Photo by Krysten Blackstone (University of Edinburgh).

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Colston, Curricula, and Complicated Conversations: Monument Debates and Decolonized Discussions in the United Kingdom

Among the tumultuous developments this year, one of the most notable has been the fall of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. Given the immediate context of its removal—spurred by Black Lives Matter protests in the UK generated in response to the horrific death of George Floyd—the statue’s dramatic takedown was not an enormous shock. But, given how long protests, debates, and drawn-out conversations have been about taking Colston down, it was surprising to see it happen so fast. Even more astounding was the visceral form of punishment the long-standing, controversial piece of civic memorialization received, as Colston’s statue was rolled across the square where he had stood decades and pushed into the harbor, which his lowered eyes had gazed at for more than 120 years.

The removal of Colston’s statue, and debates around it, has always interested me not just as an historian, researcher, and lecturer of American and British eighteenth-and nineteenth-century history. Colston is a figure and a name I, and several hundred thousands Bristolians, grew up knowing. I went to high school in the city and have lost count of the number of times I passed by his figure. I have also sung in the Colston Hall—the world famous, historic, former music hall concert venue in the heart of the city center, right next to the statue’s location. Indeed, Bristol will find it hard to emancipate itself from Colston. Until recent events with the statue, his name was emblazoned on the top of the Colston Tower office block (situated between the statue and the concert hall), and several schools are named directly after him. Like many others of his class and background, Colston gave his name and money to various philanthropic works, educational institutions, buildings, roads, and establishments. Along with several of the most prominent historical city figures, he also had connections to the integral role Bristol played in the transatlantic slave trade. It is for this reason that he became the central figure of focus for campaigners, activists, and academics who called for this statue’s removal over the last few decades.

Edward Colston was born in Bristol in 1636, into an already well-established mercantile gentry developed out of Bristol’s long-standing medieval and early modern success as a trading port on the River Avon.[1] Colston became a successful merchant, trading in a variety of goods from the Iberian Peninsula and, as routes and markets began to grow, with the English colonies on the North American Atlantic seaboard. In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company—a sign of his mercantile moneyed success in contemporary shipping—that included trade in goods and slaves from Africa, as the company held a monopoly on this business in the late 1600s. During the time Colston was part of the organization, more than 84,000 slaves were taken to the Caribbean and the Americas, meaning he was a participant in overseeing this extensive chattel commerce.[2] Although his relationship with the Royal African Company ended almost thirty years before his death, it is undeniable that he made significant money through engagement with the company’s West African slave trade of people and commodities. He also served as the company’s deputy governor for a brief time. After he left the company in 1692, he became a member of Parliament representing Bristol in the early 1700s and continued to trade in slaves and areas of the slave trade through other personal business interests.

For decades—and centuries—after his death, Colston was remembered in Bristol for his great philanthropy, with few questions asked about the fact that much of his money came from the back of slave trading and dealing in products that were integral to the slave trade. Much of his altruistic efforts were also carried out in association with Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, first founded in the thirteenth century. The organization remains responsible for much of the city’s major fundraising, educational charities, and philanthropic politics to this day.[3] This image of the charitable Colston is what his statue embodied. Erected in 1895, and standing high on a plinth surrounded with four dolphin-like fish figures and plaques depicting aspects of Colston’s life, the statue was commissioned “by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”[4] Funds for the statue were raised across the various bodies Colston had once given money to and unveiled on “Colston Day” (November 13).[5] Colston stood, relatively untouched and un-remarked upon, until the twentieth century, when scholarship and interest in Britain’s involvement in the slave trade grew. From the 1980s onward, in particular, local and academic voices have grown louder in efforts to educated and remind most Bristolians that there was more to Edward Colston than charity and merchant success, and that both of these aspects of his life were entwined with slave-trading exploits and investment. Over the past few decades, petitions and campaigns to remove the statue have circulated the city and have been debated, in what became a never-ending cycle of protest and push back. Bristol’s ability to hang on to certain aspects and stories of its past without acknowledging change is extraordinarily powerful.[6]

Therefore, the events of June 7, 2020, were not sudden. Throughout the past few decades, alongside debates about taking Colston down, there have also been discussions about what to do with the statue once it was removed. Controversy and argument over this aspect have been even more heated but have also seen a rise in creative responses to the statue’s presence in a similar vein to protest artwork seen on and around American Confederate statues. In 2017, an artistic plaque was put over the statue calling Bristol the “Capital of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” commemorating the millions of lives impacted by enslavement. The following year in 2018, another art installation was placed at the base of the statue’s plinth to mark UK Anti-Slavery Day. The outline of a slave ship—similar to ones drawn during the peak of slave trade and abolition discussions—was filled in with figures and labeled with the work undertaken by modern-day slaves (such as fruit picking, migrant labor, forced trafficking). Having seen this personally up-close at the time, I was incredibly moved by the powerful symbology and use of history to make a point about the present. Colston gazed down at the artwork, presenting the impression that his statue—and his own bronze spirit—was confronting the long-lasting legacy of his direct and indirect actions in the trade of human labor. The fact that the statue was still standing at the time of the installation added to the memorable impact this artwork had, and, if it had stayed there permanently, this impact would likely not have diminished.


