Did he think he’d go to heaven?

In the news, residents of Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) and threw it in a river.

I knew nothing about the guy and had to look him up, where two prominent facts are mentioned.

A. He made a lot of money in the slave trade. In fact, he held the highest office in the Royal African Company, so he was the head honcho of the institution responsible for the British side of the slave trade.

B. He was loved in Bristol as a tremendous philanthropist, founding churches and hospitals and poorhouses, and was spending a lot of money on local, British charities.

Huh. So he was busy generating great misery in the black people of Africa, and using the profits from that ugly enterprise to benefit the white people in his hometown. Those two perspectives are irreconcilable, unless he also thought his black victims were undeserving or non-human. I rather suspect that the suffering he caused greatly outweighed the good he did at home, especially since his goodness was fortuitously focused on maintaining the institutions that kept him wealthy and powerful. So, yeah, throw his monument in the river. Recognize that the good we do for our local benefit has to take into account the global harm that we do.

It’s also an interesting example of how European communities benefited at the expense of African and Asian peoples.

Now, Belgium…about King Leopold II


  1. says

    Just have to point out, Britain banned slave trading in 1811. The Star Spangled Banner was written in 1814 and originally contained these words:

    “No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:”

    Randolph Scott Key was angry that runaway slaves could obtain freedom by running for British lines. So I’m 100% OK with black athletes kneeling for that song. I’m also 100% OK with ditching the whole national anthem and replacing it with something better. Perhaps “We Shall Overcome”.

  2. leerudolph says

    Ray@2: You’ve conflated the cowboy-movie star Randolph Scott with Francis Scott Key. A natural association of ideas…

  3. flexilis says

    Great symbolism, the slave-trade master bound and toppled into the drink. But that is a lot of valuable bronze. How about melting it down and recasting a monument to the victims, with suitable historic interpretation to educate the present and future people of Bristol and the world? A great deal of European and American civilization is built upon the bones, the sweat and blood, of African slavery.

    As I understand it, slaves worked on the construction of the White House and the US Capitol. Are there any monuments to them on site? Enormous corporations and venerable educational institutions in the US have the exploitation of slaves in their backgrounds and we shouldn’t be allowed to forget it.

  4. komarov says

    Re: flexilis (#6):

    “How about melting it down and recasting a monument to the victims, with suitable historic interpretation to educate the present and future people of Bristol and the world?”

    One last act of philanthropy? Not a voluntary one, so that fits…

  5. says

    And that’s basically the trick of all philanthropy by the rich. They got their millions and billions from somewhere, usually exploitation of people in slavery, child labor, and/or horrible labor conditions with abysmal wages. All the rich have to do after that is chip in a tiny fraction of what they stole to the communities near where they live and those people will treat them like gods, even to the point of shedding and spilling blood in the imperial wars to maintain that system of exploitation.

  6. says

    The situation in Belgium is really absurd. The voters of Flemish-nationalist and vehemently anti-royalist Vlaams Belang now find themselves in the position of having to defend the statue of a French speaking king, only because his racism fits nicely with their own.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Are there any mass assertions that doing so is:

    erasing our history.
    [thump] — [thump] — [thump]
    What next?
    History Books?

    which we hear whenever any confederate monument is taken down, ost recently as General Lee was taken down fro the center of Richmond VA, the Capitol of the Confederacy.

  8. sarah00 says

    I was so pleased to see the statue fall. There have been attempts for years to get the statue removed and put in a museum or to have a plaque added so that some context can be provided, but no-one could agree on the details, so nothing got done and the statue remained, declaring Colston “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol. And it was clearly going to remain that way unless radical action was taken. I find myself thinking it’s better to see him removed in this way than if it was by official consent and control. This was the will of the people (a phrase I’ve grown sick to death of over the last few years but feels appropriate for once) and it was a historic event in itself. Would a quiet removal one night have got the attention of the world’s press? Of blogs such as PZ’s? I doubt it. Instead we are spurred to have much-needed conversations about the impact and legacy of slavery in Bristol, in the UK, and in the wider world.

  9. ajbjasus says

    The compensation probably had to be paid because when the crimes were committed, the weren’t actually an offence, which if anything is an even bigger indictment of what was happening in the west at that time.

  10. ajbjasus says

    I think Colston Hall gets a name change this year. Good thing, be a bit tricky to chuck that in the river.

  11. Bernard Bumner says

    I hope they do recover the statue and place it in a museum, uncleaned, lying on its back in a small box.

    As a reminder of the evil that built Western prosperity, and of the disregard which allowed it to be forgotten and which caused a rotten legacy to fester.

