Screenshot from a video of the statue being pulled down (image courtesy @TheBristolCable)

LONDON — Britain’s streets are littered with statues of slave traders and colonial looters. Our public monuments, our academic institutions, and even our street names boast the likenesses of men whose depredations history regards fondly because their victims weren’t white. But now, after the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, there is at least one less standing.

Colston was a particularly vile human being. As deputy governor of the Royal African Company, the most prolific British slave trading organization, Colston was responsible for selling an estimated 84,000 African people like cattle. Of these, 19,000 died in slave ships journeying from West Africa to the Americas via the infamous Middle Passage.

A screenshot of an image of Edward Colston’s effigy being tossed into the Bristol Canal (via @KGravil) (individual protesters’ faces have been blurred by Hyperallergic)

For many in the UK, the news that his statue was removed by a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest was shocking — mainly because most were unaware the monument even existed. Its destruction was reflective of a powerful sub-narrative of the ongoing BLM protests in Europe since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others by police: the need to decolonize public history and education.

There has been a slew of condemnation over the “criminal” actions of the protesters from the government, some historians, and even the current leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. His stance in particular is a reminder of how Western Leftist movements were complicit in supporting colonial imperialism.

William Dalrymple, a popular historian whose work focuses on the British colonization of India and aspects of the Mughal Empire, even compared the statue’s toppling to the 2001 bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban and warned that this was the road to the “Baburi Masjid” — a reference to the 1992 destruction of a historic Indian mosque by a right-wing Hindu mob. This incident, and the communal violence that ensued afterward, is widely regarded as the moment the Hindu far-right entered mainstream Indian politics.

Screenshots of tweets by historian William Dalrymple, invoking the Bamiyan Buddhas

Comparing the actions of a multiracial BLM protest to that of terrorists and fascists is, at best, a deeply tendentious reading of history. When taken alongside condemnation of the statue’s destruction from other public figures who similarly see no contradiction with their simultaneous calls for the UK curriculum to be “decolonized,”  it reveals a deeper hypocrisy embedded in liberal attitudes towards race and empire.

Decolonization struggles of the twentieth century centered on two opposing political aims: the demand for freedom and the right of self-governance versus colonial desires to loot and plunder. Modern decolonization is a continuation of the same intellectual and cultural process, of pushing back against the language and ideas that Western states still deploy to dehumanize and sideline the experiences and voices of their non-white citizens. Whether involving liberation struggles, protests against systemic racism, or demands for a more historically accurate curriculum, decolonization does not comfort the colonizer or its apologists. It confronts them.

In describing modern efforts to tackle the hegemony Western institutions have built on the back of racism, scholar Walter Mignolo has called for “epistemic delinking,” which turns our attention to how knowledge is generated. This is not just an academic struggle, but one deeply linked to public space as well. Museums, street names, parks and yes, even statues, are equally valid sites of contestation.

Statues are rarely about preserving history, and more often about memorializing individuals. Destroying Colston’s was not criminal; erecting it in 1895, more than 60 years after the British Emancipation Act, was.

A screenshot of a tweet featuring BLM protester kneeling symbolically on the neck of the statue of Edward Colston for over eight minutes, in memory of the police killing of George Floyd (image via @beardedjourno) (individual protesters’ faces have been blurred by Hyperallergic)

In one day, a peaceful, multi-racial protest achieved what a two-year-long equivocating council campaign could not. The image of Black men kneeling on the neck of a slave trader for just over eight minutes was a profoundly moving one that echoed Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s defiant fists; Nelson Mandela’s triumphant release from prison; and Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.

In two days, the British public have received more education about slavery than the entirety of their secondary school curriculum. The ripples of the statue being tossed into the Bristol canal have political consequences too. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, recently announced a review into all of the capital’s landmarks with links to slavery.

Colston’s statue was once a statement to the Black and brown residents of Bristol, who had no choice but to coexist with the memory of a trader in human flesh. Its destruction was as cathartic as the earlier defacement of a statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II, who was responsible for the genocide of an estimated 15 million Congolese colonial subjects.

The eradication of such monuments is connected to the same spirit that pushes for the removal of Confederate-era statues in the US. Condemnation of these efforts  spring from a kind of paternalistic arrogance that, at times, is an unsettling echo of the racist ideologies of colonizers. We know what’s best for you — even when it comes to how to decolonize.

When analyzing the entire legacy of colonialism, the poet and intellectual Aimé Césaire damningly observed that not a single humanist value could be found.

It’s this sentiment that contextualizes the toppling of Colston’s statue; an act that didn’t attack history, but instead corrected how we write it.

May it be the first of many.

Editor’s note (6/12/20, 1:45pm EDT): A previous version of this article incorrectly  credited Jesse Owens with raising a defiant fist at the Olympics. The athletes were in fact John Carlos and Tommie Smith. We regret the error. 

Aditya Iyer is an independent journalist and writer based in London who writes about identity, migrant politics, and culture.

