By Joan Blaney
Hundreds of thousands of people continue to take to the streets of major cities in the United Kingdom to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in the United States. With placards aloft reading the basic values of a civilized and democratic society, they defy the government’s rules for social distancing due to COVID-19, to demand an end to racism and police brutality.
Demonstrations on the whole have been orderly. But In the City of Bristol, a remarkable historic event took place on Sunday, when a group of Black Lives Matter activists tore down the bronze statue of Edward Colston, the 17-century slave trader and tossed it into the harbor. The statue had stood in the city center since 1895. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, told The Telegraph newspaper that the statue was “offensive to me,” to be placed in the middle of the city.
However our Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned the action, calling it “disgraceful and sheer vandalism”, while members of the black community applauded the action which they felt was long overdue.
I spoke with a young woman, Jade Smith-Brown, who said, “The images that I observed on Sunday evening of the toppling of Edward Colston, in Bristol, made me cheer with glee! Some proud Britons may find this upsetting, but their shameful history is personified in statues of men like Colston. Let his memory rest in the waters of the world, like so many of the lives of our ancestors.”
What happened in Bristol during demonstrations to defend black humanity and remember the life of George Floyd, was nothing more than poetic justice. Think about it. A city that built its wealth on the slave trade saw one of its men who contributed to that cruel institution dumped into the river like a common criminal just like how our ancestors were discarded during the Middle Passage.
Before the statue of Edward Colston was thrown into the river, one of the protesters placed his knee on Colston’s throat, an important and powerful reminder of how George Floyd died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Under the 1799 Slave Trade Act, the slave trade was restricted to, Bristol, Liverpool and London, where thousands of British families became extremely wealthy from the sale of slave-produced sugar. Many white Europeans including British people perhaps are unaware of the true characters of some of their heroes.
The selective telling of history means that someone like Edward Colston is remembered as a benevolent philanthropist with no regard for the inhumane and murderous slave trading that contributed to his great wealth. As a Conservative MP for Bristol from 1710 to 1714, Colston, was involved with the Royal African Company, which then had a monopoly over slave trading, defended Bristol’s right to trade in enslaved Africans. His company took more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa and transported them to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689. Slaves were packed into ships so the company could reap more profit. It is estimated that during the painful voyage more than 20,000 slaves transported by Colston’s company were thrown overboard after they suffered from dehydration, dysentery and other forms of illnesses.
The significance of the removal of the statue of Colston, arguably one of the bastion of the slave trade, can be summed up by Yvonne Stevens, an immigration lawyer from London who said “The statue of Colston should not in this century, be standing. I cannot condone the way it was removed, but I fully understand why it was done. Many businesses and individual wealthy families are still benefitting from the legacy of the slave owners, while we, the descendants, are still suffering.”
Bristol Mayor Rees put it another way: “I know the removal of the Colston statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. However, it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity.”
The slave trade was a major economic mainstay which transformed Britain, as industries flourished and profits were used to build fashionable houses and stately homes. After the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, in its efforts to appease, it took out a loan to finance a slave compensation package.
None of this compensation went to the freed slaves to redress the pain and injustices they suffered. Instead, it was given to the slave owners for a loss of their property. It was not until 2015, that the British government finally repaid the loan, which means the British tax payer, which includes descendants of slaves, contributing to the repayment of a debt that had put their own ancestors into bondage.
Demands for justice will not always be achieved through the democratic process. For this reason, the demolition of Colston’s statue should be seen as a time for honest and open discussions about Britain’s brutal history of 300 years ago.
This moment must be viewed as a time for atonement and visible changes that will lead to the lives of black people being respected and valued. This is the time for us to rise to the moral force of this moment.
Editor’s Note: Joan Blaney, a plain speaking advocate of the black community in the United Kingdom, is the author of From Kitchen Sink to Boardroom: Realizing Women’s Potential for Corporate Success. An international social entrepreneur, Blaney was honoured with the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen (CBE). She is a member of The PuLSE Institute National Advisory Panel. She contributes columns about the socioeconomic challenges facing Britain’s black community. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.