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The Colston Statue in Bristol, Part 1

The Colston Statue now On display in a Bristol Musuem
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Written by Julian Hill

In the first of two articles, Julian Hill, a resident of Bristol, tells the story of the Colston Statue, the struggle to retain and explain it, and its toppling in 2020.

We publish here two articles by Julian Hill, a resident of Knowle in Bristol, about the statue in that city of Edward Colston which was toppled during protests in June 2020. The first essay summarises the story of opposition to the statue over the last decade and the efforts made by Mr Hill and others to ensure that the statue was not only retained but was explained accurately. The second article is a timeline of the struggles to achieve an acceptable form of words for a second plaque for the statue which would have presented Colston’s life correctly and fairly.

Taken together, the two articles demonstrate some of the difficulties likely to be encountered with ‘retain and explain’ in practice. This approach to contested historic monuments and artefacts can only succeed when all parties work together in a spirit of genuine collaboration to achieve accuracy and objectivity.

History Reclaimed is most grateful to Mr Hill for supplying us with works of record about the Colston statue. Readers will note that the affair is ongoing.

The Untold Story of the Colston Statue’s ‘Retain and Explain’ Plan

In early 2019 Bristol City Council was about to add a second plaque to the city’s controversial statue of the merchant, philanthropist, slave trader, and MP for Bristol 1710-1713, Edward Colston (1636-1721), in what we would now describe as a ‘retain and explain’ plan. The listed building consent application had been passed after public consultation; the plaque had been cast in bronze; wording for it had been agreed after lengthy discussions which had been reported in the local press. What could possibly go wrong?

Before answering this question, some background may give some clues as to what happened next.

The council decided it needed to do something after the statue was the target of a campaign by a small but very vocal activist group, ‘Countering Colston’ (CC), formed in 2015. According to their Twitter/X page they aim at ‘ending the public & private celebration of Colston in Bristol, a genocidal mass-murderer who trafficked and enslaved my ancestors & yours for personal gain’, while on their website they are described as the ‘Campaign to Decolonise Bristol’.  Interviews with members, accessible online, give an insight into their methods, which include influencing journalists covering the subject in the local media. The Bristol Post has generally supported their efforts.

The Heritage & Design Statement for the 2018 application included the council’s justification for leaving the statue in public with the addition of a second plaque, as opposed to moving it to a museum. It also included the original wording for the second plaque, composed by an academic following a project involving pupils from a local primary school, with input from the council’s Principal Historic Environment Officer, an educationalist, and a ‘consultant’ who was a member of Countering Colston and the Bristol Radical History Group (BRHG). (I call this the ‘council team’ below).

Public comments on the application showed almost total support for the second plaque plan, but overwhelming objections to the original wording. In a letter to The Bristol Post, parts of which were published in an article in the paper, and were also picked up by some national newspapers, I called it a hatchet job which didn’t make a lot of sense if added to the statue because the existing inscription described Colston as ‘virtuous and wise’.[1]

Four Bristol residents (myself – a comprehensive-schooled retired academic librarian, a local filmmaker/designer/blue plaques expert, an art historian/co-author of a book on the public sculpture of Bristol, and a local historian) made suggestions for the new inscription in their public comments on the application and subsequently collaborated in providing an improved ‘alternative wording’ which gained support from other members of the public. Revisions made unilaterally by the ‘council team’ gained no support. This persuaded the ‘council team’ to discuss the wording with us, leading to an eventual agreement on what would be written.

Rather than engaging in this process, however, CC/BRHG members and their supporters spread the view that an organisation they oppose, the city’s Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV), was behind the rewording. It’s a claim I refute, and I’ve spent much time and effort trying to counter it.

Despite these attacks, compromise wording was agreed and in 2019 we were looking forward to the plaque being added to the statue and promoted by the council and Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, as a positive step forward for Bristol in better acknowledging its past.

Instead, to our exasperation, the Mayor, at the last moment, blocked the addition to the statue of the already-cast plaque. He accused the SMV of being behind the rewording, and failed to acknowledge the public support for, and positive engagement with, the plan. The Mayor claimed that the wording was “not harsh enough” (despite it being a carefully worded factual summary) and promised a re-worded plaque would be installed at a later date as part of a project led by the Deputy Mayor. Nothing came of this in the fifteen months to June 2020 when the unlawful toppling occurred.

