Toppling Colston, Centering Black Lives

There is an empty plinth in Bristol. It sits within a stone’s throw of the Cenotaph (Bristol’s monument to its First and Second World War dead), a plaque commemorating the Burma Campaign of 1941-1945, a statue of the conservative Irishman and imperialist Edmund Burke, and an Indian restaurant named 4500 Miles from Delhi. The plinth, until very recently, held its own public signifier of Britain’s former empire: the slave trader and Royal African Company (RAC) employee, Edward Colston. The plaza lies in the shadow of Colston Tower, and a heavy traffic of lorries and commuters follows the curve of Colston Avenue around it. The fact that Black Lives Matter activists had to hoist Colston into Bristol’s harbor for the link between this local ‘philanthropist’ and the state-supported dispossession, sale, or violent death of 1.3 million Africans to be widely acknowledged is a curious feature of Britain’s simultaneous remembering and obliviating of the enormous wealth generated from its investment and perpetuation of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade. However, not only considerations of wealth or institutions are missing from both common memory and how the statue’s fall has been discussed – Black people’s histories and presents are all too often obscured behind recitations of Colston’s biography or a focus on the institutions to which he belonged. 

Some sense of the scale of the RAC is needed to appreciate the extent of the British state’s direct involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, of which Colston formed but one node among many. Charles II chartered the RAC in 1672 as a direct bid to bring the economic and political power of the empire closer to the Crown. No mere trading company, the RAC effectively acted as an arm of the English state in West Africa. Their charter granted them “full power to make and declare peace and war with any of the heathen nations that are or shall be natives of any countries within the said territories,” as well as the capacity to impose martial law. All of this legal infrastructure was designed to ensure a steady flow in gold and increasingly, captive African women, men, and children. By the end of their monopoly in 1712, the RAC had built between seven and ten fortifications in West Africa from which to ensure their power in the region. They had exported £1.5 million worth of goods, possessed assets in Africa totaling about £130,000, and extracted over £250,000 worth of gold to feed the Royal Mint, providing the only direct access to this resource that the English state ever enjoyed. Meeting African demands for a wide range of consumer goods also fostered industries as diverse as wool production in rural Devon and Somerset and corn brandy production in the growing metropolis of London. 

So what is the cost of loading Britain’s culpability for Atlantic slavery onto the shoulders of a few bronze men? First and foremost, the individual attention Colston is afforded is rarely granted to the many thousands of people the RAC transported. As Jennifer Morgan, Stephanie Smallwood, Sowande’ Mustakeem, Marisa Fuentes, and Saidiya Hartman have argued, this erasure is a purposeful historical process. The version of chattel slavery practiced by European empires, the English chief among them, was designed to render enslaved people illegible beyond their market value. Aside from few prominent formerly enslaved people granted the chance to publish a version of their life stories at the end of the eighteenth century, public conversations about the specific lives lost or ruptured in the slaving complex are few and far between. 

Critics of Colston’s relocation to the harbor floor spend little time dwelling on the enslaved women and men thrown into seas to attract sharks to feed those still held starving and diseased on board. Nor do they consider the woman who refused to eat until she engineered her own form of escape in death. Her captor described her as “sullen” and bemoaned his loss of profit. Her body rests in the Atlantic as well. Harbors, however, could also offer captives brief windows in which to escape if distracted RAC sailors indulged in drunken celebration before making the long journey across the Atlantic. Plunging into the sea offered a chance at freedom, to at least momentarily reject the force of commodification enacted by the RAC. Escape attempts were rarely successful. It remains to be seen if the current impulse for transformational change precipitated by Colston’s time in the harbor is similarly fleeting. 

Situating Edward Colston as the primary actor in Britain’s role in the slave trade and slavery works to provide cover for the actions of the British state in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries as easily as the present. Today, hopeful citizens – many of whom come to the UK from former imperial holdings – are expected to memorize, internalize, regurgitate, and implicitly absolve Britain of its colonial and decolonial past as a component of the Home Office’s testing process. This examination formed part of the “hostile environment” Theresa May created for immigrants in 2013. Slavery, this test contends, did not exist in Britain, though a seventeen-year old boy named Prince sold in London in 1768, and the many others like him catalogued in the Runaway Slaves in Britain database, would disagree. 

Forgetting Prince is a cost. Similarly, the handbook extols  the “orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth,” that unfolded across the twentieth century. The Windrush generation and their descendants are battling to remain in their homes, gripped with pervasive anxiety, or wrongly deported due to the cynicism and scandal of the Home Office. They continue to live in the wake of this so-called orderly transition from empire. This is a cost. The abolition of slavery and post-1945 Commonwealth relations are celebrated, slavery and its afterlives are obscured. Historians including David Olusoga, Paul Gilroy, Catherine Hall, Christienna Fryar, and many other leading scholars at a wide range of British universities, have called vociferously for this aspect of the Home Office’s demanding citizenship process to be removed. This is a start. 

Centering Colston also allows for a narrative of complicated men making tough choices to gain currency, even from people and institutions that should know better. Colston’s local philanthropy, made possible through the slave trade, is repeatedly invoked, as if to avoid being too uncharitable or out of a warped sense of fairness. The Daily Mail, a  right-wing periodical viewed by upwards of 31.3 million people a month within Britain and abroad, recently published a now-infamous pro and cons list of some of Britain’s most famous enslavers. Does Thomas Picton’s fate as the “highest ranking officer killed fighting with Wellington at Waterloo” excuse his “torture of a 14-year-old girl” for theft? The Mail certainly thinks it is a question worth posing, and invites the same logic to be applied to any imperial figure. (Picton’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is only marginally better.) People, even those in positions of power, can be more easily redeemed and humanized than a disembodied state. 