  12. flexilis says

    Re: komarov #7

    I grew up reading books from the local Carnegie Library (yay). It was financed with the blood of the Homestead Steel strikers. I didn’t know it at the time. We need to learn these things.

  13. stroppy says

    Melt it down. If anyone wants to know what it looked like there are pictures. The one at the top of the page is sufficient.

  14. tacitus says

    I think Colston Hall gets a name change this year. Good thing, be a bit tricky to chuck that in the river.

    The new name was supposed to have been decided upon this spring, but the pandemic delayed proceedings. They just announced they are removing the (large) name from the front of the building immediately (before it gets ripped off, one assumes) and will choose the new name forthwith.

  15. F.O. says

    Just found out that Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, pretty much invented scientific racism.
    Here in Sweden there’s statues of him everywhere.

  16. Erp says

    Bristol was a major beneficiary of the slave trade as one of the points of the triangular trade. I have direct ancestors who were involved[1] in it though they seem to have not been compensated (probably because at that point they were down to a 5 year old boy, yellow fever had killed his father).
    Note paying compensation in the 1830s at least avoided the bloodshed of something like the American Civil War. I also don’t think the British have anything that romanticizes owning slaves (unlike the romanticizing of the antebellum South and the “lost cause” by some Americans) though there is still the legacy of racism.[2]

    [1] And some others who were fairly active abolitionists (we all have a lot of ancestors 200 years ago)
    [2] Admittedly there is romanticizing among some of the days of the empire.

  17. says

    I see that the head of the Labour party has tisked tisked this entire incident. It should not apparently have been done in this way. Everywhere we are led by jerks.

  18. Bernard Bumner says

    @ Ronald #27 – hardly a surprise that the former Dorector of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service is going to side against lawlessness. I’m sure it is sincere, but also that he must know he would be attacked in the press if he said anything else.

    It is also true that he didn’t really dwell on that part of answer and was more concerned to point to the magnitude and awfulness of Colston’s history as a slave trader.

  19. blf says

    I used to live in Bristol and am absolutely thrilled now that it has finally pulled down and tossed overboard. As sarah00@15 says, there have been attempts over the years to get it taken down or to add some context — including home-made plaques, which were invariably taken down — and nothing done (the renaming of slaver’s hall being something of an exception).

  20. KG says

    Mark Symons@24,

    Thanks for that link – fascinating stuff, and will also be useful (see below).

    Are there any mass assertions that doing so is:… erasing our history – slithy tove@12

    Yes, there certainly are. Today’s Grauniad UK Politics live thread has been full of whines of this kind, and various senior politicians have wagged their fingers over Colston’s dunking (which incidentally was in Bristol Harbour, not the river Avon as reported in some places). Also in the Graun today is a fine article on Colston’s dunking by David Olusago, a black British historian who lives in Bristol. And while I’m about it, i’ll recommend his current TV series, on BBC2, “A House Through Time”, which examines British history through that of a single house, in this case one in Bristol, originally owned by a slaving ship captain. First episode repeated late tonight, second one tomorrow evening. He’s done other series on houses in Edinburgh, Newcastle and I think Liverpool.

    Bernard Bumner@28,
    Starmer could hardly say he approved, but he didn’t need to say it was “absolutely wrong”. “I can’t condone it but I understand why they did it.” would have done.

    Here in Edinburgh, we have a statue of Henry Dundas, a loathsome scumbucket who delayed the abolition of the slave trade (not of slavery – that was hardly even an issue at the time, the end of the 18th century) by a decade, and advanced the colonisation and exploitation of India. He was also both incompetent (as War Secretary) and personally corrupt – reminds me irresistably of our current PM. There’s long been a campaign for the statue’s removal, but unfortunately following the fine example of the Bristolians is going to be tricky – its atop a fucking 150 foot column. However, the plinth has been daubed with “George Floyd” today. The Wikipedia article I liinked to mentions Dundas’s patronage of the “Scottish Enlightenment”, in which David Hume is, along with Adam Smith, the most famous name. Hume was himself a racist – a placard has been placed on his statue on the Royal Mile today, noting this and giving a quotation illustrating the fact. This NYT article has a longer version, together with a neat refutation of the “Can’t judge figures from the past by today’s standards” crap. Of course that would mean we can’t cast any moral opprobrium on Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot, but in addition it’s always useful to be able to show that some contemporaries disagreed with the bigot being defended. Also worth noting that Hume denies that there has ever been a non-white civilization, which is truly gobsmacking, as there was not only significant knowledge of Chinese civilization in 18th century Europe, but widespread admiration for it. Hume was, I think, right at the start of the later fashion for denigrating the Chinese as purely imitative. I don’t think I’d want Hume dumped in the Forth – he did oppose slavery, and has genuine philosophical achievements to his credit – but his racism should not be ignored.

