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Statue of Edward Colston

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Statue of Edward Colston
Larger than lifesize bronze statue of man in period clothes, standing with one hand on a staff, the other raised to his chin. It is on a white stone pedestal with inscription Edward Colston Born 1636 Died 1721", and bronze inscribed plaques below. Large bronze dolphins are on each corner of the base. It is in an urban setting with a large tree behind and above it.
The statue in 2019
ArtistJohn Cassidy
Completion date13 November 1895; 125 years ago (1895-11-13)
SubjectEdward Colston
ConditionFigure toppled, damaged and removed; plinth defaced by demonstrators
LocationBristol, England
Listed Building – Grade II
Official nameStatue of Edward Colston
Designated4 March 1977
Reference no.1202137

The statue of Edward Colston is a bronze statue of Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston (1636–1721), which was originally erected in The Centre in Bristol, England. It was created in 1895 by the Irish sculptor John Cassidy and erected on a plinth of Portland stone. It was designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977.

The statue has been subject to increasing controversy beginning in the 1990s, when Colston's prior reputation as a philanthropist came under scrutiny due to his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. In 2018 a Bristol City Council project to add a second plaque to better contextualise the statue and summarise Colston's role in the slave trade resulted in an agreed wording and a cast plaque ready for installation. Its installation was vetoed in March 2019 by Bristol's mayor, Marvin Rees, who promised a rewording of the plaque which never materialised. On 7 June 2020, the statue was toppled, defaced, and pushed into Bristol Harbour during the George Floyd protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The plinth was also covered in graffiti, but remains in place. The statue was recovered from the harbour and put into storage by Bristol City Council on 11 June 2020, and put on museum exhibition in its graffitied state in June 2021. When the exhibit opened historian David Olusoga said that its recent history had transformed the statue from "a mediocre piece of late-Victorian public art" into "the most important artefact you could select in Britain if you wanted to tell the story of Britain's tortuous relationship with its role in the Atlantic slave trade."[1]


Detail of one of the dolphins

The monument originally consisted of an 8 ft 8 in (2.64 m) bronze statue of Edward Colston (1636–1721) set on top of a 10 ft 6 in (3.20 m) plinth.[2][3] The statue depicts Colston in a flowing wig, velvet coat, satin waistcoat, and knee-breeches as was typical in his day.[2] The plinth is made of Portland stone and adorned with bronze plaques and, in each corner, a figure of a dolphin. Of the four plaques‍—‌one on each face of the plinth‍—‌three are relief sculptures in an Art Nouveau style: two of these depict scenes from Colston's life and the third exhibits a maritime fantasy. The plaque on the south face bears the words "Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895" and "John Cassidy fecit" (John Cassidy made this).[3]


Edward Colston[edit]

Colston was a Bristol-born merchant who made some of his fortune from the slave trade, particularly between 1680 and 1692.[4][5] He was an active member of the Royal African Company, and was briefly deputy governor in 1689–90. During his tenure, the Company transported an estimated 84,000 slaves from West Africa to the Americas.[5] Colston used his wealth to provide financial support to almshouses, hospitals, schools, workhouses and churches throughout England, particularly in his home city of Bristol;[6] he represented the Bristol constituency as its Member of Parliament from 1710 to 1713.[7] He left £71,000 to charities after his death, as well as £100,000 to members of his family.[6][8] In the 19th century he was seen as a philanthropist.[6] The fact that some of his fortune was made in the slave trade was largely ignored until the 1990s.[3][4]


The statue, designed by Irish sculptor John Cassidy, was erected in the area now known as The Centre in 1895 to commemorate Colston's philanthropy.[9][10] It was proposed in October 1893 by James Arrowsmith, the president of the Anchor Society; this, in March 1894, led to a committee being appointed to raise a fund. Two appeals to Colston-related charitable bodies raised £407 towards the cost of the statue.[11] Further funds, to a total of £650, were raised through public appeals after the unveiling, including a contribution from the Society of Merchant Venturers.[12] 23 models from sculptors were proposed to the committee, from which Cassidy's was selected.[11] The statue was unveiled by the mayor, Howell Davies, and the bishop of Bristol, Charles Ellicott, on 13 November 1895, a date which had been referred to as Colston Day in the city.[11][13]

