Bristol’s Colston statue was toppled because racist historical narratives have not been effectively challenged - RSA

Bristol’s Colston statue was toppled because racist historical narratives have not been effectively challenged

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  • Picture of Becca Antink
    Becca Antink
    Former Researcher, Public Services and Communities
  • Leadership
  • Philosophy
  • Social justice

In recent days, videos of the dramatic toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston have dominated many UK news and social media feeds.

Official responses from government and police leaders have denounced the actions of Black Lives Matter protesters involved as criminal vandalism. But activists, local leaders, historians and others have highlighted it as a watershed moment.

Current RSA research into the relationship between heritage and inclusive growth has highlighted the importance of challenging conventional heritage narratives in order to recognise the voices and histories of those that have been marginalised by these accounts.

The felling of the Colston statue following years of formal attempts to remove it is a powerful testament to how we have failed to effectively do this through existing democratic governance and administrative processes.

The result has been that fundamentally racist historical narratives and narrow interpretations of local heritage have continued to feed into ongoing inequalities and prejudices. Current protests highlight how these inequalities inflict physical and psychological violence upon people of colour.

Inherently racist narratives celebrate the philanthropy of individuals that loom large in the histories and built environments of many of our historic towns and cities. Normalising the fact that their wealth, and the benefits it accrued them, was fundamentally built on the enslavement of thousands of people.

Recent decades have seen a growing shift in the heritage sector away from a focus on the history and stories of a narrow elite. But these elites used their wealth and influence to literally build and shape many of the places we continue live and work in today, placing their version of themselves in the centre of our civic spaces.

Indeed, the Colston statue is counted as a heritage asset as part of the RSA’s own Heritage Index.

By keeping statues such as the memorial to Colston in their original contexts, the individuals they depict are literally pedestalised in important and visible public places. An unchallenged, symbolic domination of our historic built environment, and by extension the accepted version of the history of that place and its people.

A visceral reminder of whose history, whose voice, is centred and valued. And whose isn’t.

Bristol residents passing Colston’s memorial statue in their city centre, walking down streets and past schools, buildings and pubs named after him have been implicitly told that his philanthropy – which itself was conditional on recipients sharing his own political and religious beliefs – outweighs his role as a slave trader.

That, as stated by the plaque, he continued to stand as ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’.

This, of a man who was involved in the enslavement of 84,000 Africans. Of those, 12,000 were children under ten years old. 19,000 of them died on slave ships.

Bristol is home to one of the oldest black communities in the UK and is diverse with diasporas from all over the world. For many Bristolians confronted with the celebration of his legacy across the city on a daily basis, they could have had ancestors on one of Colston’s ships, and if not his then one belonging to someone not dissimilar to him.

Seeing the statue as part of daily life has been articulated as a ‘heavy threat’ by Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kissule.

Her poem, written in response to the events of the weekend, reflects how communities impacted  by institutionalised racism and structural inequalities in their day to day lives do not disassociate this from the historical legacies of slavery and colonialism as represented by the statue.

Many commentators have observed that the social moment in which the Black Lives Matter protests have emerged is the point at which two public health pandemics are disproportionately killing people of colour – state violence and Covid-19.

In the UK, black people are over four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people. And according to some measures are twice as likely to die in police custody than any other ethnicity. At the same time, global economic inequalities between different parts of the world created by colonialism have also evolved and continue today.   

The picture emerging at global protests is that those taking to the streets have a strong sense of how history has shaped the present.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that heritage monuments to individuals culpable for historic atrocities committed against black people have become a flashpoint for those protesting current day racism and violence as part of the Black Lives Matters Movement.

While controversy about the legality of the protester’s actions is the focus of many headlines, what cannot be disputed is that events in Bristol are a powerful testament to the way in which heritage is directly relevant to our contemporary society and daily lives.

Celebrated Bristol harbourside museum The M Shed has collected placards discarded by Sunday’s protesters, which supports the argument made by historian David Olusoga that the toppling of the Colston statue at the weekend was not the destruction of history, but history itself in the making.

Yesterday, the removal of the statue in Bristol was referenced at the funeral of George Floyd in Texas. Colston’s statue has not been destroyed, but its story has changed.

Many have condemned the actions of the protesters and argued that the statue should have been removed legally. But local campaigners had been frustrated in attempts to do just this for many years. Despite their efforts, and those of local heritage practitioners, governance and administrative arrangements functioned to sustain the status quo.

We are now seeing calls for a widespread review of monuments celebrating individuals such as Colston. Indeed, many councils across the country have now committed to just that.

So what does this mean for those in the heritage sector and local government who are often custodians of the buildings, monuments and artefacts across the country which celebrate similarly problematic figures?

Emerging insights from current RSA research (due to be published this summer) highlights the crucial importance of involving a diverse range of voices in heritage practice and decision making.

One example of particular relevance in light of events in Bristol is Soho House in Birmingham. It was originally home to a feted industrialist and philanthropist who supported the abolition movement while also profiting from selling steam engines for use on slave plantations.

Today it is open to the public, working to grapple with this history and to challenge established and monocultural heritage narratives by running discussion events with young people of colour on current issues such as colourism and cultural appropriation. Crucially, they are also establishing a Young Advisory Board, to be involved with the development of the site’s programme and to ensure that the heritage and voices of their diverse local communities are represented.

Undoubtedly, there are many uncomfortable questions to be asked and challenging conversations to be had around how we address the role that heritage plays in sustaining or disrupting the inequalities and injustices within contemporary society.

But collectively we have shied away from this discomfort for too long. For those of us not personally on the sharp end, current protests function to confront us with the reality that avoidance is a luxury we cannot continue to justify.

Diverse local communities must be directly and meaningfully involved in decision making processes around local heritage, and actively centred in the dialogues required around what we do with the heritage assets and historic organisations which symbolise or have been involved with so many past and contemporary injustices.

The statue has now been retrieved from the harbour. The extent to which local communities are empowered to lead the dialogue about what happens to the statue next could have far reaching implications for how other communities respond, whether it is Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, or Henry Dundas in Edinburgh.

After the events in Bristol at the weekend it is now undeniable that the established historical narrative that elevated Colston’s philanthropy and obscured his role as a slave trader has been irrevocably undermined. His story is now as much, if not more, about how his memorial monument was removed, and why.

But what really counts now is what happens next.

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  • Just thought I'd chip in as a long-standing Bristol resident. Hearing the news of the statue's toppling a friend of mine expressed concern about "mob rule" and fears of "Taliban-like" tyrannical erasing of history. But it was always evident that this statue was an offence to many people in our city - severely disenfranchised. I agree with you that it was "not the destruction of history, but history itself in the making" and it "has not been destroyed, but its story has changed". It is consistent with Bristol's history in many ways.

    Nevertheless, there is another section of the community which is fearful, who feel themselves to be Bristolian, equally disenfranchised, and they feel they have no voice in the current debate about their own identity. I hope they will be able to come to terms with the next episode in the story of the statue.