A World Adrift: Part 1: The Colston Statue

In the first part of her blog series exploring A World Adrift, Rebecca considers the significance of the toppling of the Edward Colston statue during the global BLM protests in 2020.

The notoriously controversial, imperialist monument of slave trader Edward Colston [1] was toppled from its plinth, defaced, and pushed into the murky waters of Bristol Harbour by demonstrators on 7 June 2020, during the global George Floyd protests, relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. This was undoubtedly a watershed moment; effectively challenging conventionally narrow interpretations of Bristolian heritage and fundamentally racist historical narratives. Colston’s statue was not destroyed, but its story has changed and this powerfully pivotal moment in its history lit the spark for a catalyst for change, as the voices and histories of those who have been marginalised, ultimately begin to be witnessed, recognised, and heard.

This was not an attack on history. This is history, said historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga [2], later expanding, that with such a significant event, ‘history exploded into everybody’s liveshistory is about our past, about where it’s left us and where it’s taken us, and about the ideas that it’s hard-wired into our culture, like race.[3]

Image 1: The statue of Edward Colston is thrown into Bristol harbour, 7 June 2020. Image: Wikimedia Commons [4]

Image 2: Art demonstration in front of the statue of Edward Colston on Anti-Slavery Day, October 18, 2018. Image: Inspiring City. Publication: InspiringCity.com (blog)[5]

In his 12 June 2020 article, When the Statues Went Up, academic historian Peter Hill accurately and powerfully defined that toppling flashpoint in Bristol, as a mutually critical moment of mass breaking point, observing: ‘The present moment flashes connections across contemporary space, as Black Lives Matter protests spread with incredible swiftness across the world – but also, as it confronts these monuments, casts its illumination backwards, deep into a global past. The ‘tidal wave of whiteness’ of those decades is laid bare, a century on, as it meets and clashes with another global ‘wave’ – the antiracist movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and affirming the worth of Black lives.[6] In short, he highlights the past’s monumental wrongs, as a time lined aggregate of repeated and similar patterns, habits born from parallel histories and ugly misdeeds, moulded from similar, albeit culturally different cups; world tensions spilling over to an inevitable far-reaching breaking point of mass self-destruction.

The slogan line of defence from gun proponents, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” was indirectly played upon through the immortalised lyrics of the 2004, anti-war single, Mass Destruction by Faithless, with the lines,

Racism is a weapon of mass destruction, whether inflation or globalization, fear is a weapon of mass destruction … Greed is a weapon of mass destruction, we need to find courage, overcome, inaction is a weapon of mass destruction.

The immediate years, post 9/11, were highly charged, often loaded to a state of impasse; to a point of no return, with crimes against humanity burgeoning and in turn, the very milk of human kindness, or self-compassion in recognition of our shared humanity in an existentially dubious state globally – often at critical, albeit crisis breaking point. All the key elements that total up the sum social construct of humanity, namely, society’s dynamic structure and overall, dynamic essence; are missing a beat, off kilter, because:

Society, by definition, is essentially one large family – a macrocosmic family…[7]

Humanity can be perceived as thin on the ground; over stretched, as people across the globe have become analogically comparable to weapons of mass destruction, through the abject abuse of power, wealth, and equality, through methods of racism, fear, greed, inaction, persecution, and mob mentality.

The ‘pack-like’, social- economic construct of humanity is such that, political, societal, monetary, racist, and cultural distinctions including disputes over land and people – class, creed, colour, gender, otherness; assertions of ownership, inequalities, control: have led to great losses and disruption of identity and race through fractured families and broken ancestry. Diasporas, migrations, displaced people, not forgetting modern day slavery, human trafficking – all metaphoric weapons of mass destruction, symptomatic of the past, yet continuing into and particular to the twenty-first century. Tensions ruptured; perhaps, 9/11 essentially marked a point of collective crisis, where the concept of a crime against humanity really came into its own.

With the BLM movement, such a precarious moment in history forced the sum reckoning of all these economic and cultural misdeeds and legacies to the fore; as the pinnacle upon layer upon layer of global catastrophes, and this was the reckoning. The days of tolerate and look the other way were finally obsolete as people across the globe were no longer prepared to ‘turn the other cheek’ and showed mass resistance. Such a crucial moment has brought identity politics, together with questions of agency, and nation, to a head; to public consciousness; borne aloft on the wake of the politics and narrative of centuries old slave legacies, catalysts to allegedly great monuments, sculptures, and effigies. Their sum gaze arrogant; ignorant of all the lives they systematically destroyed and left floundering wide in their wake – just to make that metaphoric leap from earth to lofty pedestal. The monuments are just metaphoric pressure points, raw nerves; waiting to be provoked, prodded and re-woken.

