Objects are neither value-free nor immutable. They bear meanings and have life histories. In 1895, the Bristol elite attended the unveiling of a statue to the 17th-century slave-trader Edward Colston. It was the heyday of empire. In 2020, to cheers of joy from the crowd, Bristol’s Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down the statue and desecrated the fallen idol. They “ritually killed” it, as we say in archaeology.
An object’s rite of passage, as it moves from one phase of its existence to the next, is often marked by elaborate performance art. The idol was kicked and bashed. Knees were placed on its neck.
The Colston statue’s inaugural rite of passage had been a dull bourgeois ceremony. Its fall was a carnival of the oppressed. The moment when the idol was tipped into the sea was notably symbolic. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of Africans who died on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic – victims of people like Colston – were thrown overboard.
The Colston statue is beginning a new phase of its life history – at the bottom of Bristol harbour. The philistines are denouncing the performance artists with the ignorance of ages. I would recommend a Turner prize.
Dr Neil Faulkner
Archaeologist and historian, St Albans, Hertfordshire
• The days for Edward Colston’s statue in central Bristol have for several years been numbered. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of the manner of its removal, which the police will investigate, steps should now be taken on which everyone will surely agree. The statue should be recovered from the harbour and, unrepaired, paint and all, made the centrepiece of an exhibit in Bristol Museum, demonstrating another important chapter in the history of the Bristol’s relationship with slavery and racism.
Professor emeritus of criminal justice, University of Bristol
• As a white Bristolian I used to think that Colston was a regrettable part of the history of Bristol and was divided over whether or not his statue should be removed. Last year I visited Ghana and went to one of the slave forts – it was absolutely chilling. If the council had added a new plaque, alongside the original one, explaining the source of Colston’s money and the context, I would have accepted that, but it didn’t, despite various people approaching it with this idea. I am proud of the actions of the young people at the weekend. Now the statue needs to be brought up from the docks, and put in the museum, with a full account of Colston: the source of his money, his philanthropy, his context, alongside a full account of the Black Lives Matter action of 7 June.
• Priti Patel called the tearing down of the Colston statue “utterly disgraceful” (BLM protesters topple statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, 7 June) but said nothing about the many black lives that have been lost in the UK at the hands of the police. Austerity policies have created a feeling among the protesters that no one in government is listening to their concerns. In the weeks to come the demonstrators might disappear, but they will be back if a sense of injustice continues in a range of social and economic spheres. Now that Colston’s statue has been removed, the city council might wish to commission a replacement statue of either George Floyd or a statue to represent the justice sought by the Black Lives Matter campaign.
• Join the debate – email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters