On Saturday morning, thousands of people lined up at five independent shops across the city of Bristol in England upon learning that their famed hometown artist Banksy was selling limited-edition t-shirts to benefit a group of activists accused of toppling a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
The shirts, which have already sold out, commemorate the Black Lives Matter protests that Bristolians participated in last summer and a historic turning point in Britain’s national attitude toward memorials of figures associated with the slave trade and the colonial enterprise. On June 7, 2020, in an impromptu action, Black Lives Matter protesters threw eggs at the Colston statue and toppled it with ropes, eventually throwing it into the nearby River Avon — not far from Pero’s Bridge, named after an enslaved person who lived in Bristol over a century after Colston’s birth. The design of Banksy’s shirt plays on the stock conventions of souvenir graphic tees: unruly splatters of paint leak over the edges of the stenciled, capitalized letters in “Bristol,” which appears over the plinth of the statue, decorated with Black Lives Matter graffiti and ropes used to dismount Colston’s statue. Debris and a demonstrator’s poster lie at its feet.
“The Colston Four” — as the four defendants accused of criminal damage of the statue have come to be known — stand trial this week. While many were heartened by the downing of Colston’s statue, a Boris Johnson spokesperson called it a “criminal act.” Even Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called it “completely wrong.” In an Instagram post announcing the shirts, Banksy wrote that all proceeds from the sale would go to the defendants “so they can go for a pint.” Although Banksy sold the shirts at £25 (~$33) each, one shirt has already appeared on eBay at £9,000 (~$11,890).
Colston, a 17th-century English slave trader, philanthropist, and Tory Member of Parliament, once served as deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which monopolized the extraction of gold, silver, ivory, and slaves from West Africa during his reign. The Royal African Company was responsible for shipping more slaves to the Americas than any other company in history, and Colston himself was estimated to have sold around 84,000 people, 19,000 of whom died in the Middle Passage.
For decades, Colston’s name had been ubiquitous in Bristol, emblazoned on a school, a pub, a concert hall, street signs, and residential buildings. A beloved local pastry — a bun mixed with dried fruits — is named after him; an annual “Colston Day” parade processes through town; and he is rendered in a stained-glass window in Bristol Cathedral. “He’s almost on the syllabus as the local hero,” a local resident told the New York Times. For a long time, Colston’s name was by and large synonymous with Bristol pride, at least for residents who were not aware of, or concerned by, how he had come by his wealth and prominence.
As historian and filmmaker David Olusoga explained in a video for the Guardian, Colston’s stature in Bristol today is more of a testament to a certain zeitgeist of the turn of the 20th century that got wrapped up with efforts to stoke civic and national pride. Colston’s statue, which was erected in 1895, is, he says, “a lot younger than people think… So the reasons for putting it up have got more to do with the 1890s — with the late Victorian age — than they have to do with his own lifetime in the 17th century.” Yet Colston also faithfully represents a shameful chapter of Bristol’s history, a period of time when the city was flush with the riches it accrued as the UK’s largest slaving port.
In the days after the statue was removed, a number of grassroots suggestions were proposed for what should go up in its place. A petition circulated advocating for a statue of Bristol civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson. Unauthorized, artist Marc Quinn directed a team to install his statue A Surge of Power, representing Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid with her fist raised in a Black Power suit; the work was removed the following day. Banksy posted an idea of his own: why not “drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down”?
Now, the statue itself — which was fished out of the river — sits tentatively at M Shed, a museum in Bristol, which intends “to start a city-wide conversation about its future.” There, the statue is recontextualized alongside signs displayed at the protest in June and a historical retelling of the statue’s role in civic life up until then — a marked improvement from the uncritical plaque that used to accompany the statue, which praised Colston as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city.” In early 2022, the We Are Bristol History Commission will issue a report based on findings from surveys they have conducted on what local residents want to do with the statue.
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