Racial Politics and the Toppling of the Statue of Slaver Edward Colston

On Sunday Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of Edward Colston from its plinth in the city’s centre, and threw it in the Floating Harbour. It’s been both local and national news. The local news interviewed a White woman, who had been part of the protest. She was married to a Black man, and as the mother of a half-Black child thoroughly approved of the statue’s maltreatment. In fact, she felt a bit teary and overcome with emotion.

Colston, Slavery and Charity

It’s not hard to see why. Colston was a 17th-18th century slaver and president of the Royal African Society. He made a colossal fortune from the enslavement of Black Africans. As historians and Black activists have pointed out, millions of the enslaved died en route to America and the Caribbean due to the appalling conditions on board the slave ships. Slavers like Colston also responded brutally to slave mutinies aboard ship by throwing their cargo overboard, chains and all, to drown. They also did this if a storm threatened to sink the ship, and they needed to lighten it. That’s shown in the classic 19th century painting of a ship at sea facing an oncoming storm. It was based on a real incident, that of the Zong, and the painting shows the struggling Blacks drowning as a detail.

Anti-racism activists have been campaigning for the statue’s removal for over forty years, ever since the St. Paul’s race riots of the 1980s. Mike wrote a long piece about it yesterday. He, and the peeps, whose tweets he cited, viewed the statue’s fall as good riddance to bad rubbish. He wondered why it hadn’t been done years ago. Some of those commenting were Blacks, like the awesome Kerry-Ann Mendoza of The Canary. They compared the statue to those of Hitler, and described how it had tore them up to go past it. If Colston had only been a slaver, the statue’s removal wouldn’t have been an issue. What complicated the matter is that Colston, who actually spent most of his life in Mortlake in London, gave very generously to charity. He endowed several schools in Bristol, one of which was Colston Girls School. As Mike explains in his excellent article, we also had Colston Day at school. This was a one-day holiday. Some pupils were also called upon to attend a special service at St. Mary Redcliffe church, and received a Colston bun. Mike had that experience. So did I.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

I should also point out here that, like Mike, I also grew up believing that one branch of our ancestral family tree, the Haberfields, had been slavers. That was dispelled last week by the historian David Olasuga on the Beeb’s programme, A House Through Time. Olasuga stated instead that the Haberfield’s made their money as wine merchants. There may have been other branches of the family that were slavers, however. I don’t know. I’ve heard stories that one ancestor was the captain of a slave ship, and that the City Museum has his log. But when I talked to people from the City’s museums, they denied they had any such thing. Bristol did benefit immensely from the slave trade, but, contrary to popular belief, most of the slaves were taken to the Caribbean. Those few that came back to the City were trusted personal servants. As a result, there is precious little in Bristol, apart from the luxurious homes the slavers built for themselves, that is directly connected to the slave trade. When the City Museum held an exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade there were so few objects left over from Bristol’s slave trade, that they had to borrow some from elsewhere. There are written documents, like contracts and ledgers, but museums don’t like putting them on display. Not because they’re trying to hide anything, as some people have alleged, but simply because visitors don’t find them interesting.

Anti-racist Politics in Bristol

There have been petitions over the years to remove the statue. It’s remained, because these campaigns did not achieve a majority. At the last poll, Bristolian opinion was divided half and half. Roughly the same proportion of people wanted the statue to stay as those, who wanted it gone. And not all Black anti-racism activists wanted it removed. Paul Stephenson was one of the leaders of the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960s and 1970s. This was against the colour bar operated by the local bus company, which refused to employ Blacks. When he was interviewed about racism and the slave trade in the city a few years ago, he felt the statue should be kept, but with a plaque pointing out that he was responsible for enslavement and genocide. As it is, the statue is going to be fished out of the harbour, and put on display in the M Shed. One of the arguments for keeping it up is that it serves to educate people about this aspect of Bristol’s history, but as one of the tweeters Mike quotes also says, this comes from people, who really don’t want schoolchildren talk about the dark side of the British empire.

I’ve also no doubt that some of the resistance to tearing the statue down and to some of the initiatives by the local authorities to commemorate Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and its millions of victims comes from the highly emotive and divisive racial politics in the city. Although Britain has had a Black presence since the Roman Empire, and Bristol has had a Black population from at least the 16th-17th centuries, there has only been a large Black community in Bristol since the mass immigration of the post-War years. The Black community in the inner city has, like those elsewhere, a reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and violent crime. St. Paul’s was a district Whites from outside the area drove through with their windows up and doors locked. Furthermore, some of the demands and accusations made by the community’s representatives were less than tactful.

It’s often asserted that Bristol was built on the slave trade. That’s true, but only up to a point. Bristol did profit very well from the trade, as did many other ports. But Bristol was great trading city before the slave trade took off in the 17th century. We traded with France, Spain and Portugal, as well as Ireland and across the Channel to Wales. And the first slaves sold by Bristol were White Anglo-Saxons bought by Irish merchants. The Anglo-Saxon cleric St. Wulstan visited the city to condemn the trade in the 11th century.

