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Monumental folly – what Colston’s statue says about Victorian Bristol

18 June 2020

The elegant statue of Edward Colston, with its art nouveau plaques proclaiming him the ‘wise and virtuous son of the city’, met an inelegant fate last week as it was violently toppled and rolled into the Bristol Docks. When the statue was subsequently retrieved from the water, conservators discovered a rolled-up magazine dating from 1895 stuffed into the statue’s coat-tails containing handwritten notes of the names of those who originally fitted the statue to its city centre site.

Why was the statue put up in 1895, more than 170 years after the death of Colston himself? An accessible and well-researched piece by the Bristol Radical History group largely accords with my own view that the statue’s primary purpose was to ‘big up’ Bristol and assert a common civic identity that would unite Bristolians irrespective of growing class divisions in the period. Colston’s statue was erected around the same time as monuments were being erected in the United States to glorify the Confederacy and pave the way for the introduction of Jim Crow (segregationist) laws. In Britain, sculptures made in this same period by firms such as J.W. Singer in Frome in Somerset, and exported throughout the empire, similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal.

Photo: Jon Kent/Bristol Live

The magazine found rolled up in the coat-tails of the Colston statue. Photo: Jon Kent/Bristol Live

In Bristol, the monument commissioned from the Manchester sculptor John Cassidy was the brainchild of James Williams Arrowsmith (1839–1913), a local Liberal publisher and printer and Bristol history enthusiast, who ended up paying for most of the project. It’s worth remembering that Colston had been a divisive figure in his own day, as he imposed his autocratic Tory and High Church views on all those who hoped to benefit from his charitable bequests. Nonetheless the monies he bequeathed to the city for the establishment of schools, relief of those poor who subscribed to his values and the renovation of churches spawned a number of charities in his name, which were sponsored by both Whigs and Tories. By the late Victorian period, the civic processions and rituals celebrating the man, who in his later years became a member of Bristol’s powerful Society of Merchant Venturers and Bristol’s MP, were an important part of the city’s calendar. Yet in 1895, few donors, whether Tory or Liberal, wanted to stump up money for a new statue and a subscription appeal failed to raise the requisite sum. It was left to Arrowsmith to donate the bulk of the cash.

But Arrowsmith was no latter-day Colston. He came from a family of liberals who in the mid 19th century had pushed for political reform. He inherited and expanded a flourishing publishing and printing business, commissioning many nationally well-known authors as well as local studies; he saw himself as celebrating the city’s distinctive historical traditions about which he was so knowledgeable. That needs to be kept in mind even as we recognise deeper reasons for why the plinth of the sculpture celebrates Colston despite his involvement in the slave trade and his lobbying for favourable terms for trading to Africa, the Caribbean and the American colonies. Arrowsmith’s interest in civic history may explain why the statue was situated in the city centre near that of another former MP for Bristol, Edmund Burke, which had been erected in 1894. Burke’s relationship to slavery interests is not mentioned either. (Burke, who was MP for Bristol in 1774–80, later advocated – with varying degrees of zeal – reforming some aspects of the slave trade, but also saw slavery as an economic necessity for Britain.)

Red paint on the statue after it was retrieved from Bristol Harbour.

Red paint on the statue after it was retrieved from Bristol Harbour. Photo: Jon Kent/Bristol Live

Spencer Jordan and others have pointed to the fact that the statue served the interests of Bristol’s business elite, of which Arrowsmith was a member. It was forged at a moment when Tory and Liberal politicians were burying their differences to counter the threat of disorder posed by the emergence of an increasingly militant working class. The fact that the statue proclaims Colston’s beneficence without alluding to the source of much of his wealth – namely the often murderous exploitation of enslaved Africans – is very telling. Arrowsmith himself would not have seen his honouring of Colston as intentionally racist. Liberals had tended to support the anti-slavery cause during the American Civil War, though by the 1880s many were subsequently drawn to a more racist view of the position of African Americans as well those of African descent in the Caribbean. Arrowsmith’s motives were different from that of those using monuments to pave the way for Jim Crow legislation. He was not trying to legitimise racial segregation in Bristol, where in any case there were very few people of colour. He merely wanted to celebrate Colston as a great man of Bristol.

The skewed and romanticised view of Colston still strikes a chord with many white Bristolians who have accepted it uncritically, mainly because they have not encountered at school or, until very recently, through the media a more honest rendering of the city’s historical past. The statue they saw in the town centre was one where they perhaps have met friends or arranged to meet by for a first date and so has associations of place and a sense of belonging which made them feel they are part of the city. That sense of belonging was certainly not shared by those Bristolians who objected to the celebration of a slave trader. The challenge is to effect a greater understanding between the two groups.

Madge Dresser was associate professor in history at the University of the West of England until 2016 and is now honorary professor in historical studies at the University of Bristol. She has published and broadcast widely on Atlantic slavery and its legacy in Britain.