As protests against racism spread across Europe, protesters in solidarity with the death of George Floyd in the United States of America decided to attack their own local brand of racism. In the English port city of Bristol on Sunday, a group of 10,000 demonstrators tore down a 125-year-old statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and marched through the city streets to the port on the River Avon.
A petition seeking a reassessment of Colston’s contribution to the city of Bristol has been circulating for three years. “While history should not be forgotten, these people, who have benefited from the enslavement of individuals, do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who make positive changes and fight for peace, equality and social unity,” says the petition calling for the removal of his statue from the city centre. Last week alone, the petition collected some 7000 signatures.
The recent incident involving the demolition of the 18-foot Colston statue has caused a stir in the city. Residents were divided over its exact role in history. While some would like to remember him as a philanthropist who dedicated his fortune to the development and prosperity of Bristol, others are concerned about the exploitation of his work, which brought the same fortune.
Why is Edward Colston seen as a racist?
Colston was born in 1636 into a merchant family that had lived in Bristol since the 14th century. While he grew up in Bristol until the English Civil War from 1642 to 1641, his family later moved to London, where Colston began his professional life.
In the early stages of his career, Colston was involved in trading cloth, oil, wine and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa. In 1680, however, he joined the Royal African Company (RAC), which had a monopoly in England for trading gold, silver, ivory and slaves along the west coast of Africa.
The RAC was founded by King Charles II together with his brother James, the Duke of York. “The company’s ships enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy, and the traders made good profits,” write historians Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn in their article “Britain’s Commitment to Slavery in the New World and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”. “Many of the enslaved Africans have been branded with the initials ‘DY’, which stand for Duke of York. They were shipped to Barbados and other Caribbean islands to work on the new sugar plantations and further north to the American colonies of England. “
Colston rose fairly quickly to the company’s board of directors and in 1689 took over the position of deputy governor. During his time at RAC until 1692, the company is said to have transported about 84,000 slaves, of whom almost 20,000 are known to have died.
Why is Edward Colston considered a philanthropist?
Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London were the main ports for British companies trading African slaves across the Atlantic. The merchants, shipbuilders and sailors involved in the trade were an important source of income and wealth for these cities. Colston was one of these slave trade magnates who financed a variety of charitable projects in Bristol and London, including schools and poorhouses for the city’s poor, thus developing a reputation as a philanthropist.
“The priest who preached at his funeral in October 1721 would not have recognized the irony when he said that Colston knew of no shortage, but of more vessels in which the overflows of charity and benevolence could be deposited,” Mohamud and Whitburn write.
He briefly served as a Tory Congressman for Bristol before dying in Mortlake, Surrey, in 1721. Colston’s comprehensive five-volume work “The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1690-1715” describes Colston as follows: “In his day he was revered by Bristol’s company as “the highest example of Christian liberalism that this age has produced, both for the expansion of its charities and for their prudent regulation.
Colston’s image as a philanthropist is spread across the length and breadth of Bristol. Apart from the statue, which was recently demolished, his name is anchored on an independent school, a high-rise building called the Colston Tower, Colston Street and Avenue, and Colston Hall.
Who are some of the other personalities in European history who are attacked by anti-racism demonstrators?
Winston Churchill: In central London, the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was destroyed and demonstrators allegedly wrote “was a racist” on it. The country’s wartime prime minister, known among the British for his “indomitable spirit”, has also been accused by historians of his racist, imperialist policies that led to the deaths of many in British India.
King Leopold: Similar scenes also broke out in Belgium, with demonstrators on statues of the monarch King Leopold II. from the 19th century, whose administration of the Congo was heavily criticised for the atrocities and exploitation it led to. It is believed that the institutionalised brutality unleashed by Leopold in the Congo led to the death of some 10 million people. After several reports of abuse, the Belgian government took over the administration of the Congo from Leopold in 1908.
Leopold’s glorification in Belgium was a controversial issue and there were failed efforts to remove his statues. More recently, an online petition demanding the removal of his statues received 60,000 signatures. As part of the ongoing protests against racism, a bust of the monarch was made unrecognisable in the Belgian city of Ghent with the words “I can’t breathe”, symbolising the brutal death of Floyd. In Brussels too, demonstrators gathered around the statue of Leopold as they sang “Murderer”.