Opinion

A Toppled Statue In Bristol Reveals Limited Understandings of What Decolonizing Requires

Protesters’ removal of Edward Colston’s statue didn’t attack history; instead it corrected how we write it.

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. 

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