Toppling of slave trader’s statue a major moment
IN AN English port city that once launched slave ships, an empty plinth has become the centre of a debate about racism, history, and memory.
For over a century, the pedestal in Bristol held the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader whose wealth helped the city grow. On Sunday, anti-racism demonstrators pulled the 18-foot (5.5 metre) bronze likeness down, dragged it to the nearby harbour, and dumped it in the River Avon.
On Monday, the empty base, surrounded by Black Lives Matter placards, drew a stream of activists, office workers, and onlookers. Some posed proudly in front of it, others stood in silence, a few argued. Some Bristolians said that toppling the statue was historical vandalism. Others welcomed the removal of a stain on their city.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” said Katrina Darke, a family doctor.
Chyna Lee, a 24-year-old recruitment consultant, said that she didn’t advocate vandalism, but “I’m quite happy it got dumped in the river”.
“There have been petitions and requests to get the statue removed,” she said. “I just think people weren’t listening to anything at all, and everyone is very fed up.”
Images of protesters toppling the statue – one posing with his knee on its neck, evoking the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police – made news around the world. They resonated, especially in the United States, where campaigners have sought to remove Confederate memorials.
Since Floyd’s death, Black Lives
Matter protests have spread across the US and to countries around the globe, including Britain. Demonstrators in London, Glasgow, Bristol, and other UK cities – whose cultural diversity is rooted in Britain’s long-vanished empire – have expressed solidarity with the United States and also demanded change closer to home.
The protests have been predominantly peaceful, but after some demonstrators in London hurled objects at police and spray-painted a statue of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the outbreaks of “thuggery.”
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said the prime minister viewed the statue-toppling in Bristol as “a criminal act” and said the police should “hold to account those responsible”. Home Secretary Priti Patel, Britain’s interior minister, said the toppling of Colston’s statue was “sheer vandalism” and “completely unacceptable”.
But Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees said it was a significant moment in the city’s history.
“I cannot condone criminal damage,” said Rees, who is the city’s first black mayor. “But also, as the descendant of Jamaicans who were enslaved at some point, and this man was a slaver, I won’t deny that the statue was an affront to me.”
Colston has long been a problematic presence in Bristol, 120 miles (195 kilometers) southwest of London. He was a senior official in the Royal African Company, which, in the late 1600s, trafficked 80,000 African men, women, and children to slavery in the Americas.
Bristol went on to become Britain’s biggest port for slave ships during the early 18th century. Ships based in the city transported at least half a million Africans into slavery before Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Many 18th-century Bristolians helped fund the trade and shared in the profits, which also built handsome Georgian houses and buildings that still dot the city.
Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England, on Sunday, in response to the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA.