Today’s blog is from John Wayman and Alice Towle, Bristol’s Youth Mayors. John has just finished at North Bristol Post-16 Centre and Alice has just completed her first year of sixth form at Bristol Grammar School. Both John and Alice also sit on the Bristol Youth Council, representing north and east-central Bristol respectively, and were elected in 2019 through the Bristol Big Youth Vote.
We often think of history as simply something that was: events that, although important in bringing the world to its present state, lack the same influence they possessed at the time. However, this could not be further from the truth: the public’s understanding of the past has long served as a tool to consolidate power. By controlling what history gets told, you can decide who and what holds significance in the narrative of our past, thus influencing the public’s mindset by painting a certain picture of why things are the way they are.
Yet, history is, above all, complex, representing an interconnected web of cause and effect, with a range of perspectives and ideas that matches ours today. Even if it may not appear that way given the often limited source material we have to peer back into the past, we have to acknowledge that there is always a more complicated and nuanced story to tell.
Edward Colston serves as a good reminder of this complexity as in many ways he was a man of two halves: the slave trader and the philanthropist. The philanthropy was and is generally considered beneficial to society whereas the slave trade represents an unquestionable moral blemish on Colston. There are discussions to be had around the extent of Colston’s philanthropy, as well as whether the source of his income invalidates the philanthropy’s benefits, but in the broadest sense these conflicting aspects highlight the complexity surrounding Colston.
The central issue Bristol faces today regarding Colston lies in how, up until recently, only one side of his story has been widely told. Buildings, street names, and chiefly the statue present only the image of Colston the philanthropist, as a great man whose name deserves to be enshrined in the built environment of the city. The lack of context surrounding these monuments to Colston hides the reality of the morally bankrupt means by which Colston acquired his fortune.
It is also worth noting that discussions around whether it was wrong to judge Colston by ‘the standards of our time’ also undercut the nuanced understanding of history that should be the end goal. The idea of applying universal moral standards to large groups of people at a particular time seems ridiculous: the slaves who suffered so that Colston could obtain his fortune would certainly have objected to his commemoration. Even considering only Britain, abolitionist sentiment was present during Colston’s lifetime particularly amongst some Quakers, and the statue itself was erected over 60 years after slavery in the British empire had been abolished.
Although these issues may seemingly present a huge challenge in how we tackle our history going forward, in many ways now is a time for hope. People arguably know more about Colston’s history following the statue’s toppling than they did while it stood in the centre, demonstrating a widespread desire to engage properly with our past. The display of the Colston statue at M Shed provides an excellent opportunity for this engagement to continue. Bristol has long been and continues to be a wonderfully diverse city whose strength lies in the myriad voices that make it up. By bringing these voices together and deciding as a city how we want to move forward, with both Colston and Bristol’s slaving legacy as a whole, perhaps we can reach some kind of appropriate conclusion regarding this complex and deeply relevant history.
Book your tickets to see ‘The Colston Statue: What Next?’ display at M Shed.
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Watch ‘Statue Wars: One Summer in Bristol’ on BBC iPlayer.