21 replies on “A Toppled Statue In Bristol Reveals Limited Understandings of What Decolonizing Requires”

  1. I have read lot about this history, far more than most.
    thus C Columbus was a shocker, rape and pillage! Even the Spanish hauled him in.
    and yes reality is the journey to modern lib democracy was paved with much shocking “illiberal” behaviour, eg mass religious violence in 12 to 14 cent., then 16 and 17 cent, then mass imperialist violence abroad, slavery etc.
    but strange irony is that this journey did produce universal ‘liberal democracy.
    but it’s only universal if NO identities favored: identity meaning.. race, place, religion or even gender.
    thus today most “racism” by far is in non “Western” lands.
    second re statue toppling there shd NOT be mob rule.
    this mob protest has seen wanton destruction of property / businesses belonging to the innocent
    we must adhere to agreed democratic PROCESS.

    1. I’ve lived in Bristol since 1983 so am well aware of this “mob rule” argument.

      The fact is that pulling down a statue of someone who was a symbol of continued complicity in racism of many Bristol institutions was a political act. The ropes that pulled the statue down weren’t accidentally brought to the BLM event. The ropes and the act were to draw attention to what is happening in our city and across the world. The point is harassment by the police and even murder as we have all seen on many occasions because of the colour of your skin is not freedom or democratic in the UK the US or anywhere else.

      Would these people say that the protestors in Eastern Europe in 1989 shouldn’t have broken up the Berlin Wall because they were causing criminal damage to property and breaking the law. No they would likely say that they were fighting for their freedom in a political act.

      On this occasion the Bristol police chiefs let it happen because they said they understood the longstanding issues with the statue and figured that the heap of metal wasn’t worth risking public safety as there could have been a riot as happened on numbers of occasions in the early eighties. Those involved will very likely go to court and were presumably willing to take that risk because of the importance of the issues not to mention putting themselves at risk of catching Covid19 by being there at all.

  2. The headline is deeply misleading – it led me to fear that I was about to read an article claiming that decolonisation and toppling statues were somehow mutually exclusive! I was relieved to read something quite different – but please be careful with headlines.

  3. the last sentence is exactly right. Well, the two or three. And it was just rubbish art, too. And the first comment regards mob rule is typical of the white establishment. The process, mr etheridge , is the problem.

  4. Brilliant and powerful, and not a moment too soon. That said I spent four years at art school in Bristol unaware of the existence of this statue. Rather than destroying these statues how about a Museum of Vile Men. It could be junky and unfunded, maybe more like a curated dump but with labels that detail the story of how these statues came about and why they are so wrong.

  5. I agree with others about the misleading headline. The article is also inaccurate in its account of Keir Starmer’s response, which I heard live on LBC. He said he thought the way the statue was removed was wrong (he arguably had little choice as leader of the opposition to say this), but then went on to give listeners a good account of Colston’s crimes, and said it should have been taken down long ago. Perhaps he should have added in the frustration of locals who have tried for years to get the statue removed, but it is simply sloppy journalism to suggest he opposed its removal. Anyway- great that it’s gone, and that a national conversation on the crimes of slavery and empire has finally, perhaps, been started.

    1. I was going to say exactly the same thing. The leader of the opposition can not be seen to endorse criminal damage, no matter the cause. To suggest his approach means he is supporting 17th century colonial imperialism is ridiculous.

  6. It is wrong to portray the removal of the statue as a positive thing. The manner of removal has simply confirmed what the vast majority in the UK believe about the nature of the radical left, university educated middle classes and BLM. That violence, intimidation and fear is an effective way to achieve political goals. That the end justifies the means. This increases the general move toward the right and greater conservatism amongst the majority, increases division and promotes intolerance; intolerance of speech, intolerance of thought, intolerance for different views – creating a retarded, twisted caricature of itself. This obsessive focus on race and sexuality (the most boring characteristic of us) has created a society that is worse because every slight is seen through the lens of discrimination. Forcing us to play an unwinnable game of “privilege” and “identity”. It is a dark, dangerous game to play, with no winners – least of all the people the activists profess to care for most of all.

      1. It is essential to talk to people and listen to their life experiences, especially during times like this. It takes visiting two public schools in the USA, one in a white and one in a black neighborhood to see how different the opportunities that people get are. James mentions in his response: “This obsessive focus on race and sexuality (the most boring characteristic of us) has created a society that is worse because every slight is seen through the lens of discrimination.” Pay secrecy is a common practice around the world, and it is used by employers to save money and to cover discrimination. In economics, this is called Information Asymmetry, and it is used to favor one side during a negotiation. In a 2011 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the gender wage gap was 23%, with women being the underpaid ones. A few days ago, there was an article about a scandal involving the SFMOMA censoring a black employee here in Hyperallergic. The article mentioned the fact that art collections have fewer women and minority artists in them. These are just two examples, but I am sure anyone could think about many. Inequality is real, and solving it, not a game. James wrote: “Forcing us to play an unwinnable game of “privilege” and “identity.” It is a dark, dangerous game to play, with no winners”. I am lucky that I don’t fear being shot by the police while being stopped for a broken brake light. I am thankful that I don’t get attacked by others because of my skin color, and I am fortunate to have opportunities, education, and the ability to speak and write in different languages. The reality is that there are winners and losers, and that not everyone’s existence is the same. Some are born without opportunities in a third world country without ever having the chance to play. Acknowledging that there are differences between us around the world will help us understand and support those that are trying to change theirs.

