This is a piece by Professor Kate Williams, who is a New York Times bestselling author, TV (CNN and BBC) Professor at the University of Reading and historian.
When people say, statues should stay because they are our ‘history’. Britain in 1895 had campaigners for the end of Empire, the legacy of the vast abolitionist movement, many freed slaves who had campaigned. But it was Colston who was commemorated by a committee.
Whose’ history’ is it?
Let’s look at some questions.
What ended the slave trade in Britain?
A lot of people think of Wilberforce and (white) middle-class abolitionists. Actually, it was much more due to the enslaved themselves. It was the men and women who were part of slave rebellions across plantations and their leaders such as Samuel Sharpe in Jamaica and freed slave abolitionists, such as the author Equiano and those who brought lawsuits, the significant cases of slaves demanding freedom James Somersett and Joseph Knight. What also brought the horrors of the slave trade to the British public was the newspaper coverage of the insurance claim after the massacre on slave ship Zong.
Jamaica, then a British colony, saw many of the enslaved rebels and rise up, in what were often presented as eruptions but were actually carefully planned rebellions, with secret networks co-ordinating A huge rebellion was led by Tacky in 1760, a slave who had been king of his village. The rebellion was brutally put down, Tacky was killed, and the men with him committed suicide rather than be sent back to slavery. Inspired by Tacky, rebellions broke out across the island and rebel escapees set up freed communities in the forests. Slave uprisings occurred across plantations in America, the Caribbean and Brazil. In Haiti, thousands of slaves rose up in August 1791, demanding the freedom that post-revolutionary France had offered, saying all men were free and equal. The slaves got control of much of the island, fighting off first French troops and then the British, who were sent in an attempt to stop slave revolt. The great Toussaint L’Ouverture was one of the military leaders. Finally, the French abolished slavery in their colonies in 1793. In 1831, Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist preacher, led slave rebellions across Jamaica until he and others who had taken part were cruelly executed. Abolitionists in Britain told the public about these rebellions and the shocking reprisals. These rebellions in Jamaica and the failure of British forces in Haiti meant the British public were forced to confront the brutal realities of slaves’ lives on plantations – they were not content or protected, and they would rather kill themselves than be enslaved.
Three major law cases also had a significant impact.
Charles Steuart in Virginia bought James Somersett. Steuart brought him to London in 1771, where he escaped and was baptised. Steuart captured him back and took him to a ship for transportation in the Thames. In 1772, Somersett’s three godparents brought a case. Backed by abolitionist Granville Sharp that Somersett was no longer Steuart’s possession, could not be sold and was illegally imprisoned on the ship. The case gained substantial public attention and press coverage. Somersett’s lawyers argued that no law recognised slavery.
Steuart’s defence argued the paramount importance of property. The judge, Lord Mansfield, ruled that ‘no master was ever allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted his service’ and Somersett went free.
This case did not end the recapturing of slaves or the slave trade, but it had a significant effect on public opinion and influenced successive trials. One such example was that of Joseph Knight in Scotland. Knight demanded wages from John Wedderburn who had bought him in Jamaica. Knight ran away, and when Wedderburn tried through the courts to get him back in 1777, the judge ruled that Wedderburn had no rights of ‘dominion’ over Knight in Scotland and he should go free. Joseph Knight lived free and promptly married Annie Thompson, who had been a servant in Wedderburn’s house – h
The other major case that had a considerable effect on public opinion was the horrific case of the massacre on the slave ship Zong in 1781. En route to Jamaica, the Zong ran low on water, and 130 of the trafficked individuals were thrown into the sea. In Jamaica, the Zong’s owners claimed on insurance for their ‘lost cargo’, as enslaved people were insured as ‘cargo’. The insurers refused, declaring that the captain was at fault. This became a massive lawsuit between the owners and the insurers – and it finally brought the horrific conditions on ships and the barbarous treatment of slaves to public attention. Equiano did much to raise its profile, and Granville Sharp wanted to try the captain for murder. The swell of public opinion, the petitions and middle-class anger pushed forth the abolitionist movement.
