When the name of #EdwardColston started trending globally on the 7th June, it was for all the right reasons – the 125 year old statue memorialising the racist slave-trader, Tory MP, and member of the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV), had finally been taken down, and ended up being chucked in the Bristol harbour. By a large crowd of enraged Black Lives Matter protesters & supporters, with absolutely no help from Bristol’s political elites.
This spontaneous act of direct action turned the eyes of the world onto Bristol, Colston, the SMV, and the campaigners who’d worked so hard over many years to bring out the sickening truth about Colston & his cheerleaders at the unholy trinity of the church, SMV, and Bristol’s political elites. Suddenly everybody wanted to know more about Colston & those who’d supported him, and fortunately the campaigners had built up a store of well researched history on Colston & the SMV’s ill-gotten wealth & power (see resources below) to back up the direct action of the protesters. Colston’s cheerleaders were on the back foot, and it wasn’t only his statue that came down. His name started to rapidly disappear from numerous building as the domino effect kicked in – Colston Tower, Colston Hall & many other buildings dropped his name, literally. Streets bearing his name were autonomously changed. Bristol Cathedral, scene of many a Colston celebration, rushed to cover up their Colston memorial. The private fee-paying Colston Girls School held a consultation on their name, and voted overwhelmingly to change it…whilst a former HeadTeacher went public with his criticisms of the Venturers Trust (controlled by the SMV) suitability to run a school. The Dolphin Society, one of numerous charities set up to allow guilty profiteers to donate a few pennies to atone for their sins, announced it would be winding up. Then in mid-September it was reported by the tenacious Tristan Cork in the Bristol Post that the original Colston Society, formed in the mid 18th century by slave-traders & other wealthy types linked to the SMV, would itself be winding up at the end of 2020.
But of course some of those in power resisted any fundamental change. Bristol Council, led by the disappointing Mayor Rees, not only collaborated in the persecution of the Colston statue topplers, but having done nothing about the statue for 125 years (nor for the 4 years Rees had been in office), rushed to pull him out of the harbour, and then tore down within 24 hours an alternative temporary sculpture of BLM protester Jen Reid erected on the Colston plinth! Meanwhile the SMV effectively ran for cover – they issued a couple of mealy mouthed apologies (see here for example) and generally behaved as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, even as calls for their reform or outright disbanding increased. It’s a time honoured tactic of the ruling elites to shut up when the odds are against them, and like the weak Bristol Council leadership, just try and kick the particular problem down the road where it might get forgotten – the Council’s so-called Bristol History Commission, answerable to Mayor Rees, but with no clearly defined remit nor transparency, and destined to rumble on for years, is a prime example of that.
Yet the facts around Colston and the SMV remain partly obscured & confused, often by the design of those who still cheerlead for him. So an event tonight from 7.30 to 9pm, hosted by Tangent Books, and a part of the Bristol Festival of Literature, will go some way to resolving the Fact & Fiction that still surrounds Colston. Featuring 3 campaigners involved in the Countering Colston campaign, the event is free & online, and you can can register for the meeting here. Details:
In this two-part event authors Roger Ball and Mark Steeds of Bristol Radical History Group and Countering Colston discuss how facts, fictions and silences about the history of Edward Colston became part of the collective memory in the Victorian period and were subsequently challenged by historians, writers and artists. Ball & Steeds are the co-authors of ‘From Wulfstan to Colston – Severing the sinews of slavery in Bristol‘, which entirely coincidentally was published just 2 days before Colston’s statue was torn down.
Ros Martin is a literary-based artist and activist of many years standing. She will share an example of her work in relation to Bristol’s history and memory and talk about her literary practice: Raising Ghosts Of African Ancestors. Ros is the writer, director and narrator of Being Rendered Visible In The Georgian House Museum which you can view here. She is the producer of the trilogy Daughters Of Igbo Woman films (2017) which you will find here.
From Wulfstan To Colston is published by Bristol Radical History Group and available from Tangent Books and BRHG. You can buy the book here.
Want to know more about Colston & the SMV?
Check out the Countering Colston campaign
Read the BRHG articles on Colston, and on slavery, resistance and rebellion here
Articles largely by Tristan Cork in the Bristol Post cover a range of issues, news & events related to Colston
New book ‘Slavery and Bristol’, by the methodist historian GM Best, published by Tangent Books, is well worth a read
(Image credits – all images via AltBristol, Countering Colston & BRHG)