Bristol event shows that the debate on Britain’s colonial legacy has been postponed for far too long - GulfToday

Bristol event shows that the debate on Britain’s colonial legacy has been postponed for far too long


Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour in Bristol, England. AP

Melissa Chemam, The Independent

Bristol’s Black Lives Matter protests this Sunday concluded with the toppling of the public statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, celebrated for decades by the city as a mere “philanthropist”. I was among the protesters gathered, and when this statue came down we felt our fight against the oppression of people of colour had finally hit a new, important level.

I came to Bristol in 2015 as a foreign journalist to write about the city’s culture and tradition of protests, based on the journey of its most famous artists. Once I started researching my book, I never stopped hearing about Colston. I chose to move back here again here recently because I felt, as I explained to a friend earlier this year, most of the problems of the 21st century started in England, this is one place where we’re going to start to solve them.

The Bristol protests started, like so many others, as a response to the killing of George Floyd, with a few speeches on social justice and coming together to kneel, in silence, for eight minutes. Then the march started, peacefully, towards the centre of the city and the infamous statue of Colston. When the Black Lives Matter protesters finally pulled it down – around 2:30pm, just an hour and a half after the march began – screams of joy exploded through the multicultural, multigenerational crowd.

Protestor John McAllister, 71, declared: “It says ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol, as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city’. The man was a slave trader. He was generous to Bristol, but it was off the back of slavery and it’s absolutely despicable. It’s an insult to the people of Bristol.”

A group then dragged the remains of the statue towards the city’s river, and threw it in the water in a location facing towards Pero Bridge, named after a Caribbean man known to have been a slave of the merchant John Pinney.

What happened in Bristol this Sunday shows that the debate on Britain’s colonial legacy has been postponed for far too long. If up until the 19th century it was considered politically correct to celebrate this sort of “philanthropy” based on slavery, change had been long overdue. Colston’s company alone is reported to have transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689.

For me, as my own family has been deeply affected by colonialism elsewhere in the world, it is puzzling to hear some English people still defending the statue based on the understanding of our shared history. France wouldn’t erect praises of Pétain or Germany of Hitler, just for the sake of remembrance of our criminal pasts.

Change is upon us. In France, slavery has been recognised as a crime against humanity in 2001. Yet it took until a few days ago for the statue of Victor Schœlcher to be taken down in Martinique.

The fall of Colston’s statue in Bristol marks a bellwether for attitudes – a sign that the UK will now have to deal with its past differently. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga wrote on Sunday night that the statue might “be fished out at some point” and “put in the city museum, where it has long belonged.”

A few artists born in the city had been voicing this message for years, including the band Massive Attack. They were among the marchers, and tweeted: “The elevation of a slave trader clashed badly with our civic identity. A philanthropy derived from crimes against humanity is as hollow as the statue itself.”

This weekend history has been made in the UK. And it started in Bristol.

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