        1. I largely agree with you; however, the pay gap issue is deeply suspect, and the UK, it is a lie. There is no secret plot to pay women less, they just negotiate less effectively than men (on average) and the paygap has been shown to be 0.8% in the UK (incidentally Germany has a 3% gap when assessed in the proper way – like with like. If these figures of 20+% and more (there are young women being taught that the paygap is 50% in the UK, its disgusting) it would be immediately ID’d by businesses as a source of cheaper labour and rapidly correct itself. Certainly in the UK, it is a non – issue that the left use to get the masses lathered up, resulting in further erosion of their own honesty.

    1. Minorities have been pushing for change through “proper” channels for decades, sometimes centuries, with no success, despite their demands being good and right. Because the existing power structure does not serve everyone under it, people are appropriately rejecting its claim to legitimacy, along with its “proper” channels and disciplinary institutions. The UK and US governments and economic systems are established and maintained by “might makes right” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a show of force has become necessary. Be glad there’s only been non-violent destruction of property. Going by historical example, much more is warranted.

      The only reason someone wouldn’t understand “privilege and “identity” is if they have the luxury of opting out of such discussions. The oppressed and marginalized, having been forced to live with the associated problems, understand these issues just fine. There are lots of good books explaining them. There are even books about how fed up people are with trying to explain them. Attitudes like yours are the dead weight that makes the world so hard to push in the right direction.

      1. Attitudes like mine laid – and continue to fight for – the foundation for the freedom of speech and expression that you enjoy today, almost the entirety of a global system of economics, development and human rights that has lifted billions of people out of abject poverty was developed in this country. There are books about that as well.

  7. Really strong article. “In two days, the British public have received more education about
    slavery than the entirety of their secondary school curriculum.”

  8. i see that several other comments about this article mention the word “sloppy” or its like – and it is absolutely the appropriate remark to make. #1: Wm. Dalrymple is your greatest living historian, in my opinion – read “From The Holy Mountain,” if nothing else – a man of the greatest sympathy, empathy and understanding for all the downtrodden as well as a great aesthete: his remarks have to have been taken wildly out of context as he would never compare a shoddy, 1895 statue of indeed a disgusting personality to the historically & artistically priceless Bamiyan Buddha sculptures. I come from a long line of educated, philanthropic socialists, myself – in fact, my grandfather is acknowledged as the Founder of the NAACP at the African American Museum in Washington, as well as elsewhere – and if you quoted Aime Cesaire correctly (in the second to last paragraph) you AND she should both be ashamed of your simplistic, sordid generalization: to say there is nothing which was humanistic in a period of hundreds of years of life – be it colonialistic or other – is preposterous . one example which pops immediately to mind is the civil rights and freedoms Indian women enjoyed in the 1700s, under the British – property, education, inter-marriage, etc – which they they certainly did not have for most of Indian history; one of the most pleasant hours I’ve spent was listening to Dalrymple extoll a Mughal noble-woman who had (with her mother) to become prostitutes after the fall of Delhi, migrated to Hyderabad, became a great (& best-selling) poetess and was given positions of extraordinary, totally unheard of & unique honor at the Hyderabadi court.

  9. I think an important opportunity is being squandered through two essentially sterile avenues of debate: Firstly, is it wrong for the public to pull down statues because statues are property and that outguns the expression of popular belief? It’s illegal, but toppling statues has been a common enough response in times of political change historically, and isn’t usually perceived as exceptionally violent in retrospect. Statues are just lumps of building material in the end. The second and less helpful distraction is whether British (or European) racism is identical with US racism. It’s clear that many white British people simply do not recognise themselves in the dynamics of American race conflict, but activists persistently interpret this non-recognition in terms of white fragility, post-Imperial exceptionalism and white supremacist narratives. Maybe this is true at the level of theory, but such analysis fails to recognise that ‘Britishness’ frequently stands in an ironic and embittered relation to US values – witness the absurdity of American cars on British streets, the works of Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake, a thousand media caricatures of the abrasive know-nothing white American tourist, endless British youth cultures. We like American stuff, but significant slabs of American culture are loathsome to us and many generations of Brits have constructed our identities in implicit opposition to their values. So I pose an open question; does this matter? Is it necessary or desirable to construct a narrative of British racism that feels more authentic to the people that anti-racists wish to move forward?

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