Toppling statues: the right step against racism

Polly Stevens discusses Edward Colston's statue toppling and why it is the right move for the Black Lives Matter movement

Polly Stevens
16th June 2020
During Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, my brother and I joined the congregation dragging the recently dismantled bronze statue of Edward Colston towards Bristol Harbour. Minutes later, we and hundreds of others watched as the figure was toppled headfirst into the water with a satisfying splash. 

The gesture has sparked huge controversy. Some view the removal of the affluent slave trader’s effigy as the beginning of a new, positive chapter for the city of Bristol, in which a mass murderer will no longer cast his shadow over the city centre. Some consider it a form of airbrushing history, a slippery slope towards deliberate falsification of the past and even despotism. Others view it as blatant vandalism. 

Modern day Bristol’s wealth is largely built on the role that it played in 17th century slave trafficking. Edward Colston, a slave trader and board member of the Royal African Company, oversaw the transportation of an estimated 84,000 slaves from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the New World between 1672 and 1689. Around 19,000 are believed to have died during the journey alone.

This man has been depicted in bronze in Bristol city centre for 125 years. Prior attempts at the statue’s removal or relocation to a museum failed, and in 2019, endeavours to fix a plaque explaining the slave trader’s history collapsed after Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers insisted on editing the text. Colston’s statue epitomises the causes of recent BLM protests; the consistently overlooked examples of contemporary racism in today’s society.

Bristol’s involvement with the slave trade remains a matter of viable truth; the gesture has not eradicated history. Rather, it has questioned our engagement with the narrative. The statue’s purpose was not to spark discussion of Colston’s deeds, nor remember the thousands of enslaved lives lost; it was a literal celebration of the slave trader.

Having grown up in Bristol, it is glaringly obvious that the toppling of Edward Colston’s effigy has done more to educate people as to the nature of the slave trade than the years of my lifetime in which it has been standing.

Society’s engagement with the past is an excellent indicator of its present condition. There are hopes that recent events will ignite discussion as to the possibility of establishing a museum to provide a permanent memorial of Bristol’s role in trafficking men, women and children from Africa across the Atlantic into slavery. In the meantime, however, the removal of the slave trader’s statue is a long-overdue step in the right direction in the BLM campaign against systemic racism. 

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