All four defendants on trial for taking down the statue of Colston in Bristol have been acquitted. Not because they didn’t do it, but because taking down that statue was the right thing to do. Of course there’s a howling backlash from people who think this means anarchy, or the end of history. I have thoughts.
The Colston statue wasn’t an historic artifact from the time Colston was alive. It was put up far later. It didn’t record history, it hid the colonial, slaving violence that was part of Colston’s actual story. He was not a nice man, putting up a statue to commemorate him distorts the real story. History itself is not harmed by taking him down. Further, at this point he’s on his side in a museum with information about both him and his statue, so overall this has led to more history, not less of it.
I’m not a Bristol person, but I live close enough to have been to The Colston Hall as a child. I had no idea what the name meant. Thanks to the toppling of the statue, I now know a lot more about Bristol and Colston history than I did.
History is written by the victors. It’s a story about the past, the selected highlights that someone wants to focus on. It may be a story that tells us who we are or that encourages us to believe certain things about ourselves. Celebrating Colston is the story that goes with colonialism and making heroes out of people who are rich because they do such a fine and sustained job of exploiting others. Toppling Colston gives us a new story, and right now it’s a story about exposing the grim truth, community solidarity and being better people moving forward.
Right now, the victors who get to write the story are people who don’t want to whitewash the history of slavery, or excuse the ‘great white men’ that we’ve previously celebrated. This works for me. I don’t want to be part of a culture whose touchstone for celebrating people is that they be white rich men. I think we need to talk a lot more about how certain people, and certain families manage to accumulate so much wealth. It isn’t their own hard work, that’s for sure. Contemporary wealth is often built on the backs of historical slaves, on the backs of colonised people past and present, on the backs of exploited workers, and with the materials taken from the earth with no care for the lives, landscape and ecosystems destroyed in the pursuit of profit.