“Colston’s presence is a metaphor for racism”: Bristol artists reckon with the city’s painful past

The long-overdue conversation about Bristol's slave trade legacy is a microcosm of a country facing up to its own history. What comes next? El Hunt investigates

For the people of Bristol, the national conversation now taking place around the poisonous legacy of the slave trader Edward Colston in the city is not a new one. A substantial portion of Bristol is built from the very same fortune that Colston made through the slave trade, by transporting 84,000 slaves from Africa to America with the Royal Africa Committee. For decades, campaigners have been pushing to address Bristol’s chequered past, which is built on exploitation and enslavement.

And yet as you walk around the city, you’ll see that Edward Colston is often celebrated as a philanthropic hero or charitable figure. Each November, several churches around Bristol mark Colston Day, during which give out iced buns to school pupils. Pubs, office buildings and even entire streets are named after the slave trader. Until last week – when Black Lives Matter activists, spurred into action by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in America by a white police officer, tore it down – his statue stood on Colston Avenue.

“In some senses his presence [around the city] is a metaphor for how racism operates,” Bristol-based artist, musician and poet Solomon OB says; he was among the local voices who occupied Colston’s empty pedestal to speak on June 7. “Ever present, but often in the background.”

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The plaque below the now-empty pedestal dates back to 1895, and currently makes no mention of his role in the death and enslavement of many thousands of Black people. “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city,” it reads. Two years ago, the city council approved an updated plaque which better reflected history, but the first reword was quashed by Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers – who own many of the organisations named after Colston.

Numerous artists from Bristol and the surrounding area have already spoken out about the impact of Edward Colston’s legacy. Massive Attack famously boycotted the city’s largest concert venue Colston Hall, while fka twigs posted this week about her memories of walking past the Edward Colston statue as a child: “As a Gloucestershire born woman who as a child walked past this statue many times, as a woman whose father’s surname is Smith, all i can say is it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

After years of campaigning through democratic means, the bronze statue was symbolically thrown into the very same harbour where he once unloaded slave-produced cargo from ships. “Parts of the city can breathe again,” Solomon OB says. “[It was] celebratory but focused – it felt like people left with a sense of the work that needed to be done.”

As a result, numerous organisations across the city are now taking long overdue steps in quick succession, and on a national level we are also seeing a similar conversation.

Last week, Colston’s name was removed from the top of a Bristol city-centre high-rise, which is now set to be renamed. After refusing to change their name three years ago, Colston’s Girls School has now backtracked and removed a statue of the slave trader from its reception area – they are now “considering” a change of name. Colston’s School is also “looking at” doing the same, reports the BBC.

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And Colston Hall has now pledged to unveil a new name when their refurbished venue re-opens in Autumn 2020. In the shorter term, they’re removing the current sign from the front of the venue as building words continue. They have fast-tracked this as a direct result of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“It seemed like a good time to reassert our commitment [to changing Colston Hall’s name],” explains Louise Mitchell, the CEO of the venue’s management company Bristol Music Trust. “We have accelerated the process of taking the signage down, which was always part of the plan. But yes, we have done it faster; reflecting on the events of last weekend, and wanting to be part of Bristol’s future and leaders in that field.”

“Keep up momentum by active engagement in the conversations” – musician and poet Solomon OB

What’s in a name is important, and vital: speaking to NME, Joe Talbot of the Bristol-based band Idles admits that the connotations never even crossed his mind when he played Colston Hall during Simple Things festival in 2017. “It just wasn’t a conversation we had until Nadine Shah spoke about it [Colston Hall’s name on-stage at the festival],” he says. “At the time, we wouldn’t have even thought about it. My privilege in that situation was that I didn’t really understand who Colston was, and the weight of that, because I don’t have to explain that to my kids.

He adds: “But I need to explain that to my kids. How do you think it felt for Black parents to walk their kids past some fucking statue which basically ignores the massacre and the exploitation of their ancestors?”

Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule: “Edward Colston does not represent us.” Credit: Jon Aitken

Bristol Music Trust originally took over management of Colston Hall in 2011 – and three years later, began consulting on a possible name change. It took until 2017 to finally commit to removing Colston’s name from the venue for good, and it still has not happened. Why?

“A reasonable question,” says Mitchell. “The name has always been in discussion. I came for a [job] interview when the Music Trust was formed in 2011, and I was asked about it then – it’s an incredibly important issue locally. And now since June 7, it has become more understood across the country and the world. We felt the right time to [rename] was on the opening of the new building, because that’s a real symbol: here’s a fabulous new concert building for the city.

She continues: “There has been a lot of community consultation behind the scenes, listening to attenders, and non-attenders. Communities who feel connected with the hall, and those who don’t. It’s easy to talk to your audiences, but it’s not so easy to talk to people who don’t come. But we can’t be inclusive if certain people won’t come here.

“When we announced that we were going to change [the name] in 2017 we had an enormous amount of abuse and bad feeling; I got all sorts of threats to a really absurd extent considering that the issue is not about the name of the concert building, it’s about how human beings treat each other, and how they’re recognised in society. I think a lot of [other Bristol] organisations will be having a second think about that, and I think that’s probably a good idea.”

The renewed conversation around Colston’s legacy is long overdue, but beyond the symbolic gestures – as important as they are – Bristol and the UK must also reckon with how it counters systemic racism going forward. An empty pedestal and a renamed concert venue is just the beginning.

IDLES NME
IDLES. Photo credit: Ben Bentley

As Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule pointed out, writing exclusively for NME: “We can’t be complacent simply because Colston’s statue is now swimming with the fishes. But our cultural iconography speaks to who we are and who we hope to be. Over 10,000 people at the Black Lives Matter march spoke unequivocally: Edward Colston does not represent us moving forward. Though his historical and financial mark is indelible, the portrayal of him as ‘wise’ and ‘virtuous’ doesn’t have to remain so. Now we’re left with an empty space. Who could fill it?”

When NME asked Colston Hall what comes next, they pledged to go further than simply changing the name and moving on. Educating people about the history of the city into the future – and being honest about the role of slavery in building it in the first place – is important, Mitchell explains.

“I need to explain [Bristol’s history] to my kids” – IDLES’ Joe Talbot

“We do lots of other things besides running a concert building,” Mitchell says. “We’re a music education hub and we teach 36,000 Bristol kids a year.”

The Bristol Music Trust is involved in the One Curriculum project, working together with schools and teachers to put together an educational curriculum that better reflects the full history of the UK and Bristol – which includes addressing slavery and colonialism. “We teach it through music,” Mitchell says.

“Other organisations do it through drama and literature, and we have a unified approach.” Looking forward, the organisation is continuing consultations on how to improve diversity and accessibility at the venue. “My job is to make music and the joy of music accessible to everybody: and that’s economic, physical, social, ethnic accessibility – we need all of that. Our job is to produce the widest possible range of great music for the city, and I want everybody to be part of that.”

The city’s mayor Martin Rees meanwhile issued a statement urging Bristolians to make a “legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality”. He confirmed that signs left behind at the Black Lives Matter protest will be preserved and displayed in the city’s M Shed museum.

Speaking on the empty pedestal where Edward Colston once used to stand, Solomon OB put forward a powerful call to action on June 7, and conveyed the need to continue the fight.

“If this is just a moment,” he said, “what are we here for? If you’re not here tomorrow, if you’re not here next year, if you’re not here in six years, 10 years, decades down the line, if this work we’re doing right now does not feed into our children, and our children’s children, we have failed. This is just step one”

Speaking to NME, he urges the need to keep this momentum into the future. “Black squares on instagram,” he says, referencing Black Out Tuesday, “statements made by companies or even people, are of no value to me until backed up, consistently and without waiver. Keep up momentum by active engagement in the conversations, and a continued commitment to learning how to do better.”

“This work will be long,” he says. “And if you’re serious that shouldn’t bother you.”

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