Acquittal of ‘Colston Four’ in slave trader statue case ignites UK culture wars

A British court ruling this week clearing four people of criminal damage for pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol has sparked heated debate over how controversial historical figures should be remembered. The statue has since been exhibited in a local museum and is said to be worth up to 50 times its original value.

As a surrounding crowd cheered, four protesters – three men and one woman – pulled down the statue of Edward Colston with ropes during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol city centre on June 7, 2020. The crowd then dragged the statue through the city to Pero’s Bridge – named after Pero Jones, an enslaved man who lived in the city in the 18th century – before being dumped into the harbour.

Two years later, a British court on Wednesday ruled that the ‘Colston Four’, as the protesters became known, were not guilty of criminal damage for toppling the statue.

Colston, a philanthropist & slave trader, has long been a divisive figure in Bristol, a city with profound historical links to the UK slave trade and a modern-day reputation for diversity, a vibrant arts scene and progressive politics.

During the trial, the court was told that there had been campaigns to have the statue removed or contextualised since the 1920s.

In court, the defendants did not deny their role in removing the statue; both Rhian Graham and Milo Ponsford brought ropes to the scene, Sage Willoughby climbed the statue to pass ropes around its neck and Jake Skuse encouraged the crowd to roll the statue into the harbour and into the water.

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When they were found not guilty of criminal damage, cheers rang out in the courtroom but the verdict has sparked fierce debate about how the UK views the complex figures that populate its history, and who should decide how that history is understood.

Prolific slave trader 'mythologised' as philanthropist

While the street names and landmarks in the city are imbued with myths and legends that date back to slavery, Bristolians today speak at least 91 main languages and almost a quarter identify as non-white British.

The Colston statue was erected in 1895 to honour the 17th-century merchant and MP, with a plaque declaring him “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of the city. Around the same time, numerous buildings were named after him and November 13 was even named Colston Day. “Colston as myth was built up from the late 19th century as a local virtuous citizen,” James Watts, Lecturer in Public and Creative Histories at the University of Bristol told FRANCE 24.

The wealthy merchant was a philanthropist. He made generous financial donations to schools, poor houses, hospitals and churches in Bristol and across the UK, and when he died he left the equivalent of over £16 million to charity.

But he also played an active role in transporting over 84,000 enslaved Africans, including 12,000 children, to the Caribbean. An estimated 19,000 died on the ships that carried them across the Atlantic, and later in life as a Bristol MP, Colston continued to campaign to keep the slave trade going under favourable terms for slavers.

Days after the statue was toppled, protestors coverd the original plaque on the pedestal with a sign in remembrance of the slaves traded by Colston, Bristol, UK, June 8, 2020. © Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP

Changing history

In Bristol, a city that also has a history of fighting racial discrimination, Black Lives Matter protests brought the contrasts of this public figure to the fore. “The statue was an attempt to 'invent' tradition and find a figure to rally around who was seen as a philanthropist and kind figure, but it completely ignored the origins of Colston's wealth,” Watts said. “A slave trader who is honoured as simply a philanthropist is an egregious example of a public monument that many found – with good reason – extremely offensive.”

The group Save our Statues said on Twitter that it was a “disgraceful verdict that gives the green light to political vandalism and sets a precedent for anyone to be able to destroy whatever they disagree with”.

While refusing to comment on the specifics of the case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday it was “wrong” to try to rewrite history. “What you can't do is go around seeking retrospectively to change our history, or to bowdlerise it, or edit it in retrospect.”

But asked about claims that the four had attempted to ‘whitewash’ the Colston story by pulling the statue down, defendant Willoughby said, as he left the courthouse on Wednesday, "we didn't change history, we rectified it."

“The real offenders were not the Colston Four, but the city of Bristol and those who have done everything in their power to burnish the reputation of a mass murderer,” British historian David Olusoga, who testified in the trial, told The Guardian.

Impassioned reactions on both sides spring from a wider culture war and general “discomfort” over the violence and exploitation of the British Empire, Watts says. This can distract from other issues, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, which served as the catalyst for the removal of the statue in the first place. “This came out of a campaign for racial justice not a campaign to topple statues. Although the statue was and is a symbol of this, it doesn't in and of itself, do anything to combat the very real issues in Britain around BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] populations and their experiences of discrimination,” Watts said.

What next for Colston?

Four days after it was dumped in the harbour, Bristol City Council retrieved the Colston statue and started work to clean and preserve it. In June 2021, it was placed on display in local museum M Shed, still covered in graffiti and surrounded by placards from Black Lives Matter protests.

The museum and council described the exhibition as the “start of a conversation”, alongside the creation of the We Are Bristol History Commission – a group of historians aiming to help the city understand its past. One of their first duties is to analyse the results of a survey run during the exhibition asking local residents what should come next for the statue.

Since being toppled, it has new significance. “Until 2020 it was an artefact of historical invention, inventing a certain image of a virtuous philanthropist. Now, it’s an important international artefact in continuing campaigns for racial justice and the battles over it,” Watts said.

This new narrative is more than just symbolic. “[An art valuer] valued the statue, pre-toppling, at around £6,000”, defendant Graham told Sky News on Thursday. “Post toppling, at auction, it’s around £150,000 if not up to £300,000, which is a huge increase. In that sense, have we really damaged it?"

Graham would like to see Bristol City Council use this money for a new public work. "Sell it to a private collector and use that money to invest in some sort of memorial. Bristol is really lacking in any kind of memorial or acknowledgment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so that's what I'd really like to see happen," she told Sky News.

Watts too would like to see a new approach to public works following the verdict Colston Four verdict. “I don't think this will lead to mass removals of statues, but I would hope – although I am not overly hopeful – that we can have a mature conversation about what we want to honour in our prominent public spaces. It should lead to more of a public reckoning with some of the British legacies of slavery and imperialism.”

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