Statuary: Heritage or Modern Horror?

The dumping of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the harbour at Bristol has brought into question the veritable army of statues that Britain displays in towns and cities. Many of us walk by without giving them a second glance. Many of them are relics of Britain’s defunct Empire and proudly display men of power and money that were often ill-gained in modern eyes but venerated in the era in which they were installed.

Is it right in the twenty-first century to display such items? We look at these as our heritage, but are they? We now know that our imperialist ambitions caused misery and suffering for many. British colonialists became rich expanding the Empire into the New World, India, Australia and Africa.

Edward Colston was a board member of the Royal African Company and raised to Deputy Governor status. 84,000 African slaves were transported to the Colonies under his stewardship. It is believed around 19,000 men, women and children died during the torturous transatlantic crossings made by the Royal African Company. 

E Colston
Photo credit: BBC

Personally, when I heard the news that the statue had been pulled from its pedestal and thrown into the water, I winced. What I was concerned about was vandalism; destruction of public property leading to discord and a clamour of voices of those with opposing views taking over from the very important #BlackLivesMatter discourse. Opponents argue his philanthropy outweighs the slave trader profile. 

I thought; would a descendant of Edward Colston, knowing thousands have died under his watch welcome the statue? If I were the descendant, I answered myself, no, I wouldn’t want it. 

Within minutes I reconciled any qualms at the loss of an historic monument. We don’t venerate murderers or those complicit in the deaths of thousands, why is this any different? We wouldn’t countenance a statue of Harold Shipman because he worked for the NHS. 

Is this a correct process? Are we supporting #BlackLivesMatter with the removal of relics of our past or are we hiding from view, hoping to forget a shameful era in Britain’s past? One suggestion has been to place Colston’s statue in a museum, adorned with graffiti and surrounded by placards that were discarded at the protest, to tell the story of his actions and how they contradict twenty-first-century values. I’m good with this.

I’m also good with the statue sitting at the back of a dusty storeroom. In this post about Millicent Garrett Fawcett, I told you that non-royal females are depicted in only 3 percent of statues in the UK. We won’t miss another rich white bloke.





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