The Colston Statue: What Next?
On June 7, 2020, a group of protestors in Bristol tore down a statue of the seventeenth century merchant and benefactor Edward Colston, erected in 1895, and threw it in the river Avon. They were showing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that had spread from the USA across the globe after the death of Georg Floyd in Minneapolis, two weeks earlier. Floyd was the descendent of Africans brought to North America as slaves. His murder at the hands of a white policeman seemed both to recall the history of that oppression as well as indicating that the subjugation of African Americans had never really come to an end.
Before donating money to churches, hospitals and the city of Bristol in the seventeenth century, Edward Colston had made his wealth trading human beings such as Floyd’s ancestors. To the protestors in Bristol targeting the Colston statue there was a historical logic in removing it from its plinth and putting it at the bottom of the sea where so many Africans ended their lives while they were transported across the Atlantic. But what was to happen to the statue? Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, decided that the issue ought to be settled by the ‘We are Bristol’ History Commission. In order to understand the work of that commission, Passés Futurs asked a few questions to its chairman, Professor Tim Cole of the University of Bristol.
Olof Bortz – Professor Cole, you have served as the chair of the ‘We are Bristol’ History Commission since its inception in September 2020. This commission was set up by the Mayor of Bristol, the Labour politician Marvin Rees, in the aftermath of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in June 2020. It is reminiscent of similar commissions in the USA, that have dealt with confederate monuments. Could you provide the reader with some of the local and national political context to this particular response to the protests concerning British monuments in the summer of 2020?
Tim Cole – There is a longer running history in Bristol and Britain of questions being raised about the appropriateness of statues to those who were involved in the Transatlantic slave economy or colonial violence. In Bristol, that focused on the statue of Edward Colston in the centre of the city, but elsewhere other statues have been critiqued – for example the statue of Cecil Rhodes overlooking the High Street in Oxford. As you suggest in your question, the questioning of the place of statues celebrating figures who were involved in racial violence is something that has taken place from South Africa to North America and beyond. As elsewhere, the question of whether to remove statues or not has been contentious.
I suppose the difference in Bristol is that the commission was not set up to discuss the future statue while it still stood, but came after it had already been toppled. That meant that our remit was rather different. It was to engage the city in a discussion of what to do with the fallen statue and empty plinth now, but also the broader questions of who gets remembered (and forgotten) on the streets of the city. Beyond that the Mayor saw this as an opportunity for wider historical reflection on Bristol’s complex past.
Olof Bortz – ‘We are Bristol’ History Commission has included scholars from disciplines such as history, philosophy, art, and law, who worked together with officers from the Bristol city council. How was the selection of scholars carried out and what was the role of the city council officers?
Tim Cole – The Mayor invited a number of scholars from different disciplines who lived and worked in the city to make up the History Commission, and asked me to chair it. As we’ve worked, we’ve added new members who bring in additional expertise to aid the work of the commission.
We have been supported by officers from Bristol City Council throughout, but the History Commission has been independent of the Council. What we have done is partner with professionals within the Council for different aspects of our work. For example, we worked very closely with curators at the city’s M-Shed museum to co-curate a temporary exhibition on the Colston statue in 2021. We saw this as a way to engage people in the city (and beyond through an online version of the display) with the history of the statue and the man it represents, and so an entry point into responding to the consultation and conversation about the future of the statue and plinth that we undertook. Running that consultation, we worked closely with colleagues in the city council teams that routinely undertake such exercises and their expertise was critical in helping us shape and undertake the city-wide survey. In short, we’ve worked closely with professionals in the city council while operating independently of the Council. That independence is something that the Mayor has been very keen to ensure throughout.
Olof Bortz – The commission seems to have made it one of their priorities to work as transparently as possible, for example by making the meeting minutes available to the public. Reading a sample of these minutes gives the impression of a rather harmonious process. Was this the case or were there also issues on which the members were not in agreement?
Tim Cole – Transparency has been important to us throughout. We wanted to make sure that everyone in the city could – if they were interested – find out what we have been discussing. We have also run online events that enable us to share our work publicly and respond to questions that anyone might have.
