TV presenter, author & historian David Olusoga appeared on Desert Island Discs on Sunday, talking about his life, family, experiences of racism, love of history and more. He also talked about his life in Bristol, and the events of 7th June 2020 when the Colston Statue was toppled and ended up in the harbour. You can listen to the whole 35 minutes on BBC Sound here, at around 23 minutes in he starts to talk about Colston, and at approx 24 min 30 seconds he says this:
“I wish it had been removed 20 to 30 years ago by the authorities, and it would have been if there had not been people in Bristol determined to defend the life of a mass murderer.”
He has a fair bit to say about the whole affair, so do listen in full. But Olusoga isn’t new to this subject, he’s not jumping on a bandwagon. He’s been writing & talking about his experiences of being black, working class and proud for years; about racism in Britain; and about his disgust that racist slave-traders have continued to be memorialised. In this Bristol Post article of 7th June – ‘He was a slave trader and a murderer’ – David Olusoga speaks out after Colston statue toppled – he’s reported as saying:
“This is a city that is 14 per cent BME with a statue of someone that was not just a slave trader, he was involved in the Royal Africa Company, the company that trafficked more people into slavery than any in British history,” said Prof Olusoga. “The fact that it has not been seen as a problem for such a long time, that so many people are confused as to why the statue offends so many people has been the problem. Removing statues is not erasing history, this is the constant accusation made by people who have been digging into this history trying to make the city more aware of who Colston was. I’m afraid today should never have happened because this statue should have been taken down and it should have been a great collective day for Britain and Bristol when the statue was peacefully taken down and put in a museum which is where, after all, we remember history properly. Statues are not the mechanisms by which we understand history. We learn history through museums, books, television programmes. Statues are about adoration. They’re about saying ‘this man was a great man who did great things’. That’s not true. He was a slave trader and a murderer.”
On the 8th June he wrote this article – The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history – for The Guardian. It’s a good article articulating the reality of the slave-trade. In it he wrote:
The crowd who saw to it that Colston fell were of all races, but some were the descendants of the enslaved black and brown Bristolians whose ancestors were chained to the decks of Colston’s ships. Ripped from his pedestal, Colston seemed smaller: diminished in both size and potency. Lying flat, with his studied pensive pose, he looked suddenly preposterous. It was when the statue was in this position that one of the protesters made a grim but powerful gesture. By placing his knee over the bronze throat of Edward Colston, he reminded us of the unlikely catalyst for these remarkable events [AltBristol note – the murder of george Floyd in the USA, where a white cop knelt on his neck for over 8 minutes}.
The fact that a man who died 299 years ago is today on the front pages of most of Britain’s newspapers suggests that Bristol has not been brilliant at coming to terms with its history. Despite the valiant and persistent efforts of campaigners, all attempts to have the statue peacefully removed were thwarted by Colston’s legion of defenders. In 2019, attempts to fix a plaque to the pedestal collapsed after Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, the high priests of the Colston cult, insisted on watering down the text, adding qualifications that, it was felt, had the effect of minimising his crimes. Yet what repulsed many about the statue was not that it valorised Colston but that it was silent about his victims, those whose lives were destroyed to build the fortune he lavished upon the city.
…Now is not the time for those who for so long defended the indefensible to contort themselves into some new, supposedly moral stance, or play the victim. Their strategy of heel-dragging and obfuscation was predicated on one fundamental assumption: that what happened on Sunday would never happen. They were confident that black people and brown people who call Bristol their home would forever tolerate living under the shadow of a man who traded in human flesh, that the power to decide whether Colston stood or fell lay in their hands. They were wrong on every level. Whatever is said over the next few days, this was not an attack on history. This is history. It is one of those rare historic moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.
Powerful words from this man who experienced racism at the very sharp end in his working class childhood in the north east. A reminder too, that whilst the likes of the Society of Merchant Venturers have engaged in a massive overhaul of their history since 7th June (see their website!), and belatedly apologised for their role in cheerleading for Colston for centuries, they show no signs at all of giving up one ounce of their power & wealth gained from their evil history.
As four people out of the thousands present on 7th June, face Court on 25 January on a charge of criminal damage, the British state and the overwhelmingly white ruling class elite who run it, still have time to see sense. Acknowledge that this making of history on the 7th June happened because they refused to allow change previously. Drop the charges and the court case.
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This isn’t over yet!