Why did the tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol mean something to me? Why was my heart racing all Sunday afternoon and evening? Why did the scenes that played out around Colstons plinth and at the harbour into which the statue was thrown bring me – during a phone call to another black Bristolian – to the verge of tears? I can begin to explain why by describing my experience of first moving to Bristol.
In the late 1990s, I got my first paid media job in the city. The contract was short and there was no guarantee of getting another one, so it was too great a financial risk for me to put down a deposit on a flat. If the work ran out, I would be unable to afford the rent. All I had was a few hundred pounds in my bank account. That was it, everything I had scraped together to cover my living costs and accommodation, my entire war chest, with which I hoped to break into the media. Once the money was gone, it would be back home to my mothers home in the north, back to jobs in bars, shops or wherever, to save up more money and have another go the next year. There was no room for error. An unreturned deposit would have wiped me out financially.
So, two weeks before my start date, I began phoning around, trying to find somewhere that rented rooms by the month or, even better, by the week. The first place I called was on St Pauls Road in the wealthy Bristol suburb of Clifton. The guy I spoke to told me that he did have rooms, they were cheap and could be made available on a short-term let. When he named the price (which was more than I could afford), I hesitated. Sensing my uncertainty, but not knowing its cause, he filled the silence by reassuring me that although the room was in a property on St Pauls Road, it was nowhere near the St Pauls district of Bristol. “You know,”he said. “Where all the blacks live.”
My standard English accent had led him to presume that I was white, and that led him to another presumption: that one of my criteria when looking for accommodation was that it was far away from the homes of black people. That was the very first phone call I made to the city I was moving to alone, a place in which I had no friends or contacts. Two years later, I was still in Bristol, surviving from one short contract to the next, as young people in the media are all forced to do, then and now. I was so loaded down with student debt that even though I was working full time I was poorer than I had been when a student, and again I was looking for a cheap room.
I answered an advert I found on a noticeboard that had been posted by a group of guys in their 20s who were in search of a new flatmate for a shared house. The first question they asked me when I arrived, after they had rearranged their faces and before I was allowed to ask any questions about the room or the house, was if I would not perhaps find it uncomfortable living in a house in which everyone was a university graduate. I had two degrees in history and one in journalism. They never asked if I had gone to university.
It may well be the case that those experiences were no worse or better than those I might have encountered in any British city in the late 90s. But what made them feel more pointed and painful was that Bristol was then a city that, it felt to me, gave off the strong impression that black people were not really wanted. The statue of Edward Colston, and the fact that it was so resolutely and uncompromisingly defended and justified (by sections of the city council and the Bristol Merchant Venturers), played its part in creating that impression. As did the fact that in certain districts of the city I hardly ever saw anyone who wasnt white. Twenty years later, Bristol remains a disturbingly segregated city.
I was told, in hushed tones, by one of the first black people I got to know in Bristol, about the statue of the slave trader down in the city centre. As a historian, I inevitably began to read about Colstons role in the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading company in British history. He was an investor and a board member of the RAC, eventually becoming deputy governor, and during his period it is estimated that about 84,000 Africans were shipped to lives of misery and torment in the Americas. Of that 84,000, only about 65,000 reached the plantations. About a quarter, 19,000, perished chained to the slave decks of the RACs ships. Slave traders such as Colston called these deaths “wastage”.
Knowing all this and seeing Colston every day, there on his pedestal – combined with the citys wealth and Georgian pomp, which was intimidating for someone from my background – made me feel that this was a city I would struggle to ever call home.
While each of the little snubs and rejections I encountered in Bristol had an impact, once life got a bit easier I discovered the other Bristol. A dynamic, creative, multiracial, politically radical, diverse and in places proudly working-class city. One that is regularly and rightly listed as one of the best places in the UK to live.
If you want to see the depth of the division between those two Bristols you need to remember that here is a city currently run by an elected mayor, Marvin Rees, who is the first mayor in Europe to be descended from enslaved people. At the same time, the Bishopsworth ward of the city council is represented by a councillor, Richard Eddy, who was condemned in 2001 for bringing a golliwog doll into Bristol town hall and placing it on the cabinet, a man who even now, with Colston at the bottom of the River Avon, still calls the slave trader “a hero”.
What happened last Sunday was that a long and deep disagreement about the citys long and terrible history of slave trading brought those two Bristols into open conflict. And the lightning rod for that clash was the bronze figure of Edward Colston.
The story behind what took place at the weekend is linked to another story, that of how, over the past half century, black people in Britain, and their allies, assembled from discarded fragments a new black history of Britain. It is also the story of how this knowledge, about black presence in Britain and the centrality of slavery within much of that story, is now in the hands of a new generation who intend to use it to challenge our squeamish denial of some of the darkest chapters of British history and our unwillingness to confront the realities of British racism.
A century ago, the idea that Colston would one day be toppled from his pedestal would have been unthinkable. By then Colston, who died in 1721, had already been the beneficiary of two centuries of reputation-laundering, orchestrated by Bristols Colston societies and others. They had nurtured the myths that surrounded him to ensure that he was remembered only as a local philanthropist, a saintly benefactor who had paid for almshouses, a school and much else. But what made it possible in those years for Colstons reputation to be kept pearly white was that very few people knew or cared much about the trade that had been the key source of his vast wealth.