I was struck by your phrase “a rather harmonious process”. That has been the case. There has been a lot of respect and trust built up within the commission – something you hope for all groups – that means that we have been able to discuss hard questions openly and find consensus through listening to each other. One thing that has been key to this is a shared commitment to grappling with the complexity of the past and the historians’ concern with nuance in understanding, interpretation and argument.
Olof Bortz – The commission’s final report, and a summary, is available online. What was its main findings and recommendations?
Tim Cole – In the end we decided to ask three main questions of the city. The first two related to the fallen statue and the empty plinth, and we wanted to understand what people thought should now happen to them. But as well as asking what people thought, we also wanted to ask how people felt and so our third question was about how, a year after, people now felt about the fact that the statue had been toppled. We asked these questions particularly of people who live, study and work in Bristol, but we made an online consultation that anyone could respond to. In the end close to 14,000 people shared their thoughts and feelings. Half lived in Bristol, with the rest living in the nearby region, elsewhere in Britain or in some cases overseas. One thing that was important to us was to ensure that we heard the voices of people from across the city, rather than a narrow demographic. We did a number of things to ensure this, from posting paper questionnaires through the doors of houses in certain parts of the city that were initially underrepresented, to running road shows and focus groups with particular groups. In the end, those who responded in the city more-or-less reflected the diversity of the city in terms of things like age, gender, social class or ethnicity. This sense of the voices we heard being broadly representative was very important in feeling confident in analysing the findings and making a set of recommendations to the elected officials in the City Council.
When we asked whether they thought that the statue should go on permanent display in one of the city’s museums, most people thought this was the most appropriate future home for this complex object. Almost three-quarters (74%) of all respondents wanted the toppled statue to be displayed in a museum. This opinion was stronger in Bristol, where four-fifths (80%) wanted the statue in a museum. Of those who disagreed, some didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter (4%), others wanted the statue destroyed (c. 4%) while more wished to see it returned to its plinth (c. 12%). Many explained how they wanted the statue displayed in the museum. Most wished to see it lying down in its damaged and graffitied state, explaining that the toppling of the statue was now a critical part of its history. As well as contextualising the display within an exploration of the history of protest in the city, people also saw the need to explain the history of the statue being erected in the nineteenth century, and Colston’s involvement in transatlantic slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
While opinion on the future of the statue was fairly united, it was more mixed when it came to the empty plinth. A small number wanted it removed or to be once more home to the Colston statue. More wanted it left empty or to be home to a new artwork. The most popular view was that the plinth sometimes be left empty, and sometimes have a series of changing artworks installed on it. Some suggested that the plinth could function like a cross between the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square which hosts a changing series of installations, and Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park where anyone can stand on a box and talk about things that matter to them. What emerged from many comments was a desire that the plinth be a site for dynamic dialogue rather than monolithic monologue. One thing that respondents (65% of all respondents and 71% of Bristol respondents) did want to see was a plaque installed near the empty plinth to explain the events of the toppling on 7 June 2020.
Asking people how they now felt about those events, a slight majority of all respondents (56%) and Bristol respondents (65%) felt positive about the statue being pulled down. What was most striking when analysing these results was what emerged when we dug down into the demographic data that individuals offered when they completed the survey. We dug into this data for all of the questions but the correlations tended to be less clear-cut. However, when it came to the question of sentiment, there was a striking correlation between the age of respondents and how they felt about the statue being pulled down. While over four-fifths of younger people in the city (82% aged 18-24; 81% aged 25-34) were positive about the statue’s removal, the opposite was true for older people in the city. Around half of older people in the city (48% aged 65-74; 56% aged over 75) felt negative about the statue’s removal. This division of sentiment by age was mirrored for respondents outside Bristol as well as within the city. Digging into the comments it is clear that it was the manner of removal that divided sentiment. Younger people tended to express their pride at what they saw as justified and timely direct action. Older people tended to express their shame at what they saw as illegal vandalism.
