History in the news

Dr Sarah Crook writes:

History students on HIH284 Disunited Kingdom? Class, Race, Gender and Social Division in 20th Century Britain, an optional second year module, have – as well as lectures and seminars – a weekly ‘workshop’ session. Each week these workshops challenge the students to develop new skills and to put their skills as historians to work in different ways.

Most recently, in a week on race and inequality, the students undertook a newsroom simulation. They were asked to respond to the fall of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol as if they were working for a newspaper. Students spent the first half hour of the workshop discussing the differences between academic writing and public writing, and considering the standard ‘form’ of a newspaper opinion piece. They then looked at some examples of articles on the topic, before they were put into small groups, with one student assigned as the ‘editor’.  These small groups had 25 minutes to write and edit a newspaper style piece about the removal of the Colston statue, bringing their skills as undergraduate historians to bear on a journalistic project. The piece below is a sample of what they produced.

The students write –

The Colston problem which needed an overdue solution

How the people of Bristol came together to show their solidarity to the world

By Alexis Smith and Dan Grainger

Ed. Stephanie Boom

Edward Colston has long been a divisive figure in his home city of Bristol. While praised by some for his philanthropic works, such as support for local schools, hospitals and churches, he is reviled by others for his involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, from which he profited greatly.

Born in 1636 to a family of merchants, Colston left Bristol at an early age and was educated in London. After leaving school, he remained in the capital and had great success in the textile trade. Already a well-established businessman by this point, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company in 1690.

This organisation enjoyed a legal monopoly in England’s trade of slaves on the West African coast. As testament to the significance of this company, it was headed by the future King James II. Colston grew hugely rich from his involvement in the RAC, which is estimated to have sold approximately 100,000 black slaves during the 1670s and 1680s.

Following the revolution of 1688, Colston sold his shares in the RAC to the new King William III, after which he began using his wealth to contribute to philanthropic causes both in London and in his birthplace of Bristol.

As an act of gratitude towards Colston for his support of local schools and alms-houses, a major street in the city centre, which he had helped develop, was named Colston Avenue in his honour. Much later, in 1895, the citizens of Bristol unveiled a statue on this same street, which commemorated his philanthropic works while overlooking his role in the buying and selling of human beings.

While a prominent historical figure, Colston committed many inhumane acts to justify the toppling of his statue in 2020. Following the recent anti-racist movements which caused an uproar, the people of Bristol felt the need to change the way Colston controlled the city.

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 after the wrongful shooting of a young black teenager occured in the United States. Since then, this movement has been protesting the unjust killings of black people around the world, as well as challenging the way racism affects our society. 

In Bristol, the statue of Colston was toppled down during a Black Lives Matter protest surrounding George Floyd’s wrongful killing. 

Regarding the statue being toppled by people of all races, Keziah Wenham-Kenyon said “it is not a black people problem, it is a human problem.”  

Colston is a historical figure that has a large presence in Bristol. With schools, streets and public buildings named after him, this is a name that you cannot avoid. While many argue that he plays an important role in the city’s history, others say his support of slavery still has a grasp on the black people in the community.  

Historian David Olusoga commented on the toppling of the Closton statue and said “Statues are about saying ‘this was a great man who did great things.’ That is not true, he was a slave trader and murderer.” 

While slavery is illegal today, its effects are still heavily present in this country. Statues should be in museums, used to inform and educate people on the horrors committed in the past. Statues should not be paraded around in town centers, used to celebrate historical figures who exploited and murdered black people. 

The toppling of the Colston statue is one that is justified. While statues have a slight historical aspect, they are more of a celebratory symbol. The pedestal that many keep Colston on should be observed from a museum like many other statues that are around the globe.

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