After the toppling, the Mayor surreptitiously dropped the inconvenient ‘retain and explain’ plan and set up a partisan History Commission (including an academic who had been working with Countering Colston and the television historian David Olusoga, who praised the removal of the statue and whose TV company made the BBC documentary on the toppling) to consider the future of the statue, as well as other aspects of how the city’s history is remembered.

The History Commission carried on the Mayor’s disinformation campaign about the ‘retain and explain’ plan for the statue at the time of the toppling. The plan was excluded from the Commission’s public consultation survey into the future of the statue. Misinformation about the ‘retain and explain’ plan was also included in the ‘timeline’ of the statue’s history in the associated temporary display.

The council made another Listed Building Consent application in November 2023, this time to move the damaged and defaced Colston statue permanently to M Shed, a museum dedicated to Bristol’s history. It is to be displayed there, laid prone, as an exhibit in a new ‘racial justice exhibition’. It’s plinth is to remain in situ and used for ‘temporary artworks or sculptures’.

Among the few public comments on the application, in my objections I drew attention to the new government ‘Guidance for custodians on how to deal with commemorative heritage assets that have become contested’ [2] and highlighted numerous flaws in the consultation process which made the results highly suspect. I pointed to the previous ‘retain and explain’ proposals which were missing from the official documentation. I also argued that the History Commission’s plan amounted to the glorification of a heritage crime and an act of art vandalism. It also showed contempt for the democratic process and undermined the law.

The Colston Statue is thrown into the River Avon

The Colston Statue is thrown into the River Avon

I put forward a comprehensive alternative based on the reinstatement of the pre-toppling ‘retain and explain’ plan. This would be amended to incorporate the ‘toppling’ as part of the statue’s history. I suggested a cooling-off period during which the statue would be kept in the museum and cleaned and repaired in readiness for reinstatement. In the meantime, I suggested improved wording for a plaque for the empty plinth.

Unfortunately, the council’s retrospective application to move the vandalised statue to M Shed was approved at a meeting of the cross-party Development Committee of councillors on 21 February 2024, though with some dissenting voices. It is intended that it will start its life there as part of an exhibition about protests.

At the same meeting, the History Commission’s suggested wording for a plaque to be added to the empty plinth came in for criticism, with some councillors calling for it to be made more condemnatory. Committee members have been asked to submit suggestions for a new text for the plaque, to be voted on at the committee’s next meeting on April 10, 2024.

I sent a message about the application to the Levelling-Up Secretary and the Culture Secretary in the hope that they would intervene to save one of their flagship policies, ‘retain and explain’, from being undermined in Bristol. I have no idea whether the message arrived ‘on their desks’, let alone whether it will elicit a response.

The empty pedestal of the Colston statue in Bristol

The empty pedestal of the Colston statue in Bristol

Events in Bristol since 2020 seem a long way from the positive, earlier ‘retain and explain’ plan for the statue which aimed, crucially, at improving our understanding of our history.

(For further information about the struggle to ‘explain’ the Colston statue, readers should see Julian Hill’s second article, Contested Wording: The tragicomical story of the second Colston plaque)

Julian Hill is a retired academic librarian with a science background and lifelong passion for books, history, and the arts. From rural South Somerset originally, he went to the local comprehensive school and then on to university.  He now lives in Knowle in Bristol and has been campaigning for ‘retain and explain’ against those who want to ‘tear down and dumb down’.

Please find the second article in this series by clicking here.

 


 

[1] Bristol Post (Bristol Live), 22 July 2018

https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/wording-second-plaque-proposed-edward-1810137;

Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/23/bristol-council-sparks-row-plans-add-enslaver-africans-plaque/

 

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-for-custodians-on-how-to-deal-with-commemorative-heritage-assets-that-have-become-contested/guidance-for-custodians-on-how-to-deal-with-commemorative-heritage-assets-that-have-become-contested

 

About the author

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Julian Hill

Julian Hill is a retired academic librarian with a science background and lifelong passion for books, history, and the arts. From rural South Somerset originally, he went to the local comprehensive school and then on to university. He now lives in Knowle in Bristol and has been campaigning for ‘retain and explain’ against those who want to ‘tear down and dumb down’.