BRISTOL, England —
In an English port city that once launched slave ships, an empty plinth has become the center of a debate about racism, history and memory.
For over a century the pedestal in Bristol held the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader whose wealth helped the city grow. On Sunday, anti-racism demonstrators pulled the 18-foot (5.5 meter) bronze likeness down, dragged it to the nearby harbor and dumped it in the River Avon.
On Monday the empty base, surrounded by Black Lives Matter placards, drew a stream of activists, office workers and onlookers. Some posed proudly in front of it, others stood in silence, a few argued. Some Bristolians said toppling the statue was historical vandalism. Others welcomed the removal of a stain on their city.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” said Katrina Darke, a family doctor.
Chyna Lee, a 24-year-old recruitment consultant, said that she didn’t advocate vandalism, but “ I’m quite happy it got dumped in the river.”
“There have been petitions and requests to get the statue removed,” she said. “I just think people weren’t listening to anything at all, and everyone is very fed up.”
Images of protesters toppling the statue — one posing with his knee on its neck, evoking the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police — made news around the world. They resonated especially in the United States, where campaigners have sought to remove Confederate memorials.
Since Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the U.S. and to countries around the globe, including Britain. Demonstrators in London, Glasgow, Bristol and other U.K. cities — whose cultural diversity is rooted in Britain’s long-vanished empire — have expressed solidarity with the United States, and also demanded change closer to home.
The protests have been predominantly peaceful, but after some demonstrators in London hurled objects at police and spray-painted a statue of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the outbreaks of “thuggery.”
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said the prime minister viewed the statue-toppling in Bristol as “a criminal act” and said the police should “hold to account those responsible.” Home Secretary Priti Patel, Britain’s interior minister, said the toppling of Colston’s statue was “sheer vandalism” and “completely unacceptable.”
But Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees said it was a significant moment in the city’s history.
“I cannot condone criminal damage,” said Rees, who is the city’s first black mayor. “But also, as the descendant of Jamaicans who were enslaved at some point, and this man was a slaver, I won’t deny that the statue was an affront to me.”
Colston has long been a problematic presence in Bristol, 120 miles (195 kilometers) southwest of London. He was a senior official in the Royal African Company, which in the late 1600s trafficked 80,000 African men, women and children to slavery in the Americas.
Bristol went on to become Britain’s biggest port for slave ships during the early 18th century. Ships based in the city transported at least half a million Africans into slavery before Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Many 18th-century Bristolians helped fund the trade and shared in the profits, which also built handsome Georgian houses and buildings that still dot the city.
Colston died in 1721, leaving his fortune to charity. Modern-day Bristol has Colston’s Almshouses, several Colston schools, Colston Avenue, Colston Tower and the Colston Hall concert venue. An annual church service of thanksgiving for Colston’s life was held until a few years ago.
Some residents of the city feel that toppling the statue amounts to airbrushing the past.
“The reason the statue was erected is not the same reason you have to retain it,” said 66-year-old Claire Wren.
“This was just hooliganism and criminal damage,” she said, wondering whether supporters of making Britain a republic would want to tear down statues of Queen Victoria. “Where does it end?”
Olivette Otele, professor of the history and memory of slavery at the University of Bristol, acknowledged that some people felt “angry and sad” that the statue had been felled, but asked them to examine their reasons.
“Why are you sad about this particular statue? The movement was about the death of a black man,” she said. “What are the priorities here? What does it say about mourning the statue and not the man?
“Everything’s going really fast at the moment, but it’s a moment to pause: What do we value as a society?”
Bristol has been struggling with what to do about Colston for years. Colston Hall has agreed to change its name when it reopens next year after refurbishment. The city attempted to replace the plaque on the statue extolling Colson as “virtuous and wise” with one that mentioned his role as a slave trader. But after several years of wrangling between the city, activists and the Society of Merchant Venturers — a centuries-old guild of which Colston was a member — no wording has been agreed.
Rees, the mayor, said the statue’s fate was “almost (a) piece of historical poetry, where a man who undoubtedly had slaves thrown off his ships during the passage at some point ended up under water, just like the bodies of enslaved Africans.”
He said city authorities planned to fish the statue out of the harbor and install it in a museum as “part of the overarching story of the city of Bristol.”
Colston’s demise also reinvigorated Oxford University campaigners calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in southern Africa who made a fortune from mines and endowed the university’s Rhodes scholarships.
Simbarashe Tongogara, a musician and longtime activist in Bristol, was hopeful the actions of the young protesters who brought the statue down, some black and some white, could mark a turning point in the fight against racism.
“Seeing that it was white people that brought the statue down, that’s the important message because that means some learning time is happening,” he said. “Because it’s taken a long time to come to that point.
“It’s not British, American — it’s a world pandemic that we need to address.”