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. 

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