Statues around the world must be feeling a bit wobbly at the moment. One minute you’re on your plinth, your plaque firmly in place, the next you’ve either been torn down and thrown into the water or been protectively boxed up, to stop protesters defacing you.
I spent many happy and interesting times in Bristol, in fact ate my first pizza there (“Good grief! This is what food can taste like!”) and went to my first real concert in Colston Hall.
Oh dear, there we have it. Because Colston Hall is named after Edward Colston (1636-1721), the benefactor of Bristol, whose plinth was high and whose plaque claimed he was the most virtuous and wise son of the City.
The problem is that all the money he splashed out for those wonderful buildings and institutions had been made in the most dreadful and appalling way.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, adventurers such as John Hawkins and (Sir) Francis Drake learned that the way to get ahead was to get a ship, sail somewhere, steal whatever you could find and take it back and give it to her Maj. After all, the world belonged to England! This business model caught on really fast, and continued for hundreds of years.
Colston was a director of the Royal African Company, which had been formed by King Charles I’s brother James expressly to deal in slaves from Africa.
The ‘Triangular Trade’ meant that ships laden with British goods sailed to Africa and traded, for example, beads – conveniently made by Edward Colston’s brother’s Company – in return for human beings.
After being bought, the people were branded on their chests with the company’s mark and then laden, like goods, onto ships which crossed the Atlantic to the Americas – the ‘Middle Passage’.
Between 1640 and 1807 Britain alone transported 3.1 million Africans (of whom 2.7 million arrived) to the British colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America.
On arrival they were sold into a lifetime of slavery on Plantations. The ships were then loaded with sugar, tobacco, raw cotton, and returned to England. This trade was the basis for England’s booming wealth and for the personal wealth of many English families, still in prominent roles and positions today.
It took William Wilberforce many years to persuade Parliament to make this unspeakable trade illegal.
Surprisingly, the statue to Colston was erected long after he died. And for the last years the citizens of Bristol had been asking their council to please add another plaque, explaining how he made his money. Or put the statue in a museum, with context. Or to – well they made loads of suggestions, none of which were continued suitable.
So last week a crowd demonstrating in Bristol decided to take things into their own hands and tore down that statue and threw it into the water.
I am glad it’s gone.
The Cabin Fever part