Illustration: Barbara Bessac-Khelifi
“It was not the Edward Colston statue that was heavy, it was the law that gave it weight,” says Dr. Antonia Layard, a law professor at Bristol University. She’s right – decades of efforts to remove the statue through bureaucratic channels could not do what ropes and some sweat achieved in an afternoon.
After the statue was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest last June, the government was quick to voice disapproval: the home secretary Priti Patel denounced the incident as “utterly disgraceful” and carried out by “thugs”.
Meanwhile housing minister Robert Jenrick pledged to save Britain’s statues from “woke worthies” and “town hall militants” as he announced guidelines set to come into force in the spring, which afford statues extra protection from central government.
As protestors petition or pull at ropes, MPs dig in their heels. It’s a tug of war over who governs our public spaces, and who decides our history – with both sides claiming to be acting in the public interest. With the ‘Colston 4’ charged with criminal damage over the statue’s dethroning due to argue their innocence in court in just over a fortnight, the debate will remain firmly in the spotlight.
“Retain and explain” – the problem with the government’s new policy
In 1977, Colston’s likeness was listed as a Grade II building. A building is listed if it is deemed a “celebration of special architectural and/ or historic interest”; and any attempt to move, alter or destroy the listed building can only be made with special permission by the Secretary of State or his planning officers. A council can apply to ‘delist’ a building, but to do so it must prove that it no longer serves a historical or architectural purpose.
In a statement in Parliament in September 2020, Matt Warman, the digital infrastructure minister, set out the Government’s new “retain and explain” policy on statues:
“We believe the right approach, however contentious, is to retain and explain [statues’] presence,” he said. “[That means to] contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging that may be… Put simply, the government wants organisations to retain and explain, not remove, our heritage.”
Warman added: “Being commemorated in a public space, often funded by public consultation, is a positive way to acknowledge the contributions individuals have made.”
This doesn’t quite fit with the Colston statue’s history. Colston was a divisive figure in his own day, and his statue was erected 170 years after his death in a retroactive act of propaganda by the wealthy publisher J.W. Arrowsmith – who struggled to raise the necessary funds from the public and may have footed a substantial chunk of the bill himself.
“Do we really want to be a country that continues to keep statues in place honouring men who benefited from the slave trade?” asks Layard. “If the statue came to life, he would be prosecuted for a modern criminal offence,” she adds. During Colston’s involvement with the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, an estimated 84,000 African men, women and children were transported to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, with as many as 19,000 thought may have died on the journey.
“Criminality seems a more practical litmus test to ourselves of the most contentious statues in our cities,” Layard adds. “Moving such statues to museums, stripping them of their often prime position, would seem far more appropriate than a universal policy of ‘retain and explain’.”
“Local statues for local people”
For Layard, what needs changing is clear, “Knowing when to change a name or remove a statue is a local decision where opinions can be heard.”
“We now widely agree that neither heritage nor history are static. Contexts change and statues could reflect that” she continues. “The listed building regime is designed for buildings that don’t move, rather than for statues which could, if a local community agreed, be relocated.”
“Centralised decision-making over local public realm will not help us create dynamic, diverse public spaces. The vast majority of statues might stay (in Bristol we have at least 70 noteworthy statues, memorials and sculptures) but if a community want to carefully move one, two or three statues to a museum for explanation, that seems quite reasonable!”
Layard tells me of a study which found out that only 25 of around 12,000 statues and monuments in the UK represent a mortal, non-royal woman. Meanwhile, there are 498 statues of non-royal historical men and 43 of them are called John. A fact which certainly does demonstrate a need to move with the times!
After the death of George Floyd, and the BLM protests of last summer, many statues were felled. In Antwerp, a Belgian king who brutalised Congo was burned and ultimately removed. And in the US, more than a dozen statues have been toppled, including several Confederate figures.
“Of course, dismantling racism cannot simply be achieved with the felling of a statue, but it’s a good place to start,” argues Layard. “Statues are only one part of a much larger problem with racial inequality within Bristol. Yet it is also evident that racism is built into the urban fabric of the city.”
The upcoming trial of the Colston four will be another milestone in Bristol’s journey of coming to terms with its uncomfortable past. It may not be just the defendants on trial – but perhaps also the laws of the country.