There’s also the problem that some anti-racist activists make unwarranted assumptions about racism and Whites. There’s an automatic assumption by some that if you’re White, you must be racist. That naturally gets peoples’ backs up. One of the Conservative blogs I read years ago quoted an American study that found that police officers tended to become more racist after anti-racist training than previously. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. The automatic reaction of anyone accused of racism, whatever their colour, is going to be resentment and defensiveness. And in the 1980s the Tory papers explicitly claimed that the riots were caused by Black racism. Some Black leaders didn’t help their cause either. I remember an article in the Absurder c. 1984/5 attacking one Black politician – it might have been Paul Boateng – for suggesting that Blacks should have their own autonomous areas. The writer correctly pointed out that this was a demand for segregation and apartheid. Fortunately, the call for separate Black communities went unheeded.

There has also been the problem that the city has devoted funds and resources in combating the poverty, unemployment and crime in the racially mixed inner city areas of Bristol, at the expense of the White majority areas further out. South Bristol was promised a local hospital back in the 1970s, but it was only built a few years ago. Positive discrimination schemes also give more funding to those areas with a large ethnic minority population. This has caused some resentment.

As a result it has seemed at times that the demands for Colston’s statue to be pulled down, and for the slave trade to be commemorated in Bristol, has come from a position of anti-White racism, rather than a desire for racial justice in itself.

Black Separatism and the Name of the Malcolm X Centre

And if you’re talking about the official commemoration of racists, there is the whole issue of the name of the community centre in St. Paul’s. It is, or was called the Malcolm X Centre, after the American civil rights leader. The problem is that Malcolm X’s organisation, the Nation of Islam, is racially separatist. They want a separate Black state, to be formed from a group of Black majority states in the US. In the 1960s they used to hold joint rallies with the American Nazi party. There was an article on this in the Sunday colour supplement for the Independent back in the 1990s. It contained an article written by a White American female photographer, who followed, interviewed and photographed Malcolm X at the time. The article reproduced some of the photos shed’ taken of these rallies. Now Malcolm X didn’t remain a separatist. He later converted to orthodox Islam, and supported integration after he went on the Hajj to Mecca, during which he found that people of all races were fundamentally the same. I think he also took an orthodox Muslim name. There is therefore the problem that if it is wrong to commemorate a slaver like Colston, then why should a Black activist, who also stood for racism and separation, be commemorated?

Conclusion

Colston’s statue had its time long ago. It’s removal, one way or another, was pretty much inevitable. It won’t be missed. The argument for its retention was weakened when the Americans began pulling down the statues of Confederate generals. At the same time, it’s right that Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and the slaves transported should be commemorated. There’s a whole gallery devoted to this at M Shed on Bristol’s docks. There’s also a slave walk, and a commemorative plaque. Black Lives Matter still has an urgent point. Racism still exists in this country, and Black communities as a rule are underprivileged, poorer with higher rates of unemployment and underrepresented in large parts of industry, society and the arts.

But anti-racist campaigns also need tact and sensitivity. Accusations that Whites in general are racist, or that Bristol must somehow be intrinsically racist because of slavery, just cause more division and resentment.

It leads to embittered Whites giving their votes to the Tories, who will just use them to justify their own racism and destruction of state aid for the disadvantaged regardless of their colour.

 

 

 

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5 Responses to “Racial Politics and the Toppling of the Statue of Slaver Edward Colston”

  1. trev Says:

    I must admit my ignorance in that I had previously never heard of Edward Colston, but I’ve never been to Bristol either. Cheddar Man shows that there has been a Black presence in Britain long before Roman times (!), but I know what you mean, in fact a wealthy high-status woman of African origin dating from the Roman period was unearthed in York a few years ago.
    You mentioned the controversy in America of statues of Confederate Generals, one such is that of Albert Pike in Washington D.C., but whose presence might also be down to the fact that he was a eminent Freemason, the author of ‘Morals and Dogma’, hence his connection with Washington and the USA. And apparently Pike wasn’t a supporter of slavery but supported the South because of his views regarding the power and authority of the States. Nonetheless, there are those who want his statue removed, some believe that he had connections with the foundation of the KKK, but which has never been proved.

  2. Joanna Woolston Says:

    Great!!! One statue gone, if Thatcher had one of her then that should go!!!
    Seriously Beastie this is Awesome news!!!

  3. con Says:

    Polarisation is needed for divide and rule to work. My first serious boyfriend, non-white, that I hoped to marry was swindled out of his life’s savings shortly after our relationship started. This was followed by surreal events which had him spooked. A black relative of the man I later married was swindled out of his home, his mixed race children disinherited. Other relatives – a mixed race marriage – a long term, stable relationship was crow-barred apart by state actors.
    And this is just in my immediate family. The extent to which natural integration has been prevented between mixed races so-called, I believe is hugely underestimated.
    Preventing integration makes it easy to polarise different groups into animosity towards people they have no experience of. The constant aggravation and frustration of their life fulfilment of blacks naturally fuels hostility. The imposition of secret apartheid makes it easy and understandable that they then direct their fury at innocent targets. Divide and rule.
    Good post.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks very much, Con, and very interesting. I’m sorry to hear about how your Black and mixed race friends and lovers have been cheated and swindled, and the interference by state actors makes it all very sinister. Thanks for telling me.

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