On 4 March 1977, it was designated as a Grade II listed structure. Historic England described the statue as being "handsome" and that "the resulting contrast of styles is handled with confidence". They also note that the statue offers good group value with other memorials, including a statue of Edmund Burke, the Cenotaph, and a drinking fountain commemorating the Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition of 1893.[3]


20th century[edit]

Art installation, showing figures representing slaves on a ship, during Anti-Slavery Day 2018

The statue became controversial by the end of the 20th century, as Colston's activities as a major slave trader became more widely known.[14] H. J. Wilkins, who uncovered his slave-trading activities in 1920, commented that "we cannot picture him justly except against his historical background".[15][16] Colston's involvement in the slave trade predated the abolition movement in Britain, and was during the time when "slavery was generally condoned in England—indeed, throughout Europe—by churchmen, intellectuals and the educated classes".[17] From the 1990s onwards, campaigns and petitions called for the removal of the statue.[18]

In 1992, the statue was depicted in the installation Commemoration Day by Carole Drake, as part of the Trophies of Empire exhibition at the Arnolfini, a gallery in a former tea warehouse in Bristol's harbour. Drake's installation combined a replica of the statue swinging above rotting chrysanthemums, a favourite flower of Colston, in front of a projected photograph of schoolgirls at Colston School covering his statue with flowers in 1973 and the audio of the school hymn "Rejoice ye pure in heart".[19][20] In the 1994 catalogue of Trophies of Empire, Drake stated the work refers to:[21]

...the blind spots in Western culture, a collective amnesia which denies the sources of wealth which built such 'trophies of empire', and the ways in which dominant white culture and its people benefit from the exploitation of other cultures and people both overseas and at home.

In January 1998, "SLAVE TRADER" was written in paint on the base of the statue. Bristol City councillor Ray Sefia said: "If we in this city want to glorify the slave trade, then the statue should stay. If not, the statue should be marked with a plaque that he was a slave trader or taken down."[18][22][23]

21st century[edit]

In a 2014 poll in the local newspaper, the Bristol Post, 56% of the 1,100 respondents said it should stay while 44% wanted it to go.[24] Others called for a memorial plaque honouring the victims of slavery to be fitted to his statue. Bristol's first elected mayor, George Ferguson, stated on Twitter in 2013 that "Celebrations for Colston are perverse, not something I shall be taking part in!"[25] In August 2017 an unauthorized commemorative plaque by sculptor Will Coles was affixed to the statue's plinth, which declared that Bristol was the "Capital of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1730–1745" and memorialising "the 12,000,000 enslaved of whom 6,000,000 died as captives". Coles stated that his aim was "to try to get people to think".[26] The plaque was removed by Bristol City Council in October of the same year.[27] In 2018, Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West, wrote to Bristol City Council calling for the removal of the statue.[28]

An unofficial art installation appeared in front of the statue on 18 October 2018 to mark Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. It depicted about a hundred supine figures arranged as on a slave ship, lying as if they were cargo, surrounded by a border listing jobs typically done by modern-day slaves such as 'fruit picker' and 'nail bar worker'; it remained for some months.[29] The labels around the bow of the ship said 'here and now'.[30] Another artistic intervention saw a ball and chain attached to the statue.[31]

Project to add a second plaque[edit]

In July 2018, Bristol City Council, which was responsible for the statue, made a planning application to add a second plaque which would "add to the public knowledge about Colston" including his philanthropy and his involvement in slave trading, though the initial wording suggested came in for significant criticism and re-wording took place.[32][33][34] The initial wording of the second plaque mentioned Colston's role in the slave trade, his brief tenure as a Tory MP for Bristol, and criticised his philanthropy as religiously selective:

As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710–1713), he defended the city's 'right' to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.[35][36]

Members of the public commenting on the planning application objected to the initial wording suggested for the plaque, with one calling it a “hatchet job” on Colston.[32] A Bristol Conservative councillor called the initial suggested wording "revisionist" and "historically illiterate".[33] A second version, co-written by Madge Dresser (an associate professor of history at the University of Bristol) was proposed by the council in August 2018, giving a brief description of Colston's philanthropy, role in the slave trade, and time as an MP, while noting that he was now considered controversial. This wording was edited by a former curator at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, creating a third proposal which was backed by other members of the public.[34] However, it was criticised by Dresser, who claimed the version was a "sanitised" version of history, arguing the wording minimised Colston's role, omitted the number of child slaves, and focused on West Africans as the original enslavers.[34] Nevertheless, the wording was subsequently agreed upon and the bronze plaque was cast with the following wording:

