The Colston Four
Edward Colston was, until recently, almost unknown outside Bristol. I learned about him soon after arriving in the city to work at the university in 2013. He seemed to be everywhere. There was a stained glass window dedicated to him in the cathedral, the main venue for music was called Colston Hall and a nearby office block was called Colston Tower. Every year on 13 November, ‘Colston Day’, schoolchildren would celebrate the long dead slave trader in a ceremony at the cathedral and eat ‘Colston buns’. The cult of Colston, which had taken root in the 19th century, was still going strong. The plaque beneath his statue said it had been ‘erected by Citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most wise and virtuous sons of their city, a.d. 1895’.
All attempts to remove the statue, over decades, had failed. It had proved impossible even to change the wording on that absurd plaque. A lot of the resistance came from the Society of Merchant Venturers, which manages much of Colston’s huge financial legacy (as well as vast physical spaces in the city, including the downs above the Avon Gorge). ‘Colston day’ actually celebrates the granting of a royal charter to the society in 1639.
On 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter held a huge demonstration in the centre of Bristol, on College Green, between the cathedral and the town hall. A large number of protesters broke away and headed for Colston’s statue. Some had ropes with them. As the crowd cheered and the police stood by, unwilling to defend the bronze figure of the slave trader, the statue fell. It was then dragged to the harbour – close to Pero’s Bridge, named in honour of Pero Jones who lived and died in Bristol, enslaved, in the late 18th century – and dumped in the water. One of the protesters, Jen Reid, stood on the plinth and made a black power salute. Many left their BLM posters at the scene (some were collected and taken to the city museum). At George Floyd’s funeral in Houston on 9 June 2020, the Reverend Al Sharpton said: ‘All over the world I’ve seen grandchildren of slave masters tearing down slave masters statues – over in England they put it in the river. I pour out my spirit among all flesh.’
The following day, some white men tried to fish Colston out of the harbour with scaffolding poles, unsuccessfully. Soon afterwards, as I was walking with my daughter by the docks, I saw the statue on a small boat. It had been recovered and was being taken to the city museum.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, was incandescent with rage. She contacted the Bristol police, asking why they had not prevented the toppling. A chaotic ‘save our statues’ demonstration was held in London, attracting far right elements. A drunk man was photographed urinating next to PC Keith Palmer’s memorial. In Bristol, ‘All Lives Matter’ protesters gathered to ‘defend’ the Cenotaph, opposite the empty Colston plinth. A statue of a black poet, Alfred Fagon, was attacked, and the gravestone of an enslaved man, Scipio Africanus, was smashed.
The police said they had a ‘duty to investigate’ the toppling of the statue as Bristol City Council ‘had not granted anyone permission to damage it’. Officers trawled through hours and hours of CCTV and phone footage. They issued photos of those they wished to ‘interview’. Some were fined and given community service. Eventually, four individuals from among the thousands there that day were picked out and charged with criminal damage. I was reminded of the Maoist slogan ‘strike one to educate one hundred’. It wasn’t clear the local police were especially enthusiastic about the trial.
In the meantime, the artist Marc Quinn had placed a statue of Jan Reid, fist in the air, on top of the empty plinth. It was a great sculpture. But the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, complained about ‘outsiders’ interfering in the city’s affairs, and had the statue removed after 24 hours, charging the artist for the costs associated with the operation. By June 2021 Colston was on show in the city museum, lying on his back (he looks much smaller like that) with an informative exhibition around him, and the banners from the demonstration.
The Colston Four admitted fully to their role in toppling the statue but pleaded not guilty to criminal damage. Their case went to a jury trial at Bristol Crown Court. The prosecution argued that the four were common criminals who had damaged property. Colston, they said, was ‘irrelevant’ to the trial. The defence, however, turned the case into a ten-day history lesson, calling the historian David Olusoga as a witness. The jury heard in detail about the horrors of slavery – the rapes, the murders, the branding, the trafficking of children – and about the statue itself: even when it was put up, nobody really wanted it. The defence argued that the statue was a ‘hate crime’. They also pointed out that the total cost of the damage caused by toppling it and dragging it along the pavement was only £3750.
Nobody expected the not guilty verdict that came on 5 January; the hope was for a mistrial at best. There were cheers from the small crowd that had gathered when the four emerged from the courtroom that afternoon. It was a privilege to be there: a historic moment for the city, and its relationship to the memory, and forgetting, of slavery.
The home secretary was stunned into silence. Right-wing culture warriors trotted out the stale old line that the protesters had been trying to ‘cancel history’ when in fact they had been doing precisely the opposite: correcting the historical lie that Colston was a ‘wise and virtuous son’ who deserved to be venerated. Another lie was that anyone who wanted to remove the statue should have done so by ‘democratic means’. Such means had been tried and had been blocked by the Merchant Venturers for years. Since Colston came down, the government has done all it can to prevent any more statues being removed or even contextualised – from Clive of India in Shrewsbury to Rhodes in Oxford.
A Historical Commission set up by the mayor will provide recommendations for the future of the statue (and other remnants of the cult). It seems probable the bronze will remain in the city museum. The old Colston Hall is now known as the Bristol Beacon, and the tower is the Beacon Tower.
Under new laws, activists like the Colston Four are less likely to be let off. Bristol’s courts in recent months have handed down heavy sentences to those involved in demonstrations against the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will restrict the right to protest even further.