Freed slave abolitionists talked widely and gave lectures to the public about the horrors of slavery. Equiano’s book about his life was a bestseller, published abroad. Yes, Wilberforce took abolition through Parliament, but he was building on the work of freed slaves such as Equiano and Knight, the uprising leaders such as Tacky – and the shocking scandal of the Zong massacre.
So when we talk about what should replace statues of slave traders, rather than choosing all white abolitionists, let’s commemorate freed slaves such as Equiano, Somersett and Knight, or the uprising leaders, Tacky or Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist preacher who led slave rebellions in Jamaica in 1831. They fought for their freedom and forced Britain to confront the horror of the slave trade.
Wilberforce built on the public opinion generated against slavery, by men such as Equiano and the enslaved people rising against their owners, in Britain and the plantations. We’ve had a movie about Wilberforce, can we have one about an uprising leader, or Equiano or Knight?
Yes, of course, Wilberforce pushed through abolition. But often it is made to seem as if he is the only one behind the abolition of slavery, erasing the fight of so many enslaved people, in Britain and in plantations, for their own freedom.
The Authorities should take down statues after discussion.
People who say – authorities should take statues down after discussion. Yes. But it isn’t happening. Bristol has been debating Edward Colston for years and wasn’t getting anywhere. In 2018, it was agreed that the statue would bear a plaque noting his involvement in the slave trade.
But then it proved impossible to find a wording that everyone accepted. The first plaque that it carried, added when it was erected in 1895, said ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. NO mention of slavery.
Later in 2018, Bristol Council unveiled the wording for the second plaque, “As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died
en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not allowed to benefit from his charities’. The wording had been discussed by various groups, including children from Colston Primary School (name now changed). But it proved impossible for the Council to get it through.
Some councillors objected. And then the Merchant Venturers got involved and pushed for various changes, including removing the reference to 12,000 children instead focussing on his philanthropy (and not to note it was selective).
The new plaque read, Edward Colston, 1636-1721, MP for Bristol 1710-1713, was one of this city’s greatest benefactors. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This
was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.
A significant proportion of Colston’s wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the
transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.
As you can see, the language on the two plaques is radically different. The second says Colston’s wealth came from sugar, etc. and he was ‘also involved in the transportation’ of slaves – rather as if he sort of built boats but didn’t know what was going on. The use of the word ‘investments’ also works to distance him from slavery. The focus was on his ‘philanthropy’.
The Council refused this altered plaque and the Office of the Mayor, Marvin Rees, who has been on TV today, rightly said it was ‘unacceptable’, particularly the lack of reference to those enslaved. That was in Spring 2019, and the plaque has been under discussions ever since.
Some Bristolians said to me privately that they were pessimistic about the likelihood of an agreed text and thus that the only plaque forevermore on Colston would be the one calling him ‘virtuous and wise’.
So everyone saying, why couldn’t Bristol discuss it and bring it down through agreement? It’s not that simple. While statues are being discussed and changes blocked, black people have to pass them daily, seeing the congratulation of slave trading, their horror and pain.
Statues are not mountains or cliffs. They are not natural phenomena. They are put up by groups of the wealthy and powerful to tell us who we should admire. In 1895, Bristolians were told to admire a slave trader. They could have put up an abolitionist such as Equiano. And if the men who put up the statue of Colston simply wanted to celebrate a rich white man who had given to charity – there were plenty of other options who were not slave traders. Richard Reynolds, ironmonger and Quaker, gave more to Bristol in the nineteenth century than Colston and spoke out against slavery. Or c16 John Whitson who owned ships and gave to the poor and endowed the oldest surviving girls’ school in the country. On top of this, Colston’s philanthropy was problematic: you had to agree with him to get it, and the charities were criticised by the nineteenth century for doing little to help the poor, as work by Roger Ball and Spencer Jones has shown. But instead of Reynolds or Whitson or any of the other people who gave to Bristol charities, these Victorians chose to venerate Colston, a man who profited from the evil and horrific slave trade.
People have been trying to bring down the statue for years. Now, thanks to Black Lives Matter, he is down, rolled into the sea near Pero’s bridge, a bridge named for Pero Jones who was brought to Bristol as enslaved and never freed. It is time we confronted the true nature of our past.