The news that the “Colston 4” were acquitted this week was received with joy by almost all. Perhaps not quite as much joy as the initial dumping of Colston’s statue into the River Avon, which provoked an ecstasy that would be hard to replicate, but that their act was legitimated in a court of law was a welcome and heartening surprise nonetheless.
We all know it is rare for courts of law to follow the path of social justice, which is so often based on a critique of the punitive arm of the establishment that the courts themselves represent. The acquittal of the Colston 4 bucked that trend. For that same reason, it was no surprise whatsoever that some of the right’s prized idiots immediately questioned the jury, making pathetic attempts to stoke a moral panic about the precedent that their judgment may set for Britain in 2022. (Obvious answer: none.)
The fact that Jake Skuse, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, and Sage Willoughby were found not guilty of criminal damage was an utterly dangerous denial of reality, various right-wing pundits argued. But no one, not even the defendents themselves, claimed that no damage had been done. The suggestion here was that not all damage is physical and not all physical damage is criminal. As such, the statue staying put on its perch did more damage to the city and people of Bristol than its unsanctioned removal ever could. A jury, presumably made up of fellow Bristolians, understandably agreed that even the tacit veneration of Colston’s legacy in the 21st century was an ongoing insult to the people of Bristol.
This legacy was best and most starkly summarised by Zarah Sultana MP on Twitter, shortly after the trial verdict was announced:
Edward Colston was responsible for violently transporting 84,000 Africans to the Caribbean. They were chained, beaten and raped, with 19,000 dying en route.
Grotesquely, a statue was put up to honour him in Bristol, but today in court those who toppled it were rightly cleared.
It was a legacy that had long clouded the city centre like a foul smell, particularly around the hall that, until recently, bore his name. As I mentioned online last year, even as a Cardiff resident, when I’d travel to Bristol for gigs as a student, some inside Colston Hall, I remember being handed flyers and asked to sign petitions about the name and the statue, and that was almost a decade before the latter was pulled down. Hatred of Colston was present long before then too, I’m told. The damage caused by the continued veneration of someone who brought unimaginable horror, above all, to the African peoples trafficked into the slave trade was clear to all.
In light of this, for those who decried the tearing down of Colston’s statue, it is unclear what their exact objections were then or are now. They seem to reject the tearing down of statues without due process or according to the whims of a particular political ideology — as if his continued presence in the city wasn’t a sign of their own; ideology is always most present where its influence is most vehemently denied — but I struggle to understand how anyone can think the veneration of slave traders is something that needs to be passed by a committee, or that really needs commemorating with a grand statue (even with some critical small print later attached). Such a position skirts close to defending the slave trade, and that is precisely how most of the poorly argued objections to his removal in the aftermath of the trial have come across.
Others seem to suggest that tearing down statues is rewriting history, but the point is instead that history has already been rewritten. In Colston’s case, no amount of philanthropy in the 1600s should wash away those historical crimes against humanity in the present. If anything, the fact this man has been dead some four hundred years makes his continued veneration all the more inexplicable, whilst only emphasising how integral money from the slave trade was and remains to the fabric of our country. That’s not something to celebrate; it is something to mourn, especially when you consider that many of the ancestors of former slaves still live in Bristol today.
If any statue is warranted, it is one to the victims, not depicting a man who once oversaw their violent enslavement.
Of course, we’ve heard all these arguments before. These debates were all had last year, and the right’s disagreements with Colston’s destruction are even more uninteresting today than they were at the time. But what is most notable about this judgement, to my mind at least, coming as it did on January 5th, is its proximity to the announcement of the New Year’s honours list.
This is worth mentioning in the present context, I think, because the issue of Colston’s crimes abroad, and how they are to be perceived relative to his philanthropy and influence closer to home, resonates profoundly with many other venerated establishment figures in our contemporary moment — not least Tony Blair, who received a knighthood earlier in the week.
Today it seems ridiculously short-sighted to publicly celebrate a slave trader just because he gave all his heirless wealth to the city of Bristol. But the same week a jury collectively acknowledged this, we have seen countless figures talk up Tony Blair’s SureStart centres and election victories in an attempt to offset the fact his illegal war killed an estimated 1,000,000 Iraqis overseas.
The conversation has changed with regards to our past, but the establishment is continuing along the same path it has been on for centuries, making the same mistakes time and time again. They may not venerate people with statues anymore, but they venerate villains all the same. We might argue this is some sort of improvement, but our representations of power and influence have only become more diffuse. If anything, statues give people something to target; a public site in which to act and enact change. Where are the sites of resistance against the Colston’s of today? Their venerations are less ostentatious, but this only makes them harder to resist.
A society that is slowly coming to terms with those whom it has venerated in the past must just as forcefully reckon with those it continues to venerate in the present. One way of doing that might be in seeing how these habits of veneration remain consistent across the centuries. We’re lauding the same old villains, who feign generosity at home and commit atrocities abroad. Yes, each of their crimes are arguably of their respective times, if you want to split that hair, but I think they are nonetheless comparable. Sir Tony’s knighthood is a Colston for the 21st century. But it will take more cunning to tear him down.
Contrary to those who have argued that the removal of Colston’s statue was a revision of history, including our current prime minister, we can say that Colston’s downfall was the correction of a historical mistake. That statue should never have been erected in the first place and its removal constituted an overdue acknowledgement of our establishment’s past crimes against humanity. As such, tearing it down was a valiant act, full of joy, addressing a long-standing wrong. But the same mistakes are still being made today, in other forms but nonetheless in our names. If the force unleashed on Colston’s effigy shows us anything, it’s that we don’t need to wait four hundred years to address that fact. It only takes an instant.