it.

“I didn’t think it was contextualising history. I saw it as nothing but a destruction of history really.

“I think the name should definitely stay and it should act as a conduit for education.”

Political historian Sir Anthony Seldon also criticised the decision: “The slave trade was noxious, but we learn better lessons from history, not by trying to obliterate the past, but by trying to understand it and the context in which people acted.

“Changing names is the beginning of a slippery slope.”

This is merely just a part of wider trend, as names of buildings have changed and statues have been torn down of some of history’s more controversial figures.

Across parts of Africa, namely the former British colonies, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, beginning in Cape Town in March 2015, took hold in protest of statues of diamond magnate Cecil John Rhodes and saw his statue at the University of Cape Town removed.

This campaign spread to England as the Oxford Union students voted to remove his statue at Oxford University, but this decision was later reversed as donors threatened to stop making donations to the university.

In the USA in 2017, protests occurred as statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee were taken down in Charlottesville, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana, while another was vandalised in Richmond, Virginia.

In Bristol in 2017, cosmetics shop Lush was attacked by campaigners for having a quote by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill on its shop window, branding Churchill a “war criminal and white supremacist”.

In August 2018, the statue of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, was carted off outside the city hall building in Victoria, British Columbia, because of controversy over his treatment of native communities.

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