What to do with Edward Colston

There’s a very interesting article by David Olusoga in today’s Observer, ‘Bristol’s Colston Hall is an affront to a multicultural city. Let’s rename it now’, in which he calls for the end to the memorialisation of a ‘long dead purveyor of human flesh’. Edward Colston (1636-1721) moved to London during the English Civil War, apprenticed with the London Mercers’ Company in 1654, sat on the board of the Royal African Company from the 1680s, and amassed a great fortune from the slave trade. According to Kenneth Morgan, Colston’s biographer for the Oxford DNB, he was celebrated in eighteenth-century Bristol for philanthropic endowments which included Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Colston Boys School, and many of Bristol’s churches.

Olusoga calls for the renaming of the Colston Hall and the ‘toppling’ of the statue of Colston which stands in the city centre. An extended extract from Olusoga’s article is worth quoting in full:

Yet the rhetorical stance taken by those opposed to the renaming of Bristol’s Colston Hall is less a cogent argument and more a tacit accusation – attack camouflaged as a form of defence.

The argument goes like this. To seek to rename the concert hall, or to want to topple the statue of Edward Colston that overlooks the docks from which Bristol’s slave ships once sailed is – somehow – to seek to erase a part of the city’s history. It is a contemptibly disingenuous position and Colston’s defenders know it. Buildings are not named in order to help us remember our history, they are named to honour rich and powerful men; and sometimes they are men whom we should revile rather than honour.

Olusoga goes on to state that ‘no British city is more wilfully blind to its history than Bristol’, which is very troubling indeed: I don’t know whether or not this is true, but it is certainly a challenge for historians working at Bristol University not to stay silent on the issue. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take. I agree with Olusoga that careful thought needs to be given to this: do we really want to publicly honour a slave-trader in the twenty-first century? But I believe that we should take each issue, the concert hall renaming and the statue, separately.

Let’s do the easy one first. I do not understand why renaming the Colston Hall should be objectionable to anybody. Just do it. We rename things all the time and no history is erased. This sounds flippant, but if we can rename a street or a stadium to honour a new local hero or commercial sponsor, then we can just get on and rename the Colston Hall. It doesn’t even really matter what the issue is: it causes a great deal of offence to a great many of our fellow citizens and that alone should be enough to encourage the powers that be to just get on with it. Who will a name change actually harm? Nobody. Will a single archival record be destroyed? No. Will any ‘history’ be erased? Absolutely not.

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Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Credit: Peter Hughes via Flickr

The statue is a rather different issue. ‘Toppling’ it would be an act of destruction and iconoclasm and so, I think, rather more care needs to be taken when deciding what to do. By all means let’s remove the statue from the city centre, but I do disagree with Olusoga here: ‘toppling’ it would amount to erasing part of the city’s history and, I fear, would only feed any ‘wilful blindness’ that Bristolians might show to their own past.

It is not a very accurate testament to Edward Colston, but the statue is nonetheless an important part of our history. This is because we need to remember not only the slave trade itself, but also the impulse to celebrate participants like Colston in the nineteenth century, when the statue was constructed. Why did the Victorians want to erect this memorial in the first place – that question seems to me to be as important as any other and ‘toppling’ Colston would be one move towards forgetting that particular episode.

So here’s what I would do. I would carefully remove the statue from the city centre, in its entirety, and put it in a museum. Give it proper historical context: not in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, where it is just an anachronism, but in the nineteenth and twentieth, where it properly belongs. Let’s do what historians always do and turn an inaccurate and offensive icon into a revealing and crucial artefact. There is no reason to celebrate Edward Colston today, but let us agree a more suitable replacement in the city centre without airbrushing a crucial moment in our shared past. Free ourselves from the burden of his presence and make our ancestors ‘own’ him. As he currently stands, Colston is part of our present. We should make him part of our history.

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