  21. Mark says

    My grandfather was a teacher at a Bristol school named after Colston. But I have no problem seeing the statue go. I doubt many Bristolians will miss it. It is a monument to a two-faced businessman who contributed to the subjugation and death of thousands. But I would not compare it to Confederate monuments, which were erected for the purpose of defiance and intimidation by Confederate loving hags who hated the outcome of the Civil War. The Colston statue was erected in 1895, probably by a bunch of self-congratulatory, local politicians and businessmen who just didn’t care about Colston’s complete story. The statue should be gathering dust in the basement of a museum. Tearing it down and chucking it in the river is only going to alienate Bristol’s moderates. It won’t help the cause.

  22. christoph says

    @ Matthew Ostergren, #9: You reminded me of a quote from a Jack Chalker novel, “Nothing turns a profit like tyranny.”

  23. blf says

    KG@30, The statue was dumped “in Bristol Harbour, not the river Avon as reported in some places”.

    Quibble. It was dumped in the floating harbour, so-named because the ships could remain floating rather than lying on their sides when the tide was out. How was the floating harbour created? By damning the tidal rivers in the area, specifically, the River Avon. The floating harbour is essentially the damned River Avon.

    However, from my knowledge of Bristol and the photographs I’ve seen (and in particular, Pero’s Bridge in the background), it appears it was dumped in the part of the floating harbour where the (now-covered) River Frome flows into the River Avon. So you could say it was dumped in the River Frome, unless you want to get really really pedantic, as that is not the original course of the River Frome — the Frome was rerouted in the 13th Century (and, as I recall, at least once before that, to form the moat around Bristol Castle).

    (I just now noticed there’s currently a map at Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge which confirms my deductions of where the garage was dumped — just South of Pero’s Bridge, where the River Frome meets the River Avon in the floating harbour.)

  24. ColeYote says

    And of course this has resulted in a bunch of right-wing outrage about erasing history. Because apparently our knowledge of history is dependant on monuments to its villains.

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    If those Bristolians (Bristolese? Bristolish? Bristoleers? Brists?) had a proper sense of history, they’d’ve flogged old Edward with a cat-o’-nine-tails before his swimming lesson.

  26. cartomancer says

    I must have wasted days of my life waiting for coaches in front of the Colston Hall. I don’t think I’d really ever thought about why it had that name – if pressed I’d probably have guessed there was some village or district called Colston that got absorbed into Bristol (apparently there is a Coulston in Wiltshire that may have been the ultimate origin of the family’s surname, or some other coal town). But it doesn’t surprise me that it was named after a slave trader – Bristol was a big centre of it, after all.

    I think what a lot of people miss with the toppling of statues is that it is an absolutely central part of European art and cultural history. Statues are carved and raised by one group of people, toppled and broken up by another. The Romans of the Imperial era were so used to it that they deliberately made the heads removable to save wasting a perfectly good statue body – you could just switch out the old head and put in someone less offensive to public sensibilities. Statue breaking was even public policy in 17th and18th Century England, when puritan reformers tried to scour England’s Catholic past from its churches and public squares. To oppose the practice is to oppose a deep-seated cultural tradition that is actually older than early modern chattel slavery.

  27. chrislawson says


    These are no doubt the same bunch of right-wingers who cheered the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and Lenin in Eastern Europe.

  28. chrislawson says

    Mark Symons@24–

    Thanks for that link. It shows that the Colston statue has a lot in common with the Confederate statues. Not erected around his lifetime, but many years later (in Colston’s case 170 years later) as a direct response by the elite to political threats.

  29. vucodlak says

    @ Mark, #31

    Tearing it down and chucking it in the river is only going to alienate Bristol’s moderates. It won’t help the cause.

    That looks like a good-sized river. Do moderates float?

  30. Ridana says

    As sarah00@15 says, there have been attempts over the years to get it taken down

    As someone wittier than I noted, “They tried going through the proper channels, to no avail. Now it’s in the proper channel.”

  31. KG says

    Tearing it down and chucking it in the river is only going to alienate Bristol’s moderates. It won’t help the cause. – Mark@31

    If this event “alienates Bristol’s moderates” from the cause of anti-racism, then they weren’t moderates, they were racists.