That began to change in the middle decades of the 20th century, when historians in the Caribbean, Britain and the US began to research and write about British slavery and the slave trade. Then, from the 1960s onwards, a new genre of British history emerged: black history. It was pioneered by historians such as James Walvin, Edward Scobie, Folarin Shyllon, Ron Ramdin, Nigel File, Chris Power, Peter Fryer and others, who undertook a vast task of archival reclamation and recovery.
Before the work of those historians, the history of the black presence in Britain had been erased from the “island story”. The long and complicated history of slavery was conveniently overshadowed by the more comforting tale of abolition. Despite black faces appearing in the margins of hundreds of British portraits and in the work of artists as famous as Reynolds and Hogarth, the lives of black Georgians and black Victorians had been rendered invisible while remaining in plain sight. Although thousands of entries in thousands of British newspapers and other archival sources detailed the lives of black people in Britain (these include advertisements for the sale of slaves here in Britain), few people were even aware that there had been black Britons and black communities in the country before the second world war. The place of black people in the past had slipped on to historys equivalent of the cutting-room floor.
It is strange to think today that the 492 people from the Caribbean who disembarked from the Empire Windrush in 1948 were, as far as we can know, unaware that the cities in which they went on to make their homes – London, Liverpool, Bristol – had been home to earlier generations of black Britons. Had the books that we have now on black British history been available to them, how might the historical knowledge they contained fascinated, comforted, radicalised and energised them? How, during the difficult years after 1948, when they were subjected to so much prejudice and endured so much disadvantage, might they have used such knowledge to rebuff those who questioned their right to be in Britain and regard themselves as British?
As black history was slowly being salvaged, the black historical figures we know today one by one disentombed from the depths of the archives, so were theuncomfortable histories of slavery and imperialism – the backstories required to make sense of these new biographies. These twin processes meant that the veil that had been carefully drawn over one side of Colstons life began to slip.
The remarkable events of the past few weeks were brought about by a confluence of slow-moving forces and immediate events, among them the sickening death of George Floyd. One reason why Colston fell is that in 2020 the people whose lives are still impacted by the racism that had been originally constructed by British slave traders were no longer willing to accept the standing insult that was his statue. Why was Colston such a potent target? Because this generation of young black people and their allies are the beneficiaries and inheritors of more than half a century of scholarship and research into slavery, the slave trade and the role of black people in Britains history. They know their enemies when they see them.
Another piece of the jigsaw is that the people who are being asked to forget Colstons crimes were also being asked to ignore their own disadvantage, which in 2020 has been brought into sharp focus by a global pandemic that is impacting their communities more severely than any others. In 2017, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at my own university, the University of Manchester, published research that showed that black people living in Bristol paid what the authors of the report called an “ethnic penalty” – a catalogue of disadvantage that limits their life chances. Dr Nissa Finney from the centre lamented then that in Bristol the “extent of ethnic inequalities is striking and it has not improved in the last 15 years”. The connections between persistent racial inequality today and the racial systems that were first put in place by men such as Colston, who pioneered and then profited from the slave trade and slavery, are perhaps more clearly demarcated in 2020 then they ever have been.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the elite that ran Bristol decided that Colstons philanthropy was to be for ever remembered, but that his role in the Atlantic slave trade was to be for ever forgotten. They used the infrastructure of veneration and disinformation they had constructed to control history, and to append his name to a concert hall and scatter it across the streetscape of their city. What was toppled on Sunday was not just a statue, but also the historical myopia and wilful amnesia that had enabled Colstons protectors and defenders to turn a man who had done monstrous things into a secular saint.
As the world protests …
… against police violence and racism, the Guardian stands in solidarity with the struggle for truth, humanity and justice. For decades, we have reported on the brutality that has destroyed the lives of black and minority ethnic citizens around the world. Justice starts with uncovering the truth. That is what we try to do.
Its not just police violence. The racial inequalities of the coronavirus are clear, as it disproportionately devastates minority communities – from severity of infection and scale of the loss of life, to the catastrophic economic consequences for individuals and businesses.
We are not perfect. But as an open, independent news organisation we are able to adapt and confront prejudice – our own and others. Our independence means we can challenge the powerful without fear and give a voice to the oppressed and marginalised. Our journalism is free from commercial and political bias, never influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This makes us different.
Youve read 154 articlesin the last six months. And youre not alone; millions are flocking to the Guardian for quality news every day. We believe everyone deserves access to information that is fact-checked, and analysis that has authority and integrity. Thats why, unlike many others, we made a choice: to keep Guardian reporting open for all, regardless of where you live or what you can afford to pay.
Were determined to provide journalism that helps each of us better understand the world, and take actions that challenge, unite, and inspire change – in times of crisis and beyond. Our work would not be possible without our readers, who now support our work from 180 countries around the world.
But news organisations are facing an existential threat. With advertising revenues plummeting, the Guardian risks losing a major source of its funding. More than ever before, were reliant on financial support from readers to fill the gap. Your support keeps us independent, open, and means we can maintain our high quality reporting – investigating, disentangling and interrogating.
Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our future.