Bristol Art Tour: ‘Empty Plinth’ – the former site of the Edward Colston memorial, Colston Avenue, Bristol

Pictured: ‘Empty Plinth.’ Image: Anna Frances, 2021

As part of my Bristol Art Tour, I visited the former site of Edward Colston memorial on Colston Avenue, Bristol, which is now an empty plinth (you can watch my video here). The statue was removed by protestors, following race related protests worldwide which were sparked by worldwide outrage at the murder of George Floyd in the US in May 2020. The protests were peaceful, and the statue was disposed of in the Bristol Harbourside, in the River Avon.

I’m aware that some of the themes in this blog will relate to topics around slavery. I’m also aware that I’m coming at this topic from a place of privilege. I’m white. I’m from a family where I’ve always felt like I’ve had enough. I would never know what it feels like to be someone that has different demographics than I do. I’m only speaking from my own opinion, not on behalf of anybody else.

Why did I visit this site on the art tour?

I felt like this event was very significant, on a local and global scale, and the empty plinth represents a shift in public acceptance of what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. Campaigners had been campaigning for some time to take the statue down with little success, and the global events I felt really did bring to the surface the recognition that things had to change.

About Edward Colston

According to the BBC website:

‘Colston was born into a prosperous Bristol merchant’s family and, although he lived in London for many years, was always closely associated with the city of Bristol. By 1672, he had his own business in London trading in cloth, wine, sugar and slaves. A significant proportion of Colson’s wealth came directly or indirectly from the slave trade.

In 1680, he became an official of the Royal African Company, which at that time held the monopoly in Britain on slave trading. During his career, London was the main centre of slave trading in Britain, but in the 1730s and 1740s, Bristol took London’s place. Liverpool became dominant in the second half of the century.’ (BBC History, page visited Feb 2021)

Between 1672 and 1689, ships are believed to have transported about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. 19,000 of these enslaved people were thought to have died in the ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic (Blog: Countering Colston, page visited Feb 2021)

Following his death in 1721, Colston donated considerable sums to philanthropic causes in Bristol. He founded two almshouses and a school and gave money to other schools, churches and hospitals. He also lent money to the Bristol corporation and was MP of the city for a short time. (BBC History, page visited Feb 2021).

How philanthropic was Colston’s donations?

Amongst some of these schools funded by Colston’s gifted money, some historians argue that the money he donated to the boys schools were actually intended to recruit sailors for his own ships. He also founded 2 Almhouses – or poor houses – some have argued known for poor living conditions and forced labour (Sally Morgan, quoted in The Conversation, page visited Feb 2021)

Facts about the statue:

As said on the plaque: ‘ERECTED BY CITIZENS OF BRISTOL AS MEMORIAL TO ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS AND WISE SONS OF THEIR CITY A.D.1895’ signed at the bottom ‘JOHN CASSIDY FECIT.’

The statue put up over 170 years after his death, in the Victoria era.

To what extent was the statue intended to be about slavery when it was initially installed in 1895?

Some argue the statue was initially an attempt to censor Edward Colston’s involvement in slavery. With no mention of slavery anywhere on the statue, and images of him giving money to the poor on the plinth, he is painted as a ‘philanthropist.’

As explained in an article in The Conversation:

‘The late-Victorian period saw a mass of statues going up across Europe in part of what some historians have called an “invention of tradition.” Figures were sought who embodied certain virtues. In Bristol, the Colston statue was part of a late-Victorian attempt to re-imagine the civic space around “great men” and “benign paternalism”.

Some argue that statue itself had no indication of any links Colston had to slavery, and argued that this was part of an ongoing attempt in the Victorian attempt to obscure the role of Bristol in the transatlantic slave trade (The conversation, page visited Feb 2021)

Slavery had officially been abolished in England in 1833, and arguably this would have still just have been in living memory for some people, when this statue was installed, just over 60 years later.  

‘Following the Bristol Strikes in 1889-90, and the increasing social unrest regarding living conditions of the poor in Bristol at the time, made it clear that the paternalism philanthropy – e.g. poor houses, work houses, or ‘almshouses’ as Colston is credited for funding, was insufficient. Some argue that the installation of the Colston statue in the Victorian era was an attempt to reassert the authority of these Paternalist societal practices, in the face of anxiety over working class unrest.’ (The conversation, page visited Feb 2021)

Victorian context:

Not long after the statue had been installed in 1895, by 1901, the British Empire was the largest in the world, and Queen Victoria was head of a quarter of the world’s population (DK Find Out, page visited 18.2.2021).