Edward Colston (1636–1721), MP for Bristol (1710–1713), was one of this city's greatest benefactors. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy. A significant proportion of Colston's wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.[37]

However, after the plaque was manufactured, its installation was vetoed in March 2019 by Bristol's mayor, Marvin Rees, who criticised the Society of Merchant Venturers for the rewording.[38] A statement from the mayor's office called it "unacceptable", claimed that Rees had not been consulted, and promised to continue work on a second plaque.[37][39] After the toppling of the statue in June 2020 the Society of Merchant Venturers stated it was "inappropriate" for the society to have become involved in the rewording of the plaque in 2018.[40]

Toppling and removal[edit]

Street map of central Bristol with a red line showing the route from original location south towards the western edge of the harbour
Original location of the statue, and site of its dumping in the Harbour

On 7 June 2020, during the global protests following the killing of George Floyd in the United States,[41] the statue was pulled down by demonstrators who then jumped on it.[42] They daubed it in red and blue paint, and one protester placed his knee on the statue's neck to allude to Floyd's death under a knee of a white policeman.[41][43] The statue was then rolled down Anchor Road and pushed into Bristol Harbour.[42][44][45] Just prior to this, a petition to the council to remove the statue, sent out to 38 Degrees “an online campaigning organisation, involving more than 2 million people from every corner of the UK”, had received over 11,000 signatures.[42][46]

Superintendent Andy Bennett of Avon and Somerset Police stated that they had made a "tactical decision" not to intervene and had allowed the statue to be toppled, citing a concern that stopping the act could have led to further violence and a riot.[42][47] They also stated that the act was criminal damage and confirmed that there would be an investigation to identify those involved, adding that they were in the process of collating footage of the incident.[48][49]


On 7 June 2020 the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, called the toppling "utterly disgraceful", "completely unacceptable" and "sheer vandalism". She added, "it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about."[50][51] The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said those comments showed an "absolute lack of understanding".[52]

On 8 June, Rees said that the statue was an affront, and he felt no "sense of loss [at its removal]," but that the statue would be retrieved and it was "highly likely that the Colston statue will end up in one of our museums."[53] The historian and television presenter David Olusoga commented that the statue should have been taken down earlier, saying: "Statues are about saying 'this was a great man who did great things'. That is not true, he [Colston] was a slave trader and a murderer."[44]

Police Superintendent Andy Bennett also stated he understood that Colston was "a historical figure that's caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years", adding: "Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it's happened, it's very symbolic."[42]

The pedestal is seen with purple spraypaint graffiti "BLM" over two of the bronze plaques and black "Black Lives Matter" and stencilled raised fists on the plinth. Placards propped on the pedestal include "Black Lives Matter", "Silence is Violence", "The UK is not innocent" and "In unity is strength". Many more placards lie on the ground around the pedestal, with "Black Lives Matter","Racism is a global pandemic" and other slogans.
The empty pedestal, showing placards and graffiti

Rees made a statement suggesting that "it's important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity and make the legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality. I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it."[54] In an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, he said: "We have a statue of someone who made their money by throwing our people into water ... and now he's on the bottom of the water."[55] In a separate interview, Rees commented that the statue would probably be retrieved from the harbour "at some point", and could end up in a city museum.[52]

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said that he "absolutely understands the strength of feeling" but insisted that the democratic process should have been followed, and that police should hold responsible those involved in the criminal act.[52][56][57]

Labour leader Keir Starmer said while the manner in which the statue had been pulled down was "completely wrong", it should have been removed "a long, long time ago". He added "you can't, in 21st Century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put in a museum."[52][58]

The Society of Merchant Venturers, in a statement on 12 June 2020, said that "the fact that [the statue] has gone is right for Bristol. To build a city where racism and inequality no longer exist, we must start by acknowledging Bristol's dark past and removing statues, portraits and names that memorialise a man who benefitted from trading in human lives."[40]

