BLM protesters topple statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston

Statue that had long been a focal point of local anger rolled down to harbour and pushed into the water

Black Lives Matters protesters in Bristol have pulled down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston.

Demonstrators attached a rope to the Grade II-listed statue on Colston Avenue on Sunday before pulling it to the ground as crowds cheered. They then jumped on it and rolled it down the street before pushing it into Bristol Harbour.

The historian David Olusoga compared the action to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, the home secretary, Priti Patel, urged the police to respond. She told Sky News: “I think that is utterly disgraceful and that speaks to the acts of public disorder that have actually now become a distraction from the cause in which people are protesting about.”

Supt Andy Bennett, of Somerset and Avon police, said his force was carrying out an investigation into criminal damage.

However, Bennett told the BBC he understood that Colston was “a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years”, adding: “Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic. 

“You might wonder why we didn’t intervene and why we just allowed people to put it in the docks – we made a very tactical decision, to stop people from doing the act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do, in terms of our policing tactics, was to allow it to take place.”

"Whilst I am disappointed ... I do understand why it’s happened"

Supt Andy Bennett from @ASPolice on the toppling of the Edward Colston statue...

— BBC West Live (@BBCBristol) June 7, 2020

The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said: “I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. However, it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity.”

The bronze statue, erected in 1895, has long been a focal point for anger at the city’s role in the slave trade and the continued commemoration of those who were involved in it.

A petition to remove it had garnered more than 11,000 signatures. It said: “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.”

Colston’s company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689, cramming them into ships to maximise profit.

This happened a few moments ago.
The Edward Colston statue has been pulled down.

— BBC Radio Bristol (@bbcrb) June 7, 2020

The slaves, including women and children, were branded on the chest with the company’s initials, RAC. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy killed more than 20,000 during the crossings and their bodies were thrown overboard.

The Bristol West MP, Thangam Debbonaire, now the shadow housing secretary, joined calls for the statute to be taken down in 2018. She said the city “should not be honouring people who benefited from slavery”.

Protesters throw the statue into Bristol harbour
Protesters throw the statue into Bristol harbour on Sunday. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Colston gave great sums of money to Bristol, but it was earned from slavery. Debbonaire said: “Having statues of people who oppressed us is not a good thing to be saying to black people in this city.”

Action has been taken to erase Colston’s name from other parts of the city. Colston Hall, Bristol’s largest concert hall, announced plans to change its name in 2017, and Bristol city council determined in January 2018 that a second plaque should be placed on Colston’s statue highlighting his role in the slave trade but wrangling over the wording delayed it. A portrait of Colston was removed from the lord mayor’s office later the same year.

Opposition to the Colston statue grew at around the same time as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which called for the statue of Cecil Rhodes, an ardent imperialist, to be removed from Oriel College, Oxford. The college refused to accede to the demands.

The toppling of the statue follows the pulling down of several Confederate statues during Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

Explaining the reason for the Grade II listing, Historic England says: “The statue is of particular historical interest, the subject being Edward Colston, Bristol’s most famous philanthropist, now also noted for his involvement in the slave trade.”


Haroon Siddique and Clea Skopeliti

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