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Statue of slave trader Edward Colston will be permanently kept at a Bristol museum nearly four years after it was toppled by Black Lives Matter activists


The statue of slave trader Edward Colston will remain a museum piece after it was pulled down by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists almost four years ago.

Colston’s statue, which had stood in a public square in the centre of Bristol for over 100 years, was toppled by protesters and dropped into the harbour in June 2020 following the death of black man George Floyd in the US the previous month. 

After it was retrieved from the river, the city’s M Shed museum put it on display in order to ‘start a city-wide conversation about its future’, next to some of the signs waved by protesters on the day the sculpture was pulled down.

It has been kept in storage for over two years; in the interim, a city-wide survey commissioned by the We Are Bristol History Commission found that four-fifths of locals supported keeping it in a museum rather than putting it back on its plinth.

And following a Bristol City Council planning committee meeting on Wednesday, councillors agreed to formally declare the statue a piece of museum property, and agreed that a new plaque would be placed on the plinth explaining its history.

The statue of Edward Colston as it was displayed in Bristol's M Shed museum following its toppling in June 2020. It will return to the museum in a similar form

The statue of Edward Colston as it was displayed in Bristol’s M Shed museum following its toppling in June 2020. It will return to the museum in a similar form

The statue was toppled from its plinth in Bristol city centre during the Black Lives Matter protests - and dumped into the city's harbour

The statue was toppled from its plinth in Bristol city centre during the Black Lives Matter protests – and dumped into the city’s harbour

Protesters pulled down the statue because of Colston's time as a slave trader, during which some 84,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic by the Royal African Company

Protesters pulled down the statue because of Colston’s time as a slave trader, during which some 84,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic by the Royal African Company

Colston made some of his fortune in the slave trade, later donating money to a number of buildings and causes in Bristol and elsewhere in England

Colston made some of his fortune in the slave trade, later donating money to a number of buildings and causes in Bristol and elsewhere in England

Wording for the plaque is yet to be agreed, but a draft of the wording proposed describing him as a ‘city benefactor’ who had a ‘prominent role in the enslavement of African people’. 

Nevertheless, papers presented to councillors on Wednesday night declared the statue to be artistically and historically significant, particularly given its role in the UK’s BLM protests, and proposed entering it into the city’s permanent collection.

Other proposals agreed upon include putting it back on display, drawing on the original exhibition in 2021 with information on the ‘broader history of the enslavement of people of African descent’. 

Elected members in the city formally agreed to transfer the statue into the museum’s possession during the meeting – though some believed it should return to its plinth.

Green councillor Lorraine Francis said the museum is the ‘best place’ for the statue – but was unhappy with the draft statement for the new plaque,

‘It doesn’t represent my African heritage in any shape or size,’ she said in remarks reported by BBC News.

Conservative councillor Chris Windows, however, supported returning the statue to the plinth, suggesting he was uncomfortable with the idea of ‘rewriting history’.

‘The correct place for the statue is on its original plinth,’ he said. 

Colston’s bronze statue was created in 1895 by sculptor John Cassidy, and had been placed in the city centre with a plaque declaring him ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons of (Bristol)’.

But his history as a one-time deputy governor of the Royal African Company, during which time it shipped tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to the Americas, has made him a locally divisive figure.

An estimated 84,000 slaves were transported during his time with the Company, and of those 19,000 may have died during the Atlantic crossing.

Colston used the wealth gained partially from his time with as a slave trader to fund hospitals, schools, workhouses and churches across England but particularly in Bristol, where he later served as an MP.

Debate began about the statue’s future in the 1990s as some questioned whether it was appropriate to celebrate a slave trader with statues and buildings in his name such as the Colston Hall – now named the Bristol Beacon

Bristol City Council had sought to acknowledge his history as a slave trader with the addition of a second plaque to the statue’s plinth in 2018 that would have acknowledged his role in shipping African men, women and children to America.

But after the plaque was made, its erection was vetoed by Bristol’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, who took issue with the wording on the plaque describing Colston as ‘one of (Bristol’s) greatest benefactors‘.

Edward Colston's statue as it once stood in Bristol city centre. Debate about its future had raged for years before BLM activists took action

Edward Colston’s statue as it once stood in Bristol city centre. Debate about its future had raged for years before BLM activists took action

After the statue was pulled down, some protesters symbolically knelt on its neck - in reference to George Floyd, who died after white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck for nine minutes in May 2020

After the statue was pulled down, some protesters symbolically knelt on its neck – in reference to George Floyd, who died after white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against his neck for nine minutes in May 2020

The statue was rolled towards Bristol harbour by protesters before it was dumped in the river and later retrieved by city authorities

The statue was rolled towards Bristol harbour by protesters before it was dumped in the river and later retrieved by city authorities

The plinth remains in place in Bristol - with a new plaque set to be created giving Colston's history as a slave trader more context

The plinth remains in place in Bristol – with a new plaque set to be created giving Colston’s history as a slave trader more context

The wording has been decided with the input of the Society of Merchant Venturers, a Bristol organisation that manages many buildings and charities bearing Colston’s name – several of which have removed his moniker altogether.

It has since said its involvement in the plaque’s wording was ‘inappropriate’ – and said that the removal of the statue in June 2020 was ‘right for Bristol’.

Around 80 per cent of people surveyed supported keeping the statue in a museum, according to the council papers – with more than 14,000 people asked, half of which were from Bristol itself. 

A further 12 per cent supported returning the statue to the plinth, while four percent wanted it back in the waters of Bristol harbour or destroyed altogether.

Historic England, responding to the consultation on the statue’s future, acknowledged that its removal was ‘of great importance to Bristol’s wellbeing’.

However, the heritage body said its permanent absence from the plinth would cause a ‘high degree of harm’ to the Grade II listed base in the long term.

The debate on the future of the Colston statue comes as other Bristol institutions continue to deal with the city’s deeply embedded historical links to slavery.

Bristol University’s historical society said earlier this month it had pulled the institution’s crest from its fleeces because it bears the insignias of families with historical links to the slave trade. 

The university itself has just removed Colston’s emblem of a dolphin from its crest but has kept those of university donors the Wills and Frys families, who also have links to the trade – prompting the student group’s move in protest.



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