Retrieval and storage[edit]

Statue in storage after retrieval

At 5 am on 11 June 2020, the statue was retrieved from Bristol Harbour by Bristol City Council.[59] The statue was found filled with mud and sediments from the harbour floor. The council said the statue was structurally stable, although it had lost one of its coattails, the walking stick, and faced damage to its left side and to the foot.[60] They stated they had cleaned the statue to prevent corrosion, and that they planned to exhibit it in a museum without removing the graffiti and ropes placed on it by the protesters.[59][61] While cleaning mud from the statue, M Shed discovered an 1895 issue of Tit-Bits magazine containing a handwritten date, 26 October 1895, and the names of those who originally fitted the statue.[62][63][64]

Police investigation[edit]

The day after the toppling, the police announced that they identified 17 people in connection with the incident, but had not yet made any arrests.[65] On 22 June 2020 the police released images of people connected to the incident, and asked the public for help identifying the individuals.[66] On 1 July, an unnamed 24-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage to the statue[67] and was bailed under police investigation.[68] In September 2020, Avon and Somerset Police said that files on four people suspected of criminal damage had been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service to decide if charges should be brought. A further five people had been offered restorative justice, such as a fine and community service.[69] By 1 October 2020, a total of six people had accepted conditional cautions relating to the events of 7 June.[68]

Criminal charges[edit]

On 9 December 2020, a further four people were charged with criminal damage in relation to the toppling of the statue.[70] They appeared at Bristol Magistrates' Court on 2 March 2021 and entered a plea of not guilty. A trial was scheduled at Bristol Crown Court for 13 December 2021.[71]

Subsequent events[edit]

After the toppling of Colston's statue, a similar monument to Robert Milligan, the slave trader who was largely responsible for the construction of the West India Docks, was removed by the authorities after opposition in east London by the Tower Hamlets council on 9 June 2020.[72][73] On the same day, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan called for London statues and street names with links to slavery to be removed or renamed. Khan set up the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to review London's landmarks.[74]

In what a local councillor believed was retaliation, the headstone and footstone for the enslaved man Scipio Africanus were vandalised in the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Henbury, on 17 June. The attacker broke one of the stones in two and scrawled a warning to "put Colston's statue back or things will really heat up."[75]

After the statue was removed, a petition began to have a statue of Paul Stephenson erected in its place.[76] The former Bristol youth worker is a black man who was instrumental in the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, inspired by the US Montgomery bus boycott, which brought an end to a then-legal employment colour ban in Bristol bus companies.[77]

While the plinth has remained empty, a number of unofficial statues have been placed on the plinth:

On 11 July 2020, a mannequin dressed as disgraced television presenter Jimmy Savile appeared on the plinth, holding a placard reading ""None of them stopped me, and your licence paid for it". The mannequin was on the plinth for about an hour, before being removed.[78]

In the early morning of 15 July 2020, a statue by Marc Quinn was placed the empty plinth without permission from the authorities. The statue, entitled A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 depicts a Black Lives Matter protester with a raised fist.[79][80] Quinn described it as a "new temporary, public installation".[81] Bristol City Council removed the statue on the morning of 16 July, and said it would be held in their museum "for the artist to collect or donate to our collection".[82]

On 2 December 2020, a figurine of Darth Vader appeared on the plinth, in what was seen as a tribute to the actor Dave Prowse, who was born in Bristol and died on 29 November 2020.[83]

The statue was put on exhibition from 4 June 2021 at the M Shed museum in Bristol.[84] It was displayed horizontally on a wooden support with the grafitti remaining. John Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, stated that after considerable thought the statue was being displayed horizontally because its damaged state meant that it was "unstable" and otherwise needed expensive support, and to enable visitors to see the statue, and the grafitti and damage, close up. Some of the demonstration placards, air dried to preserve them, were displayed nearby.[85][86][87] The museum's website stated "This temporary display is the start of a conversation, not a complete exhibition", and invited members of the public to express their views on the future of the statue and its plinth.[88] Immediately after the statue had been put on exhibition, with entry by free booking only, people who had wanted the statue to be returned to public view on its plinth, block-booked the exhibit with no intention of attending so that it could not be seen by the public.[1]

See also[edit]


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