Some have argued that the Victorians created this idea of Britain as a ‘civilised’ nation, using means such as public art museums to create an imagined idea of what everyone should be like, or aspire to be (Duncan, 1995). Based on this premise, some have argued that the colonisation of many countries or areas of countries, such as Africa, was justified on ‘philanthropic’ means – the idea that people from other countries needed to change and needed ‘civilising.’

This idea of the people in the centre as ‘normalised’ and the people in the periphery as ‘demonized’ is far from a new one. Some of the earliest cartographers in the Roman Empire, such as Strabo, a Greek geographer, born 64 BC, began to describe those on the periphery as different and demonized, compared the ‘normal’ people in the centre (Wikipedia, page visited 19.2.2021)

The idea of enslaving others is also far from new. For example, in the middle ages, there is evidence to suggest that the Vikings invaded Ireland and enslaved the celts (History, Ireland, page visited Feb 2021). There is evidence to suggest the first recorded example of slavery dates back to ancient times in 3500BC, such as Sumer in ancient civilisation Mesopotamia (Wikipedia, page visited Feb 2021).

One argument is that slavery hadn’t been abolished since the Victorian Era, it has been reinvented. It wasn’t ‘slavery’ anymore, it was ‘civilising.’

How has the meaning of the statue changed since it was put up in the Victorian era, and does this matter?

If, like some argue, the Edwards Colston statue was put up as an effort to censor Colston’s involvement in slavery, then how has the meaning of the statue changed now?

You could argue that in a technological age, with mass exchange of information, we know a lot more than we ever have done about what happened, and this therefore has changed the meaning of the statue, from being the censorship of slavery, to an emblem of it.

Personally I don’t think this changes the significance of the taking down of the statue at all. I think it’s natural for a static object’s meaning to change as the culture and information around it changes. However, I do think it’s interesting to note how meaning can be interpreted in so many different ways, which is understandable if you think about the Victorian era compared to now.

Why do I think it’s important to talk about these kind of topics around the history of slavery?

I think the ‘rebrand’ or ‘re-invention’ of the ways slavery has been justified has changed throughout history, but the means remains the same: it’s the invention of difference. The creation of the Other, through means of censorship and representation that stigmatizes certain groups.

This can be used to create a culture of slavery, because it defines the ‘groups’ and then suggests that one group should rule the other one. It is completely imagined characteristics of certain groups, and some have argued that this can be applied to how the Nation State and nationalism has also operated (you can read more about this here). Again, perhaps the Nation State can be seen as a new rebrand of this power dynamic, of the ‘slave owner’ and ‘the slave’ or the ‘normalized’ people, and the ‘outsiders.’

So what now? Where are we at now?

I would argue there are (naming no names) certain tech giants, certain global distribution companies, and others TNCs that are behaving like colonial powers. Buying up land, censoring some information… I could go on.

On a completely unrelated note, the fact is, there are still people that are considered to be in ‘modern day slavery.’ Whether that’s domestic workers, forced marriages or many other forms of enslavement, an estimated 40.3 million men, women and children were victims of modern day slavery at any given time in 2016 (you can read more about this here).

Perhaps the next ‘rebrand’ of the slave owner/slave paradigm will be what we’re buying into as consumers. The electronic devices we’re staring into and looking at our own faces, and the software I’m writing this blog on. It’s difficult not to, when there’s very few brands out there on the market. Again, I’m not sure this is an accident.

Can we heal from our societal beliefs around slavery?

I would argue, it is always possible to make money without domination. I would argue it is always possible to make money and be kind. To attract money in your life, and do what you love, from a place of love, not a place of lack. I believe people are awakening to this. I believe people are healing, and I believe healing is the only way that things will ever change. The actions of mass-domination come from a wound, that may be from an ancestral or societal place that is very very old, not from a place of fullness.

An economic system entrenched in the idea that some people are slaves, and some people are slave owners, is ancient, and it sucks.

I think the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol is significant, as we’re beginning to see more and more people talking about this, and recognising that we don’t need to live like this anymore.

I believe change is possible, and I believe change is within us.

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