Having consulted and analysed the results of the survey and focus groups, the History Commission presented a series of recommendations to elected officials in the City Council that were accepted. They reflected the findings of the survey, with the History Commission playing the role of drawing that opinion together, rather than offering its own opinion. The statue has entered into the collection of the city museum and will go on permanent display, informed by the ideas put forward by people in the city about how it should be displayed. As a commission we have recommended that a plaque be placed near to the empty plinth, suggesting the wording:
“On 13 November 1895, a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) was unveiled here celebrating him as a city benefactor. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the celebration of Colston was increasingly challenged given his prominent role in the enslavement of African people. On 7 June 2020, the statue was pulled down during Black Lives Matter protests and rolled into the harbour. Following consultation with the city in 2021, the statue entered the collections of Bristol City Council’s museums.”
Alongside this, we have recommended that the city explore the possibility of commissioning temporary artworks and activities – that could take a material or digital form – on and around the plinth.
One thing that struck us as we read through the comments of the thousands of people who responded, and especially those who told us how they felt about the statue being removed, was the importance of establishing democratic processes both nationally and locally for negotiating contested heritage. Reflecting on the divisions in feelings within the city and nationally by age, we see an urgent need for spaces of inter-generational dialogue to develop greater empathy and understanding including sharing views on the city’s past, present and future.
Olof Bortz – The report refers to organizations such as the “Legacy Steering Group,” “Historic England” and an organization called “Save our Statues.” While the name of the latter is of course self-explanatory I wonder if you could say a few words about these organizations and how the commission related to them.
Tim Cole – Before the commission was established, the City Council had already established a “Legacy Steering Group” to explore how Bristol might best memorialize and respond to the transatlantic trafficking and enslavement of African people. Our focus has not been on this question as we have thought both more about what to do with the Colston statue as well as how to have a wider city-wide conversation about history and memory, but we have worked alongside the Legacy Steering Group and have kept each other updated on our parallel work. Another key stakeholder in the national context is “Historic England”, which is responsible – among other things – for conserving listed heritage, including the plinth and statue of Colston. We have been working with them to identify the more focused technical questions of how the listing status of both can be changed to include the more recent history of protest and toppling.
When we began our consultation, the protest and pressure group “Save our Statues” took an interest. They encouraged their supporters to block book tickets to the temporary display of the statue at the M-Shed, and to complete the online consultation. Given this, museum staff admitted local walk-ins during the early days of the opening of the exhibition, before the online booking service returned to normal levels of activity. While there are some differences between Bristol and national responses, it is clear that those completing the online survey from around the country and beyond did not share the views of Save our Statues that is critical of the removal of any statues, including that of Colston.
Olof Bortz – The commission allowed the public to express their wishes and ideas about what to do with the Colston statue and the plinth, rather than weighing in as scholars. The report points to the need for democratic processes concerning how to deal with this kind of contested statues. This seems like reasonable suggestion but such processes also risk becoming a rallying ground for the far-right (which is of course also the case when monuments are removed without giving the public a chance to have their say). Is there a way to balance the imperative of finding democratic solutions to questions concerning public monuments with the possibility that such processes might not yield the result that political activists and progressives – who set such processes in motion – perceive as desirable?
Tim Cole – This is a question that gets to the heart of much broader questions of what we imagine democracy to be and do. In Bristol a democratic process – a city-wide consultation over a contested statue – was only undertaken once that statue had been toppled through direct action. For some who responded, this was getting things the wrong way round. Some explained that they wished that the city had done something along these lines much earlier, when voices were increasingly raised about whether it was appropriate to uncritically celebrate Colston in the centre of the city. In Britain, the challenge is that clear democratic processes for negotiating public space and contested heritage do not exist. One thing that the consultation suggests, is a consensus among the city that there is a need for precisely those kinds of processes. However, as I suggested from perhaps the most striking finding from the consultation, there remains a more divided response between young and old over whether democratic processes are the only way to achieve change. Without extrapolating too far, my sense is that the feelings of young people in the city – and wider country – point to wider frustrations with the failings of democracy in achieving change.