Edward Colston: Toppled slave trader statue goes on public display

The statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, who was overthrown in a protest against Black Lives Matter last year, is on public display today.

The 17th-century bronze monument to the merchant had stood in the city since 1895, but was torn from its pedestal during the June 7, 2020 demonstration.

It was pulled through the city to the harbor, where it was thrown into the water at Pero’s Bridge – named after the enslaved man Pero Jones who lived and died in the city.

Days later, the statue was rescued from the water by Bristol City Council and stored away months prior to cleaning it and keeping it in the condition it was in.

Today, almost exactly a year after it was overthrown, the bronze is on public display at the city’s M Shed Museum, along with posters of the protest and a timeline of events.

The statue – with graffiti and damage from the demolition – cannot stand upright and is therefore presented lying on a wooden stand.

Citizens are being asked what to do next by the We Are Bristol History Commission, which was set up after the protest.

Options include removing the statue entirely from the public, creating a museum or exhibition on the transatlantic slave trade, or restoring the statue to its base.

Dr. Shawn Sobers, associate professor at the University of the West of England and part of the commission, said the effects of the statue’s demolition had “ricocheted” across the UK and the world.

“We know this is not an isolated incident, we know that there are statues all over the world celebrating slave traders,” said Dr. Sobers.

“At the same time, the anti-racist movement is not about statues. It seeks to eradicate racism from society and create equality where racial differences exist that transcend economic boundaries.

“But statues are a symbol of how seriously our cities in Britain really take these problems.”

Dr. Sobers described the Colston statue display as an opportunity to tell “another story” and encourage people to talk about it.

Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbor

The exhibition at M Shed is the first part of the public consultation, which also included a poll to give people their views on the future of the statue and the history of Bristol.

“It’s not an exhibition, it doesn’t try to answer all of the questions,” said Dr. Sobers.

“We take this opportunity to find out what the local people think because we have to live together in this city.

“We know this won’t be an overnight process, but as the history commission we will take the responses, consult other people in the city, and make recommendations to the city on how we think we can move forward.”

A picture on the display shows the unveiling of the Colston statue in 1895, when crowds of smartly dressed people gather in central Bristol for the event.

Pictures also show how the statue was torn down a year ago, rolled through town, and then thrown into the harbor – surrounded by people who recorded what was happening with phones and cameras.

When asked why the statue is not displayed upright, Dr. Sobers that she was “on her back” after she was recovered from the harbor.

“It would have been a very deliberate decision to take it to the top and it would cost quite a lot of money because it can’t stand on its own, it actually fell apart,” he said.

“It also sends a signal that it will try to reverse the tipping if you put it upright again.

“It fell over, it’s been lying on its back in a warehouse for a year and we want it to be a very transparent display to say that’s what we’re working with and we want to ask what? Happens when next. “

After the statue was demolished, hundreds of people who attended the protest put their posters around the empty pedestal.

The statue on display in the M Shed Museum

More than 500 of these were collected by city government teams before they were carefully dried and stored. Only six are part of the current exhibition at M Shed.

A selection of quotes depicting a range of responses to the statue’s overthrow make up a slide show on the wall behind it.

“This portrayal is not trying to get out of an idealistic or ideological position and to celebrate or empathize, it tries to be balanced,” added Dr. Sobers added.

The exhibit, which focuses on the Colston statue, is on the same floor as a permanent exhibit at M Shed detailing Bristol’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston

Bristol City Council Cultural Team Director of Collections and Archives Ray Barnett said careful work had been done to preserve the statue and posters prior to the protest.

“Most of the posters were just cardboard and they were left on the site and it had rained, so our first job was to keep them from falling apart and turning to mush,” said Barnett.

“That meant they were air dried. We had them all in our studios to gradually dry them out and they were laid down so they wouldn’t lose their shape and warp.

“On the statue itself, the metal is pretty sturdy, but it was damaged from scratching along the sidewalk and a few pieces are missing.

“The statue originally had a layer of wax with paint on it, so we gradually washed out the mud and dried the statue.

“We had to be very careful when it dried out that the wax layer did not dry out and fall off and take the paint with it, because we felt it was our duty to say that this is the situation after the protest statue looks.”

Mr Barnett described the exhibition as “a work in progress” but said it was important to quickly provide context for what happened, including the controversy that had surrounded the statue for decades.

“There was this disagreement, people have different views on the situation, but now the city needs to pull together and we want people to have their views on how to do this,” added Barnett.

The Colston Statue: What’s Next? opens today at M Shed.


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