Madge Dresser has previously published on ‘public monuments in London and their relationship to slavery and abolition’ in History Workshop Journal, Volume 64 in 2007. Her article ‘Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London’ is available open access.
Statue toppling in Bristol is not new. In 1813 the statue of George III, in the city’s Brunswick Square, was violently torn down after a rally led by the radical campaigner Orator Hunt. Hunt’s followers, frustrated by the slow pace of reform in the face of poverty, inequality and unaccountable privilege took matters into their own hands. In that respect, plus ça change.
Global coverage of the Colston statue which was taken down and dumped into the Bristol harbour this month, has led many to ask more about Colston himself. But people are asking too why that particular statue was erected in 1895, over 170 years after his death.
The possible motives for erecting this late Victorian statue with its elegant Art Nouveau plinth celebrating Colston as the ‘wise and virtuous son of the city’ have since been the subject of some controversy but my own research and that of others, largely accords with the view that the statue’s primary purpose was to ‘big up’ Bristol and assert a common civic identity that would unite Bristolians at a time when growing working class militancy threatened to undermine the existing social order.
It has since been recognized too that Colston’s statue was erected around the same time as monuments were being erected in the United States retrospectively glorifying the Confederate cause–and so paving the way for the introduction of Jim Crow (segregationist) legislation. In the same era, statues proliferated throughout Europe and the British Empire which championed colonialist figures such as Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold.
Is this phenomenon, as Peter Hill has argued, best understood in racial terms–as part of an ‘entrenchment of whiteness’ during the high noon of western imperialism? I would certainly not contest that assumptions of white supremacy were to varying degrees reinforced by all the monuments which Hill has so usefully surveyed. But, as he himself has said, each of these monuments are the products of local circumstance as well as wider structural trends. So, by revisiting the Colston statue’s particular history we can gain a more nuanced understanding of racism and civic identity in Bristol both then and now.
In 1895, the city’s economic and political elite was still largely in the grip of the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers. This Society, which had controlled foreign trade and politics in the city since the 1550s, consistently lobbied for the promotion of its slaving interests and proudly claimed Colston as one of its most prominent members. It is widely thought they were behind the funding of the Colston statue or that the erection of the statue was their idea, but in truth neither was the case. It was a struggle to get anyone to fund it and it appears that the funds raised by subscription had to be supplemented by a large donation from an anonymous source.
The monument eventually commissioned from the Manchester sculptor John Cassidy was in fact the brainchild of James Williams Arrowsmith (1839–1913). Born in Worcester, where his father ran a radical newspaper which pushed for reform, Arrowsmith came to Bristol in his youth and became a local Liberal publisher and printer, using every network he could in order to consolidate his social and commercial position. Arrowsmith came from a less privileged background than most Merchant Venturers and was by the standards of the day no political reactionary.
Edward Colston, the scion of a wealthy mercantile Bristol family, had been a divisive figure in his own day. Before his death in 1721, he imposed his autocratic Tory and High Church views on all those who hoped to benefit from his charitable bequests. Nonetheless the monies he bequeathed to the city for the establishment of schools, the renovation of churches, and the relief of those poor who subscribed to his values, spawned a number of posthumous charities in his name, of varying political hues. By the late Victorian period, the civic processions and rituals celebrating Colston, who in his later years became Bristol’s MP, were an important part of the city’s calendar. Though Arrowsmith himself was involved with one of these charities–the Whig-identified Anchor Society–he did so to consolidate his commercial standing among the city’s elite. Although Liberals and Tories increasingly came together as a militant and organized working class emerged to challenge the status quo, his views and those of most middle-class Liberals would have differed from those of the Merchant Venturers.
It is also worth noting that Arrowsmith, though a businessman first and foremost, had an informed and deep knowledge of Bristol’s distinctive historic traditions at a time when many Liberals saw the promotion of civic pride as a way to promote reform. He favoured the expansion of education for all. His own publications on Bristol’s history published shortly after the statue’s erection, clearly displayed an in-depth awareness of the triangular trade and he even pointed to Colston’s involvement in it. Arrowsmith would later convince the Wills family, whose money up until 1865 derived from slave-produced tobacco but who had long espoused many progressive causes including that of anti-slavery, to donate to the nascent University of Bristol which led the way in opening up higher education to a wider swathe of the population including women. So, conflating Arrowsmith with more reactionary factions in Bristol’s business elite does not do justice to him or help us understand the political culture of the day. Yet it also makes the following question more pressing: namely why did he spearhead the movement for a monument which uncritically celebrated one whose fortune was so significantly derived from the enslavement of Africans?
Priyamvada Gopal in her groundbreaking study Insurgent Empire and others have pointed to the fact that Liberal values of individualism, liberty and social mobility, were not automatically extended to those enslaved or colonized. The ongoing reassessment of America’s founders and the legacy of their Enlightenment values is a case in point. In late Victorian Britain, Liberals who had previously played a role supporting the anti-slavery cause in the American civil war, were increasingly seduced by social Darwinistic and nationalist theories about racial hierarchy which supported the expansion of empire. Even those Liberals who criticized British imperial policy or the continuing oppression of freed Blacks in the British Caribbean and the USA, more often than not did so from a euro-centric and paternalistic perspective.
There are no surviving documents detailing Arrowsmith’s views on race and empire. But the very fact that Arrowsmith and his allies could countenance the glorification of Colston while omitting to mention his profound links with slave trading, sugar and other slavery-related interests does, as Hill implies, speak volumes about the implicit racism informing his world view. The voices and experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants are silenced, despite the fact that the importance of the Atlantic slave economy to Bristol’s wealth was common knowledge in Bristol at the time (many people in Bristol’s elite had relatives or connections with the West Indies or the American South).
Arrowsmith’s agenda was not the same as white supremacists in America who were busy in this period recasting history via monuments and other means in order to pave the way for Jim Crow regimes. He had first proposed a statue of Colston at a fraternal dinner of all the Colston charities in 1893 as a fitting way to acknowledge Colston’s contribution to Bristol because ‘there were very few statues in the city.’ His focus was on beautifying the city and consolidating his own role in civic life (he was most probably the anonymous donor who stepped in to fund the statue when other efforts failed). The exploitation that people of colour had experienced and continued to experience was largely tucked away abroad and was all too easy to forget. Out of sight meant out of mind, especially when proponents of the statue had other more local priorities on their mind.
Understanding of the complexity of the historical process and guarding against a one size fits all explanation of why things happened the way they did, is hard to do in a public arena where simple answers and conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal especially in these volatile times. It’s made less attractive given the convergence of events at this particular moment open a real possibility of effectively challenging racial inequality and confronting neo-colonialism. Nuance can all too often serve the interests of the status quo, but historians can help, by engaging with contradictory sources and evidence to ask questions which help us better to capture lived experience.
Thanks to Jordan Collver for granting permission for the use of his illustration: ‘Colston statue, Bristol, 1895-2020’.
A version of this article was previously published by Apollo Magazine.