Help us to Keep The Lights On for another decade! Back the Cable
The Bristol Cable

‘The city needs to heal’: Cable readers on what should happen now, following the ‘Colston 4’ trial

The future of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue and the space it occupied are still contested in Bristol. We asked what should happen next.

Edition 28

There should be a thoughtful and meaningful memorial at a prominent place in the city, a place of contemplation, mourning, and atonement.

The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue was a key moment in Bristol’s modern history. So were the acquittals of those accused of damaging it

They were milestones in an ongoing, deeply polarised debate about how the city should remember the darkest chapters of its past, and the future of controversial monuments, both here and elsewhere.

More than 18 months after the bronze figure of the 17th century slaver was torn down, rolled to the harbour and dumped in the water, the plinth on which it stood remains empty. 

And now that the trial of four people who helped topple the monument has concluded, with all of them being found not guilty of criminal damage, the question is what happens next.

Some Cable members and readers say Colston’s statue should be replaced by a memorial dedicated to the victims of the slave trade.

“Bristol has never fully and openly acknowledged, nor atoned for, its role in the slave trade,” says Geoff Allan. “There should be a thoughtful and meaningful memorial at a prominent place in the city, a place of contemplation, mourning, and atonement.”

Another reader,  staying anonymous, says they would like to see the plinth remain empty, “as a poignant reminder of Bristol’s past, the events of summer 2020 [Colston’s toppling] and our city’s role in the slave trade.”

[The plinth] could be used for temporary installations but it should always be empty on the anniversary of Colston’s removal.

John Bryant says.

After it was toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020, Colston’s statue – red paint daubed on its face and hands – was retrieved and went on display at the M Shed museum. 

The display included biographical information about Colston, his involvement in the slave trade, the history of the statue and placards that were placed around the plinth during the protest.

Some readers believe that the statue should remain in the museum, along with the history.

“Keep Colston, bloodied and prone, in the museum. He is an excellent object lesson in interpreting the harsh lessons of the slave srade and Transatlantic racist slavery,” says David Bruce.

“I think it’s good that the statue is kept as it is in the museum and that the moment is marked and remembered as a unique time in Bristol’s history,” says Sam. “Bristol’s slave history and the statue toppling moment should all be taught in local schools.”

Jane Hopkins says: “I think the statue’s current position should be maintained [in the museum] as a monument to Bristol’s history of resistance to oppression.”

But others are calling for the statue to be reinstalled on its plinth.

“There is a nuanced point to make about keeping the statue there – albeit radically altered,” says Jeremy Bristow. “We must acknowledge the amnesia and blindness that we Bristolians and Brits in general had for so long about our contribution to slavery… We need to be continually reminded to be on our guard against acts of inhumanity.” 

A jury’s decision in January to clear the Colston 4 of criminal damage was welcomed by many, including campaigners who had fought to have the statue removed for years. But there’s been a backlash too, with some people outraged about what this could mean for other statues.

“Knocking the statue down created more division rather than harmony. I’ve met numerous Bristolians who feel angry that they weren’t consulted about pulling the statue down.”

says Bristow.

“It’s toppling was an arrogant decision of a few people. The action unfortunately succeeded in alienating people who could have been won round.”

Another anonymous reader acknowledges this perspective but says that the city “needs to heal” and residents reach an understanding.

“I definitely think more education around Colston and Bristol’s role in the slave trade would help those who see the statue as part of “our shared British history” understand why many people don’t feel that way, and feel less upset about the statue being removed,” she adds. 

The We Are Bristol History Commission is currently analysing the findings of a city-wide survey on what people think should happen next to the statue. The findings are to be published early this year.

The commission was set up by Mayor Marvin Rees in the months after Colston’s statue was torn down. One of its other core aims is to develop a ‘public conversation’ to help people understand the city’s history. Cable readers shared their thoughts on how this should be carried out:

“As citizens of Bristol we benefit – as a whole, and to different extents individually – from the profits of the historical slave trade. More and more proactive transparency and research about exactly how seems like a good place to start.”

says one anonymous reader.

Another says: “I think there should be far more recognition of the way our city has benefited and grown from the exploitation of human lives… There should be plaques and monuments to remind people of what took place especially in the neighbourhoods that profited most e.g. the entirety of Clifton.”

Before the statue was toppled, there had been a decades-long campaign challenging Colston’s legacy as a philanthropist. His statue’s plaque described him as a “virtuous and wise son” of Bristol. But a push to add context to the plaque on the reality of Colston’s actions as a slaver was unsuccessful.

The Society of Merchant Venturers, which Colston had himself been a member of, admitted it had been “inappropriate” to get involved in that process. The society, founded in the 13th century, administered much of the £70,000 legacy that Colston left to Bristol following his death, partly used to fund schools in the city.

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning

“As a former Colston’s School pupil, on a scholarship funded by the Society of Merchant Venturers, I have been aware of where their money came from for many years,” says Andy, a Cable reader. 

“The fact that my education was funded by the profits of the slave trade is something I will always remember. I hope that the full story – warts and all…is told in the museums and books and documentaries.”

During the Colston 4 trial, the council’s failure to remove it sooner or add context to the plaque was criticised. Some Cable readers say the local authority still has serious questions to answer. 

“We really should hold the mayor, council and city leaders to account for not listening to the voice of the people before the statue was pulled down,” says Richard. “Years of discussion allowed them to ignore the feelings and take no action on this.”

Charles, another reader, says there should be an investigation into why the statue wasn’t removed, and why a plaque that made clear Colston’s involvement in the slave trade was never put up. “This lack of action is what caused the statue’s removal – the individuals who did it are not to blame,” he says.

Join 2,500 Cable members redefining local media

Your support will help the Cable grow, deepening our connections in the city and investigating the issues that matter most in our communities.

Join now

What makes us different?


Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Colston 4 judgment: ’The government is tearing up our protest rights’

The Colston Four were acquitted earlier this year after tearing down the Colston statue. But a Court of Appeal judgment means protesters will be less likely to receive similar protections in future.

‘A monumental moment in history’: Cable readers react to the Colston 4 being cleared

Most readers expressed support for the Colston 4 and criticised past inaction from the council, while others had concerns about what their acquittal meant for the fate of other statues.

Watch: Reactions to Colston 4 verdict after defendants walk free from court

Following the landmark trial's conclusion, this video captures the moment the defendants walked free, and reactions from those involved.

Colston 4 found not guilty of criminal damage to slave trader’s statue

The public gallery erupted with cheers and applause as the defendants were cleared following a landmark trial

Colston statue dumped in harbour so council wouldn’t put it back up, defendant tells court

The case has been adjourned until 4 January, when the jury will hear closing speeches from the prosecution and defence, as well as the judge’s summing up of evidence.

Descendant of enslaved person says Colston’s statue remaining in place was ‘profoundly shameful’

The act ‘centred’ a global conversation about Britain’s role in the slave trade, she told the trial of the Colston 4.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning