As anti-racism protests spread across Europe, in solidarity with the death of George Floyd in the United States of America, the protestors decided to attack their own local brand of racism. In the English port city of Bristol, on Sunday, a group of 10,000 demonstrators pulled down a 125-year-old statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and dragged it through the city’s streets into the harbour of river Avon.
A petition seeking a reassessment of Colston’s contribution to the city of Bristol has been doing the rounds for the last three years. “Whilst history shouldn’t be forgotten, these people who benefited from the enslavement of individuals do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who bring about positive change and who fight for peace, equality and social unity,” reads the petition that asks for the removal of his statue from the city centre. In the last week alone, the petition gathered about 7000 signatures.
The recent incident of the 18-foot statue of Colston being pulled down has caused a stir in the city, with residents divided over his exact role in history. While some would like to remember him as a philanthropist who devoted his fortunes to the development and prosperity of Bristol, others are wary of the exploitative nature of his work that brought in the same fortunes.
Why is Edward Colston seen as a racist?
Colston was born in 1636 to a merchant family that had been living in Bristol since the 14th century. While he grew up in Bristol till the English Civil War of 1642-51, his family later moved to London, where Colston began his professional life.
At the initial stage of his career, Colston was involved in the trading of cloth, oil, wine, fruits with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa. In 1680, however, he joined the Royal African Company (RAC), which had a monopoly in England on the trade of gold, silver, ivory, and slaves, along the west coast of Africa.
The RAC was established by King Charles II along with his brother James, the Duke of York. “The ships of the Company enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy, and the traders made good profits,” write historians Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn, in their article, ‘Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade’. “Many of the enslaved Africans were branded with the initials ‘DY’, standing for Duke of York. They were shipped to Barbados and other Caribbean islands to work on the new sugar plantations, as well as further north to England’s American colonies.,” they add.
Colston rose up to the company’s board quite rapidly, taking on the position of Deputy Governor in 1689. During the period of his involvement with RAC till 1692, the company is believed to have transported about 84,000 slaves, out of which close to 20,000 are known to have died.
Why is Edward Colston seen as a philanthropist?
Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, and London were the key ports for British companies trafficking African slaves across the Atlantic. The merchants, shipbuilders, sailors involved in the trade were a major source of income and wealth for these cities. Colston was one such slave trade magnate, who funded a wide range of charitable projects in Bristol and London, including schools and almshouses for the poor of the city, thereby developing the reputation of a philanthropist.
“The priest who preached at his funeral in October 1721 would not have recognised the irony when he said that Colston ‘knew of no want, but that of more vessels wherein to deposit the overflowings of charity and beneficence’,” write Mohamud and Whitburn.
He briefly served as a Tory MP for Bristol before dying in Mortlake, Surrey, in 1721. The exhaustive five-volume work, ‘The History of Parliament: the House of Commons, 1690-1715,’ describes Colston thus: “In his day he was revered by Bristol’s corporation as ‘the highest example of Christian liberality that this age has produced, both for the extensiveness of his charities and the prudent regulation of them’.”
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Colston’s image as that of a philanthropist is dotted across the length and breadth of Bristol. Apart from the statue that was torn down recently, his name is enshrined upon an independent school, a high rise building called Colston Tower, Colston Street and Colston Avenue, as well as the Colston Hall.
Who are some of the other figures of European history, being targeted by anti-racism demonstrators?
Winston Churchill: In central London, the statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill was vandalised and demonstrators reportedly wrote ‘was a racist’ on it. The wartime prime minister of the country, known for his ‘indomitable spirit’ among the British, has also been accused by historians for his racist, imperial policies that led to the death of many in British India.
King Leopold: In Belgium too similar scenes broke out, with demonstrators targeting statues of the 19th century monarch King Leopold II, whose administration of the Congo has been heavily criticised for the atrocities and exploitation it led to. The institutionalised brutality unleashed by Leopold in Congo is believed to have led to the death of about 10 million people. In 1908, following several reports of abuse, the Belgian government took over the administration of Congo from Leopold.
Leopold’s glorification in Belgium has been a topic of controversy and there have been failed efforts before to remove his statues. More recently, though, an online petition asking for the removal of his statues garnered 60,000 signatures. As part of the ongoing anti-racism protests, in the Belgian city of Ghent, a bust of the monarch was defaced with the words, ‘I can’t breathe’ written on it, symbolising the brutal death of Floyd. In Brussels too, demonstrators gathered around the statue of Leopold as they chanted ‘murderer’.
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