Posts Tagged ‘Louis Asa-Asa’

Black Artist Wants Her Statues Put Up on Colston’s Plinth

June 21, 2020

Since the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled down from its plinth and thrown into the docks, there’s been a debate over what should replace him. Mike posted up a few Tweets from people giving their suggestions in his post about the statue’s forcible removal. One of these suggested that as the Ladies’ Abolitionist Society in Sheffield was the first to demand the emancipation of the slaves, a statue should be put up to them. I disagree, because although there should be a monument to them, it should be a matter for Sheffield to commemorate its great citizens, rather than Bristol. It’s for this same reason I got annoyed with a piece on Channel 4 News yesterday in which a Black sculptress spoke about how she would like her statues put up on Colston’s plinth.

She had created a series of sculptures of male and female slaves with the title We Have Made the World Richer. These depicted various figures from the history of slavery and the enslavement of Africans. The first two were of a man and woman, who had been newly enslaved. They had a slogan stating that they had been torn from their homes. Then there was a couple of plantation slaves, with the slogan ‘We Are Brave’. And there were more. I think there were something like six or eight statues in total. The statues had previously been exhibited in parliament, but had garnered little comment from the MP. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, interviewing her, asked her why this was. She felt it was because it was too raw and powerful for them. She described the fall of Colston’s statue as ‘cathartic’, and felt that the empty plinth should be taken up with one of hers. When Guru-Murthy asked her if Bristol knew she was coming, she laughed and said that she hoped they did now.

It would be entirely right for the plinth in Bristol to be occupied by a slave, representing one of Colston’s victims. But the statue and/or its artist should ideally be people, who actually had connections to the city. I wonder if there’s a local Black artist from somewhere like St. Paul’s or Stokes Croft that could create one. From the way the woman spoke, it was clear that she wasn’t a Bristolian and had absolutely no connection with it or its people. I wonder if she even knew where the city was or even that there was such a place before the events a week or so ago. It looked to me to be rather opportunistic. She was an outsider looking for a space for her art, and thought she’d found it in Bristol. There are also problems with the size of the plinth itself. It is only big enough to hold a statue of one person, not the many she created. Presumably one of the statues would have to be on the plinth itself while the others were arranged around it.

The vast majority of slaves traded by Bristol were taken to the West Indies, but there were some and free Blacks in the city. One of the villages just outside Bristol has the grave of Scipio, the enslaved servant of one of the local aristocracy. One of the bridges over Bristol’s docks, which is cantilevered with two, gigantic, trumpet-shaped horns, is called ‘Pero’s Bridge’ after another local slave. There is also a slave walk around the docks, and memorial plaque on one of the former warehouses by Bristol’s M Shed to the countless victims of Bristol’s trade in slaves. And the subjects of two existing sculptures in the city, John Wesley and Edmund Burke, were also opponents of the slavery and the slave trade. Burke, the city’s MP, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France became a foundational text for modern Conservatism, condemned slavery in an 18th century parliamentary debate. I believe Wesley also attacked in a sermon he gave at the Methodist New Room, now John Wesley’s Chapel in Broadmead in Bristol. I think that after 1745 Methodists were forbidden to own slaves.

I also wonder if figures from national history might make more suitable subjects for sculptures. Like Mary Prince, a West Indian slave from Bermuda, who was able to gain her freedom when her masters took her to London. The Mansfield judgement had officially ruled that slavery did not exist under English law, and so slaves brought to Britain were, in law, free. Prince got her freedom simply by walking away. She joined the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823, and her account of her life as a slave, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, was published in London in 1831. Another British slave, who gave his voice to the abolitionist campaign was Louis Asa-Asa. Asa-Asa had been enslaved by the French, but gained his freedom when a ship carrying him put in at Cornwall. He was the author of a pamphlet, How Cruelly We Are Used, which was also published in 1831. I also suspect that there are other people in Bristol’s history, whether slaves or White abolitionists, who deserve to be commemorated but at the moment nobody knows about.

Without going into the murderous fear of outsiders of the League of Gentlemen’s Edward and Tubbs and their slogan ‘a local shop, for local people’, the vacant plinth should be occupied by a figure from Bristol’s history. Even if it is only someone, who simply visited the city as part of an abolitionist speaking tour. Many of Britain’s towns and cities had abolitionist societies, like those of Sheffield, and I’d be very surprised if Bristol didn’t have one. Even if the city did officially celebrate the failure of abolitionist bills before the eventual emancipation of 1837.