Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the monument to the merchant, whose fortune was earned from the transatlantic slave trade he helped establish in the late 17th century, is just one part of a fierce and reignited debate about public art honoring problematic figures that’s being waged in Britain right now.
“I’ve recorded uprisings since the 1980s, but I was slightly stunned,” said artist John Akomfrah, referring to images on social media of the Bristol demonstration, which was peaceful, like many other protests across the U.K. “There is a remarkable irony. [Colston] has ended up in the place where he put hundreds of lives”—the harbor where bodies of enslaved Africans were thrown overboard during the infamous Middle Passage.
Colston was a leading member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade in the late 17th century. “There’s no sympathy from me about his plight,” Akomfrah said.
The merchant’s statue, which was unveiled in 1895 when the British Empire was at the peak of its power, has long been a source of division in the city. Attempts to add a contextual plaque referring to the philanthropist’s role in the slave trade had reached a political and bureaucratic impass, prompting demonstrators to take matters into their own hands last weekend.
“I was amazed. It was the kind of thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” said Hew Locke, a London-based sculptor who lived in Bristol in the 1980s. “This piece has been on my mind as a problem for years,” he told ARTnews. “Colston wasn’t a bad man. The language was wrong. He was an evil man. That’s the truth of it.”
John Cassidy’s sculpture has been derided as a poor work of art, but Locke disagrees with that assessment. “Aesthetically, it was one of Bristol’s best Victorian sculptures,” Locke said. In 2006, to pay homage to the sculpture’s history, Locke bedecked a large-scale photograph of the Colston monument with the trappings of his wealth based on the exploitation of Africans.
It’s unclear right now what will happen to the statute. Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said on Monday that Cassidy’s sculpture will be “fished out” at some point but vowed that it will never return to its former prominent location. The bronze could be destined for the city’s history museum, MShed, which overlooks Bristol harbor, along with a collection of the Black Lives Matter protesters’ placards.
The fate of Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement raises awkward questions for other cities in the U.K. On Tuesday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of all London statues with links to slavery. One of London’s former docklands, now the business district West India Quay, was the site of a statue of Robert Milligan, a prominent Scottish slave trader and plantation owner; after having been vandalized and covered in protest placards, it was removed today. And there have been renewed calls to remove or at least recontextualize colonial-era statues, including several in Cardiff, Wales; Edinburgh, Scotland, and Oxford, England. Since 2016, campaigners have tried to banish the statue of the arch-imperialist of the Victorian era, Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Oxford. (A demonstration is taking place on Tuesday.)
Locke expressed skepticism over whether anything would change. “We will see,” he said. Meanwhile, authorities in Belgium have begun to remove statues of King Leopold II after protests. His colonization of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo involved systematic brutality and atrocities.
Some institutions have begun taking accountability for their role in structural racism, but their responses have done little to satisfy critics. Several big London museums, following their peers in the United States, issued statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests at the end of last week and over the weekend. The British Museum immediately faced accusations of inaction over decolonizing its collection, which includes colonial-era looted art and human remains. The National Gallery in London also posted on social media its rejection of “racism, inequality and violence” in response to the death of George Floyd while being arrested by police. Anti-racist protesters began gathering in Trafalgar Square a week ago on the art museum’s doorstep despite the ongoing national coronavirus lockdown.
For nearly 100 years a bronze statue of George Washington has stood on the gallery’s front lawn, making it one of many public London monuments to “dodgy figures,” as Locke has put it. Presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1924, it is a replica of the marble sculpture by the French 18th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands in the State Capitol building in Richmond. There is no mention on a plaque (or on the National Gallery’s website) that Washington was a slave owner, or that Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War.
When reached by ARTnews about whether it planned to make that history available, a National Gallery spokesperson claimed it was not the museum’s responsibility to do so, but rather the U.K. government’s. The museum is “looking” to update its website about the biography of its founding collector, John Julius Angerstein, however. Its current page about Angerstein glosses over the uncomfortable truth that much of the art collector’s wealth was based on insurance of ships used in the slave trade. He also had a financial stake in a slave plantation in the Caribbean.
Such a clarification of institutions’ history is becoming more common in the U.K.—Tate, for example, issued a lengthy statement about its founder’s role in the slave trade last year. Locke said that context such as this is necessary for institutions—and, in particular, the monuments in the cities around them. “The sculptures are part of history, but you need some acknowledgement of who these people were,” he said. “You can’t say police brutality is terrible, institutional racism is terrible, and then you don’t want anything to change in your local landscape.”
Locke, like Akomfrah, seemed resigned that the debate about the relocation of colonial-era monuments in the U.K. will now be framed by the government as a question of law and order after the Colston monument’s violent removal. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to condemn the Bristol protesters’ actions, claiming that the Black Lives Matter protests have been “subverted by thuggery.” After coming under fire, he toned down his rhetoric but insisted that anyone who harmed property would face “the full force of the law.”
Many in the British art scene—and beyond—are now left with serious quandaries going forward. “Let’s be clear, [Colston] was a mass murder,” Akomfrah said. “He benefited from the misfortune of others. The real question is, why was that statue put up in the first place?”