Finally, the focus on statues allows Britain’s culpability for Atlantic slavery to be pushed elsewhere. Again, the Daily Mail provides an all-too-legible illustration of this phenomenon. Sarah Vine, conservative journalist and spouse of current Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove, recently penned an article warning that Britain was once again becoming “infected” with an “American sickness” of culture wars and identity politics, at one point comparing Colston’s dethroners to ISIS. Historian Christopher L. Brown’s concept of moral capital – in which British abolitionary politics rested on displacing the moral horror, and therefore responsibility, for Atlantic slavery onto the newly founded United States – continues to illuminate this relationship. Race and the legacies of slavery are often understood, particularly on the right, as fundamental moral failings contained within the zones of Britain’s former empire, cleansing the metropole of its tarnish, while allowing it to keep the proceeds. This is a popular political tactic in Britain; for example, Trump is often used in the British press to make Britain’s exit from the European Union seem orderly. While contemporary demographics and political settlements in the two countries diverge and influence the lived experience of Black Britons and African Americans in different ways, an investment in Atlantic slavery and its legacies is undoubtedly a shared diagnosis. 

All of this serves as theater to distract from Britain’s very real problem with the legacies of slavery and racial discrimination more generally. Living people are currently under duress as a result. Black professors rarely find a home in British academia – fewer than 1% of professors in the UK are Black – despite the sector’s centrality to maintaining its international reputation. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) essential workers are significantly more likely to die as a result of the coronavirus. Belly Mujinga, a TfL worker, died from COVID-19 a few weeks after a man who claimed he had the disease intentionally spat on her. Other Black Britons working to stem the perpetual crisis of the pandemic have had their lives threatened by virulent racism. In mid-July, a driver intentionally hit a young Black man leaving work at an NHS hospital in Bristol, nearly killing him; the attackers screamed racial abuse as he bled on their windshield. 

Less visibly, UCL’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership Database, begun by Catherine Hall and Nick Draper, serves as a resource and a reminder that many of Britain’s cultural, financial, and political institutions benefited directly from the state’s desire to prop up the value of enslaving Black people even as codified slavery crumbled through the state’s payments to slaveholders. Structural exploitation of Black people and Black labor is baked into the cobbled streets and stately museums of Bristol, London, and Edinburgh, just as it is in the expressways and courthouses of Atlanta, Savannah, and New York City. One must be careful not to read the U.S.’s specific set of racial politics across the globe; local and national context matters. However, institutions like the Royal African Company – which literally burned its initials, “RACE,” into the flesh of West African women, children, and men to mark them as Company property before selling them in Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Jamaica, Virginia, and Carolina –  created tangible and material links. We have to address – not just acknowledge –  a shared engagement in slavery that both the broad structures of governance in Britain and the U.S. benefited from and continually try to erase. 

The forcible recontextualization of Colston’s statue from his plinth of Portland stone to the harbor, and then to the museum storage room, while powerful, while necessary, is not enough. New statues are not sufficient. The scattershot nature of the figures lining Parliament Square are further evidence of that fact, as is Trump’s desperate attempt to ensure his own calcified coterie of historical figures in the National Garden of American Heroes, which subjects likenesses of Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony into forced communion with Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Billy Graham, and Antonin Scalia.

Physical testaments to individuals can and have coexisted, and at times worked to support, regimes of oppression that weighed most heavily on those seemingly lionized. In his account of his own family’s ties of kin, trade, and mutual investment in slavery that spanned Antigua, Bristol, and Massachusetts, genealogist Vere Langford Oliver mentions few enslaved people by name. He does, however, celebrate Colonel Robert Oliver as the West Indian trader who brought the first enslaved Africans to Dorchester, MA. Curiously, he also includes the fact that “Cambridge, Besty, and Mimbo, three of Colonel Oliver’s slaves, have stones erected to their memory” on the Oliver family’s Dorchester estate. Such a gesture, while gifting us three individual names (albeit likely imposed upon them), did little to subvert the Oliver family’s ability to profit from and pass on the wealth generated from their enslavement.

Efforts to restore or replace statues should keep this example in mind: the centuries of pain, enslavement, and dispossession of Black and Indigenous people cannot be turned into a comforting visual shorthand meant to reassure a white audience or wealthy nations like the United States and Great Britain. To parse the specific relationship of slavery in Britain from its former colonies is in some ways an artificial one. Debates about the structure of reparations from Britain and its monarchy, prison abolition, educational and curriculum reform, citizenship, pay, and healthcare outcomes in both Britain and the U.S. must involve sustained listening to Black communities. Subsequent actions must be taken in full consultation with those same communities, and in many ways that is the value of focusing on particular iterations of slavery’s afterlife. Renaming buildings or recasting statues without the substantial and direct involvement of Black communities is not enough, however well-intentioned, as the current conversation around the best way to memorialize Congressman John Lewis elucidates. Anything less is pruning; the systems of racial exploitation the RAC, the British, and US Empires planted have to be pulled out by the roots. 

Recommend Reading:

William Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt (2013)

Ray Kea, Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-century Gold Coast (1982) 

Abigail Swingen, Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire (2015) 

Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (2017) 

Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007) 

History of the Present, Vol.6, No.2, Fall 2016, esp. Jennifer Morgan, Marisa Fuentes and Brian Connolly, Stephanie E. Smallwood, and Saidiya Hartman. 
Hilary Beckles, Address on Reparations (2016)

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