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The Colston Statue in Bristol, Part 2

Colston Statue and then removed in 2017
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Written by Julian Hill

In the second of two articles on the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, Julian Hill sets out the many different attempts to reach an agreed form of words for a new plaque that would have explained the statue accurately.

This is the second article in a 2 part series, click here to read the first article.

The Colston Statue in Bristol

Contested Wording: The tragicomical story of the second Colston plaque

The original plaque on the south face of the plinth of the statue of ‘Edward Colston Born 1636 / Died 1721’ in Bristol states “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895” and “John Cassidy fecit” (‘John Cassidy made this’).

What follows is the story of attempts to explain Colston’s life and the statue’s story by means of a second plaque bearing new and agreed wording.

The unauthorised plaque added to the Colston Statue and then removed in 2017

The unauthorised plaque added to the Colston Statue and then removed in 2017

1) Unauthorised plaque added in August 2017 and removed by the council in October 2017:

A campaign by a small but vocal activist group, ‘Countering Colston’, formed in 2015, led to the statue being targeted and this new, unauthorised inscription added:

‘UNAUTHORISED HERITAGE
BRISTOL
Capital of the Atlantic Slave Trade
1730 – 1745.
This commemorates the 12,000,000 enslaved of whom 6,000,000 died as captives.’

2)  The Original wording used in the ‘retain and explain’ planning application of 2018 (91 words):

In the face of the Countering Colston campaign, the council decided on a ‘retain and explain’ plan for the statue with the addition of a second plaque to contextualise the history and encourage debate. This original wording for the second plaque was included in the ‘Heritage & Design Statement’ submitted with the 2018 planning application, which also suggested a maximum of approximately 100 words. It had been written by an academic building on a project involving pupils from a local primary school, with input from the council’s Principal Historic Environment Officer, an educationalist, and a Countering Colston/Bristol Radical History Group consultant. (Collectively I call this the ‘council team’ below). Public comments on the application showed almost total support for the second plaque plan but overwhelming objection to this wording for not making sense when added to the statue with its ‘virtuous and wise’ inscription; for failing to effectively contextualise the statue and explain why it had originally been erected; and for being a hatchet job aimed at vilification rather than understanding.

As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America.

Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the citys right to trade in enslaved Africans.

Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.

3)  Revised wording from ‘council team’, 2018 (over 140 words):

Following the many criticisms of the original wording from members of the public commenting on the application, some of whom had made suggestions for improvements and offered to collaborate on this, the ‘council team’ unilaterally brought out this revision. While it was an improvement on the original, it was considerably over the c.100 word limit, included factual errors (e.g. ‘British’ slave trade, and Colston was only a ‘high official’ from 1689-1690), the odd use of parentheses, and featured relatively minor charges against Colston which a number of the public argued would be better covered in an associated museum display.

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant, long honoured as the city’s greatest benefactor. He made vast donations to restore churches, establish schools, almshouses and various charities in Bristol and across the country.

Much of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. When a high official of the Royal African Company (1680-1692) (which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698), he played an active role in the trafficking of over 84,000 enslaved Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died on their way across the Atlantic. As MP for Bristol (1710-1713) he worked to safeguard Bristols slave-trading interests. His role in the exploitation of enslaved Africans and his opposition to any form of religious or political dissent, has in recent years made him the focus of increasing controversy. 2018

4)  Alternative wording suggested by members of the public commenting on the planning application, 2018 (119 words):

In response to the ‘council team’ ignoring offers of collaboration from members of the public and bringing out revisions of the wording unilaterally (including 3 above) the four members of the public who had each made suggestions for the inscription collaborated to produce a single ‘alternative wording’. This gained further public support while the revisions from the ‘council team’ gained none. When it came to these discussions about the wording, the organisation ‘Countering Colston’ and their supporters offered no input, claiming instead that the city’s Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV) was behind the attempt to rewrite the plaque. This was not the case.

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant and the city’s greatest benefactor. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.

Some of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced commodities. From 1680 to 1692 he was an official of the Royal African Company, which had the monopoly of the English slave trade until 1698. Thus, he was involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on voyages to the Caribbean and the Americas. (2018)

5)  Another revised wording from the ‘council team’, 2018 (106 words):

In response to our ‘alternative wording’ and the public support it gained, the ‘council team’ unilaterally brought out this further revision. Readers will note a missing word, sloppy inconsistency, vague statements open to misinterpretation, and facts presented that are easily challenged. Unsurprisingly, this revision also failed to gain public support, while our collaborative ‘Alternative wording’ continued to gain in popularity. This finally persuaded the ‘council team’ to discuss the wording with us (see 6 below).

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was one of Bristol’s greatest benefactors. His endowments funded churches, schools, almshouses, and other charities in this city.

A high official of the Royal African Company (1680-1692), he also played an active role in the transport over 84,000 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, including 12,000 children under 10, of whom more than 19,000 died en route.

Much of his wealth came from the trade in enslaved Africans, from slave-produced sugar and other slavery-related investments and as a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers (1708) and MP for Bristol (1710 to 1713), he championed the citys slave-trading interests. (2018)

6)  Agreed wording for the retain and explain second plaque, 2018-19 (107 words):

The planning application for the plaque was approved in November 2018, though with the understanding that the wording would be finalised afterwards. Discussions on the wording between the ‘Alternative wording’ group of members of the public and the ‘council team’ continued by email, with one meeting between our representative and the ‘council team’. A compromise wording was finally agreed. The plaque was cast with this agreed wording ready to be added to the Colston statue plinth in early 2019.

Edward Colston (1636–1721), MP for Bristol (1710–1713), was one of this city’s greatest benefactors. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.

A significant proportion of Colston’s wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. (2019)

7)  The Mayor promises a reworded ‘retain and explain’ second plaque, 2019-2020 (??? words):

Unfortunately, the Mayor, Marvin Rees, stepped in at the last moment and blocked the adding of the already cast plaque with the agreed wording (6 above), stating that the wording was unacceptable and “not harsh enough” (despite this being a carefully worded factual summary). He promised a reworded plaque would be installed at a later date as part of a project led by the Deputy Mayor. He also accused the SMV of being behind the rewording of the plaque which, as one of the key members of the public involved with this, I completely refute and have spent much time and effort trying to counter, including letters published in The Bristol Post and emails to the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and History Commission.

Nothing came of the Mayor’s intervention in the 15 months up to the toppling of the statue in June 2020. 

8)  History Commission’s suggested wording for a second plaque for the empty plinth, 2022-2024 (81 words):

We were still waiting for the Mayor’s promised reworded ‘retain and explain’ second plaque when the statue was toppled in June 2020, after which the Mayor surreptitiously dropped the inconvenient ‘retain and explain’ plan. A partisan History Commission was established which conducted a seriously flawed public consultation survey on the future of the statue. The following suggested wording for a second plaque for the empty plinth was included in their report on the results of this deeply flawed survey which was entitled The Colston Statue: What Next? ‘We are Bristol’ History Commission Full Report, 2022.[1] It was also included in the documents for the Listed Building Consent application. I criticised this wording in my 27 November objection to the planning application, (mentioning the usual vague statements open to misunderstanding, the inadequacy of the description ‘city benefactor’, the lack of recognition that the toppling was highly controversial, and that citing a deeply flawed consultation may be a mistake) and suggested a more appropriate and accurate inscription (see 9 below).

On 13 November 1895, a statue of Edward Colston (1636 – 1721) was unveiled here celebrating him as a city benefactor. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the celebration of Colston was increasingly challenged given his prominent role in the enslavement of African people.

On 7 June 2020, the statue was pulled down during Black Lives Matter protests and rolled into the harbour. Following consultation with the city in 2021, the statue entered the collections of Bristol City Councils museums.

9)  My suggested wording for a second plaque for the empty plinth, 2023-2024 (101 words)

I included this suggested wording in my 27 November objection to the planning application mentioned in 8 above, where I also suggested the ‘retain and explain’ plan should be revived later as part of a less divisive and more educational approach, when the conditions are right – hence ‘currently’.

On 13 November 1895, a statue of Bristol born merchant Edward Colston (1636 – 1721) was unveiled here celebrating him as a city benefactor who supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London, and elsewhere.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the celebration of Colston was increasingly challenged for his involvement with the trade and forced transportation of enslaved African people. On 7 June 2020, in a highly controversial event, the statue was pulled down during Black Lives Matter protests and rolled into the harbour. The statue is currently in the collections of Bristol City Councils museums.

10)  The final agreed wording for a second plaque for the empty plinth, 2024? (??? words):

While the removal of the vandalised statue to the Bristol history museum M Shed was approved in February 2024, the History Commission’s suggested wording (8 above) came in for criticism, with some councillors calling for it to be made more condemnatory. As things stand at the time of writing, committee members will make suggestions for the wording which will be used to write new text for the plaque, to be voted on the next time the committee sits on April 10. Historic England’s recommendation in one of its consultee comments on the original 2018 ‘retain and explain’ planning application was ‘that the wording of the plaque is considered on the basis of the accuracy of the information and provides a balanced response to representations made by stakeholders and the public’.  Will the final agreed wording follow this admirable advice? 

The empty pedestal of the Colston statue in Bristol

The empty pedestal of the Colston statue in Bristol


[1]  https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/9004543/the-colston-statue-what-next-we-are-bristol-history-commission-full-report

 

 

 

 

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’.

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