Acquittal of protesters toppling statue of slave trader sparks culture wars in UK

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A UK court ruling this week clearing four people of criminal damage for slaughtering a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol has sparked a heated debate over how to remember controversial historical figures. The statue has since been on display in a local museum and is believed to be worth up to 50 times its original value.

As the surrounding crowd cheered, four protesters – three men and a woman – brought down the statue of Edward Colston with ropes during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol city center on June 7, 2020. The crowd then dragged the statue through town to The Bridge of Pero – named after Pero Jones, a slave who lived in the town in the 18th century – before being dumped in the harbor.

Two years later, a UK court ruled on Wednesday that the ‘Colstons’, as the protesters became known, were not guilty of criminal damage for toppling the statue.

Colston, philanthropist and slave trader, has long been a divisive figure in Bristol, a city with deep historical ties to the British slave trade and a modern reputation for diversity, a vibrant art scene and progressive politics.

During the trial, the court heard that there had been campaigns to have the statue removed or contextualized since the 1920s.

In court, the defendants did not deny their role in the removal of the statue; Rhian Graham and Milo Ponsford brought ropes to the scene, Sage Willoughby climbed the statue to put ropes around his neck, and Jake Skuse encouraged the crowd to roll the statue into the harbor and into the water.

When they were found not guilty of criminal damage, cheers rang out in the courtroom, but the verdict sparked a heated debate over how the UK views the complex figures that inhabit its history and who should decide how this story is understood.

A prolific slave trader “mythologized” as a philanthropistWhile the city’s street names and landmarks are steeped in myths and legends dating back to slavery, Bristolians today speak at least 91 major languages ​​and almost a quarter identify as non-British white.

Colston’s statue was erected in 1895 in honor of the 17th-century merchant and MP, with a plaque declaring him “one of the city’s most righteous and wise sons”. Around the same time, many buildings bear his name and November 13 is even named Colston Day. “Colston as a myth was built from the end of the 19th century as a virtuous local citizen,” James Watts, senior lecturer in public and creative stories at the University of Bristol, told AXADLETM.

The rich merchant was a philanthropist. He made generous financial donations to schools, poor houses, hospitals and churches in Bristol and across the UK, and upon his death left the equivalent of over £ 16million to charitable works.

But he also played an active role in transporting more than 84,000 enslaved Africans, including 12,000 children, to the Caribbean. An estimated 19,000 people died on the ships that carried them across the Atlantic, and later in his life as a member of Parliament for Bristol, Colston continued to campaign to keep the slave trade under favorable conditions to the slavers.

Change the storyIn Bristol, a city that also has a history of combating racial discrimination, the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the contrasts of this public figure. “The statue was an attempt to ‘invent’ lore and find a figure to rally around who was seen as a philanthropist and a lovable figure, but it completely ignored the origins of Colston’s wealth,” said Watts. “A slave trader who is honored as a mere philanthropist is a glaring example of a public monument that many have found – and rightly so – extremely offensive.”

The Save our Statues group said on Twitter that it was a “shameful verdict that gives the green light to political vandalism and sets a precedent for anyone to destroy anything they disagree with. “.

While declining to comment on the details of the case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday it was “wrong” to try to rewrite history. “What you can’t do is look in retrospect to change our story, or to put it forward, or to modify it in retrospect. “

But when asked about allegations the four attempted to ‘whitewash’ Colston’s story by knocking down the statue, defendant Willoughby said, as he left the courthouse on Wednesday, “we haven’t changed history, we have rectified it “.

“The real offenders were not the Colstons, but the city of Bristol and those who did everything in their power to restore the reputation of a mass murderer,” British historian David told The Guardian. Olusoga, who testified at the trial.

The heated reactions on both sides stem from a broader culture war and a general “unease” over the violence and exploitation of the British Empire, Watts says. This may distract from other issues, such as the Black LivesMatter protests, which served as the catalyst for the statue’s removal in the first place. “This is the result of a campaign for racial justice, not a campaign to topple statues. While the statue was and is a symbol of this, it does nothing in and of itself to tackle the very real issues in Britain around BAME. [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] populations and their experiences of discrimination, ”Watts said.

What future for Colston?Four days after it was dumped in the harbor, Bristol City Council recovered the Colston statue and began work to clean and preserve it. In June 2021, it was on display in the local M Shed Museum, still covered in graffiti and surrounded by signs from the Black Lives Matter protests.

The museum and council described the exhibit as the “start of a conversation” alongside the creation of the We Are Bristol History Commission – a group of historians aimed at helping the city understand its past. One of their first jobs is to analyze the results of an investigation conducted during the exhibition asking local residents what should follow for the statue.

Since it was overthrown it has taken on new meaning. “Until 2020, it was an artifact of historical invention, inventing a certain image of a virtuous philanthropist. Now, it is an important international artefact in the ongoing racial justice campaigns and battles over it, ”Watts said.

This new story is more than symbolic. “[An art valuer] valued the statue, prior to its toppling, at around £ 6,000, ”the accused Graham told Sky News on Thursday. “After the reversal, at auction it’s around £ 150,000 if not up to £ 300,000 which is a huge increase. In that sense, have we really damaged it? “

Graham would like Bristol City Council to use this money for new public work. “Sell it to a private collector and use that money to invest in some sort of memorial. Bristol really lacks any kind of memorial or recognition of the transatlantic slave trade so this is what I would really like to see happen. , “she told Sky News.

Watts would also like to see a new approach to public works after the Colston four verdict. “I don’t think this will lead to massive statuary removals, but I hope – although I’m not too hopeful – that we can have a mature conversation about what we want to honor in our important public spaces. . This should lead to more public accounts with some of the British legacies of slavery and imperialism. “

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