It recalls the phrase by philosopher, Anthony O’Hear, ‘Ignorance of the past makes us impotent before the present.’[8] Yet, not everyone has forgotten the past, and they have waited a long time.

The BLM movement set off a chain of events, still happening right now, not just in Britain but across the world, disturbingly harrowing and unforgiveable histories of enslavement and abuse embodied in the people who still resolutely fight their ancestors’ cause today. Referencing such deep-set transatlantic atrocities, African American writer and poet, Caroline Randall Williams, succinctly avowed, ‘My skin is a Monument’ in her significant essay, ‘My Body is a Confederate Monument’, in which she questioned “What is a monument but a standing memory?” She stated, “If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.’[9]

There was no loss of narrative here, through the wrothful mire of misinformation, the politics of public memory serve people well; in recollection heightened emotions cut deep, tensions seethe and broil under the surface, biding time, waiting to severe the shackles further down the timeline with transparency: real histories and hard facts. And, amongst it all, this discordant mess … people are still killing people, ‘especially if they have weapons like misinformation, power, and greed at their disposal. … “It’s people who are dangerous … the conflict that we appear to be in doesn’t stop with soldiers going to someone else’s country and fighting. The front line is right here, in train stations, in shopping malls.”[10] People will risk their lives to intervene. Society was, still is, on edge.

The world is – we are, Adrift.

The Colston statue was figuratively speaking, simmering away for many decades as a highly controversial and racially offensive monument. It was not alone in the sharing of historical legacies of slavery and colonialism with hundreds of other racist statues across Britain and indeed the world. In its toppling flashpoint, both metaphorically and physically, the Colston statue was held in relief, as an example, a key signifier and marker for the dissent of our times.

The Black community in Bristol ‘called for the statue’s removal or at the least for an additional plaque to be added, highlighting Colston’s activities and the source of his wealth rather than the idea of it being, as it stated on the plinth, “a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city.”’ The statue was never a representation of Colston of and from his own time, and it must be remembered, was commissioned, and erected in 1895, more than 170 years after his death, ‘as part of the city’s Victorian focus and romanticism of certain figures of the past.[11]

It remains to be said, Colston’s morally philanthropic economic tendencies perpetuated in myth and reinvention was securely misconstrued under the gaze of the bourgeoisie class and value system: Colston’s slave legacies and any narratives of racial atrocities, seemingly overlooked and put aside. Inevitably, historically perceptible, and evidential cues blinkered and ignored, the statue epitomised Colston as the ‘father’ of Victorian Bristol, along with other inappropriately ‘affectionate’ and familiar names of the time: ‘merchant prince’ and ‘moral saint’.

The historical figure of Colston was being reinvented in the Victorian period to represent the economic, social, and political perspectives of the Bristol business elite … Ritual commemoration, celebration, and memorialisation of Edward Colston in the Victorian public domain were crucial to propagating both the elite concept of Colston and the belief that this concept was validated by long-standing tradition …

The ‘cult of Colston’ was such that,

The telling and retelling of the Colston myth each year in the dailies took on an obsessive attention to historic detail…the parades and dinners…received careful elucidation, including the dutiful recantation of speeches and the names of those attending. Poems, songs and cartoons…all became part of the annual commemoration.

In this way, over several generations, the myths … penetrated the Bristol psyche and were fixed, to varying degree, in much of the populace.[12]

Until its very toppling at last irrevocably undermined such innately entrenched falsehoods, seeing the statue as part of daily life was clearly articulated as a ‘heavy threat’ [13], in response to its toppling by Bristol based writer and performer, Vanessa Kisuule, as indeed by many. Her words are measured, powerful and shiver inducing, still hanging heavy in the air, two years on. She asks,

And who carved you? They took such care with that stately pose and propped chin. Wise and virtuous the plaque assured us. Victors wish history odourless and static, but history is a sneaky mistress. Moves like smoke, Colston, like saliva in a hungry mouth … Blood, to sugar, to money, to bricks … Countless times I passed that plinth, its heavy threat of metal and marble. But as you landed, a piece of you fell off, broke away, and inside, nothing but air. This whole time. You were hollow.’

After a couple of centuries of metaphorically looking the other way, as a different and ultimately ‘hollow’ version of himself; with utter contempt and careless disregard for the truth, Colston’s legacy, at last, crumbled and its power seeped away as swiftly as its cracks occurred.

Historian, David Olusoga observed, ‘it’s the most important artefact you could select in Britain if you wanted to tell the story of Britain’s tortuous relationship with its role in the Atlantic slave trade. It’s never before been an historical artefact because …statues on public display … aren’t artefacts, they are totems of power, and it’s now a historical artefact and it has multiple meanings and multiple layers to it. It speaks to multiple periods in its history and Bristol’s history.[14]

Such a dramatic fall from grace, via pedestal to harbour, has diminished the Colston statue from a totem of power, to a historical artefact. Perhaps it might be appropriate to describe such monuments as ‘floating signifiers – as their complex relationship with cultural-historical-environmental perspectives, ideals, values and influences; changes.

It does not take much, to wonder, as Vanessa Kisuule did – who carved Colston? Indeed, it is hard to disassociate the artist, John Cassidy, from Colston’s legacy, and perhaps important to understand that he should not be slated; potentially deemed a monster for his role in creating the Colston monument, but that he was simply ‘a product of his time’.

In A World Adrift, Part 2, we delve deeper into Cassidy’s connections with Manchester, the Whitworth and another key monument; a floating signifier, in context to Cassidy’s time and the times we find ourselves in today.

For further reading see: https://www.brh.org.uk/myths-within-myths

[1] The 5.5m bronze statue of Bristolian merchant, slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston (1636-1721) on a plinth of Portland stone, was created in 1895 by Irish born, Manchester sculptor, John Cassidy to commemorate Colston’s philanthropy. A commission, won via a competition. Originally sited on Colston Avenue, Bristol in a public open space known as The Centre, and designated Grade II status in 1977. Ultimately, Colston, as a slave trader, made his fortune through human suffering, through his direct involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, namely with the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692. During that time, it is estimated over 84,000 African men, women and children were enslaved and transported from West Africa to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas. As many as 19,000 are believed to have died on the journey.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

Also, see Blog: ‘Bristol’s Colston statue was toppled because racist historical narratives have not been effectively changed’ by Becca Antink: https://www.thersa.org/blog/bristol-colston-statue

[3] 2020, Being Human festival launch, https://www.youtube.com

In 2020, Protesters in more than 260 British towns and cities took part in BLM protests, thought to be the most widespread anti-racist movement since the abolition of the slave trade. A statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol; a Guardian analysis suggests about 70 monuments to slavers and colonialists have been removed, or are in the process of being removed, across the UK.


[4] https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/when-the-statues-went-up

[5] Immediate source: https://inspiringcity.com/anti-slavery-installation-colston-statue

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org

[6] https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/when-the-statues-went-up

[7] Ref. Pack like nature of humans: What is Life and Who Am I?: Fundamental Principles of the Primordian Philosophy, J.T. Owens, publ. Authorhouse, 2011. Pp. 56-57


[8] O’Hear elaborates ‘… a person with no sense of the past is a person who is a stranger both to his or her own roots and to the human condition more generally. For human beings are not creatures of nature; we are inheritors of the history that has made us what we are.

Not to know our history is not to know ourselves, and that is the condition not of human beings, but of animals. And even from a practical point of view, to be ignorant of the past is to make us impotent and unprepared before the present.


Also refer to online article: https://prebenormen.com/ignorance-of-the-past-makes-us-impotent-before-the-present

[9] My Body is A Confederate Monument essay was first published in The New York Times

Of note, refer to artist, John Akomfrah’s work, Our Skin Is a Monument, 2020, as shown in his recent exhibition, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster, 13 April-31 July 2021, which,

Builds on Akomfrah’s long-standing return to ‘the monument’, following on from films such as Signs of Empire (1983) and Handsworth Songs (1986) that challenged the existence of imperialist effigies. … This series of works prompts us to evaluate not just what monuments we want to speak for our society, but why statues such as those of Edward Colston, were ever erected. As Williams puts it, there is a difference between “rewriting and reframing the past”; “it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.”

See: John Akomfrah: The Unintended Beauty of Disaster lissongallery.com

[10] http://www.mtv.com/faithless-attack-iraq-war-with-lyrics-of-mass-destruction

[11] https://www.ool.co.uk/blog/the-toppling-of-edward-colston

[12] https://www.brh.org.uk/myths-within-myths

[13] Listen to poem ‘Hollow’, see ‘heavy threat’ Twitter post, @Vanessa_Kissule

Her poem, written in response to the events of the weekend, reflects how communities impacted by institutionalised racism and structural inequalities in their day to day lives do not disassociate this from the historical legacies of slavery and colonialism as represented by the statue.

Bristol’s Colston statue was toppled because racist historical narratives have not been effectively challenged – RSA (thersa.org)

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/edward-colston-statue-potent-historical-artefact-david-olusoga

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