History Was Never Subject to Democratic ControlHistorians in the News
tags: racism, statues, slave trade, public history, Protest, Edward Colston
Edward colston is lying down. Last summer, in the raging days after the murder of George Floyd, protesters dragged a 19th-century bronze statue of this 17th-century philanthropist from its plinth near the docks of Bristol, England, and dumped it into the harbor. Having been pulled out again, the statue currently rests—on its side—a few hundred yards away in an exhibition hall at M Shed, a historical museum. The bronze figure still carries the protesters’ daubs of paint. Its hands are red.
Colston’s statue was dumped in the water because in 1689, he became deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on the British slave trade. His dethronement last year was one of the most visible symbols of British solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike in the United States, slavery was never formally permitted on British soil—although it was enthusiastically embraced in its colonies—and so this country’s reckoning with the past has been slower to arrive. The statue’s fall forced Bristol to confront how much of its growth and prosperity was built on the buying and selling of human lives.
However, the controversy over Colston did not end with the statue’s removal. The We Are Bristol History Commission must now decide Colston’s final resting place. Led by academics and appointed by Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees—the first elected Black mayor in Europe—the panel is trying to do something new: speak directly to the city’s residents, through a series of public meetings, to deliver some semblance of a democratic mandate.
The Colston statue was put up in a public space by a minority: the rich merchants of the city, who wanted to advance their vision of philanthropy. And it was pulled down by a minority: Polling suggests that most Britons support the removal of statues linked to the slave trade, but only through legal means. “It’s an elite that put this up,” Tim Cole, the University of Bristol social-history professor who is leading the commission, told me. “In a sense, it’s an elite that took it down as well.”
Culture wars feed off the idea that someone else is imposing their values on you without ever consulting you. The undemocratic origins of the Colston statue are inconvenient for those who believe that the monuments of the past should be left undisturbed (and unquestioned) forever. But Bristol’s statue war is also a cautionary tale to those on the left who want to take matters into their own hands.
The fight over the Colston statue—like the fight over Confederate monuments in the U.S.—is a lesson in how history is made and remade. If the future of statues were left to municipal councils and risk-averse private institutions, almost nothing would change. And if the issue were left to activists, too much would change for most people’s tastes.