Photo by Tim Galsworthy (University of Sussex).

Edward Colston’s statue looking down over the 2018 artwork depicting modern-day slavery’s similarity and connections to images of the slave trade of the past. As Colston’s head was cast gazing down in thought, it added greater poignancy to the message this artwork was presenting to passersby.


Beyond art projects, long-standing campaigns, inspired by protests and debates over Confederate memorialization, have recently made efforts to install a display board on the statue that contextualizes it. If Colston was not coming down, then at least reference to slavery could be addressed. Plans for the wording of a new plaque were to include how Colston’s philanthropy was tied, particularly through the Royal African Company, to money and investment in the slave-sugar trade. Concerned this would generate a more critical version of Colston, the Society of Merchant Venturers objected to proposed plans, and arguments over precise wording become protracted. Some members of the city council, who effectively monitor the statue, began calling this desire to contextualize Colston and his slavery connections as “re-writing history.” This phrase and argument—the idea that by altering a statue or taking one down suddenly erases all history of a long-dead figure—has been constant over the summer of 2020 in the UK. The supposed culture war threat of using scholarship to educate and inform has been rumbling for a while, and recent events have sparked more ardent opposition and resistance to change in some quarters.

Even on the eve of the statue coming down, disagreement over the wording of a new plaque to go on the statue remained undecided—again a sign of how slow the city’s officials have been to instigate modifications to Colston’s history. One leading slavery scholar involved in this debate, Professor Madge Dresser, repeatedly called attention to the fact that every time proposed wording was debated, it was toned-down to maintain a more sanitized image of Colston. Last year, the local mayor of Bristol intervened when the Merchant Venturers went as far as casting their own new plaque, noting that while it mentioned Colston’s engagement with the Royal African Company and slavery, there had been no political or public agreement on the wording. This constant back and forth has dominated discussion of the statue, and the idea of removal seemed slim. So it came as a surprise when the protestors managed to topple the over-8-foot  figure in June 2020 given how long change has been coming. Most in the city and those involved in campaigning against the statue have come to the conclusion that perhaps the protestors’ removal was really the only inevitable outcome after so much intransigence.

The footage of Colston’s toppling is easy to find online—and it is worth noting that protestors were not stopped at any point from first pulling the Colston monument down and then dragging it to the harbor, despite the criminal nature of these acts.[7] In the wake of this event, and in response of condemnation of George Floyd’s murder, UK Black Lives Matter protests turned to other existing monuments to re-evaluate who they commemorate and their connections to British slavery history. Slowly the whole country seems to be more engaged with these debates. In the days after Colston was removed, a London statue of Robert Milligan—another prominent slave trader—was taken down (this time in an official manner). At the time of writing, debate is ongoing about the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh’s New Town area and whether it should be removed or have new interpretive explanatory plaques placed on/around it that note Dundas’s connections to the slave trade and his active delay of plans to abolish slavery in the 1700s and early 1800s. Glasgow has seen one of the best public responses of protest and education over the summer, with activists placing new street names above original markings in areas of the city that were most engaged with the slave trade. This has drawn attention to individuals, like Andrew Buchanan, who earned their wealth through slave trade and who owned plantations in the Caribbean and Americas.[8]

Debates in Britain have mostly ranged over individual connections to slavery, and the question of how involved in the slave trade, the institution of slavery, or other aspects of British colonial and imperial history does a person have to be before they are removed from civil memorial culture? That debate in and of itself strays at times from the nature of transatlantic slavery’s vast reach. Even a cursory glance at the accessible work of University College London’s online slavery compensation database reveals how ingrained figures of many backgrounds were to areas of the trade, plantations, and/or industries that benefited from slavery.[9] Anyone who teaches and researches slavery knows that the subject is complicated, but political and social discussions at the moment do not seem to have much room for counterpoints and contradictions. Nuanced understanding of narratives is needed. Yet, at the same time that there are some early promising efforts by cultural heritage institutions, such as the National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces’ efforts to start investigating grand stately buildings’ slavery and racial pasts in the hope of generating more inclusive history for the public, criticisms of institutional “woke-ness” are presenting hurdles to widening the standard national narrative. Changing history, even altering a building’s name or removing an object from public display in a museum, lights another touch-paper in the spark of cancel culture exchanges.

In addition, while UK universities are creating new hires and shifting departmental research focus to give attention to black, racial, ethnic, slavery, and more inclusive histories, and “de-colonized” curriculum and syllabus lists are being drawn up at speed—inspired by similar efforts in America, and in particular by the 2015 Charleston Syllabus—there is awareness that this cannot be only an academic change.[10] Unlike the teaching of American history in the United States, large areas of British eighteenth-and nineteenth-century history are not compulsory or taught at high school level. I never studied the slave trade or even local Bristol slave-trade connections when I was in high school in the first decade of the twenty-first century. That is why the UK Black Lives Matter discussion has centered on curriculum changes, and the need to educate and teach aspects of history—including slavery—that are not glorified repeated mantras about the former great British Empire. As Professor Olivette Otele (Britain’s first black female history professor) has noted, it is time “uncomfortable” parts of our history are taught. In addition, there are calls for more black British history to be explored so that the nation’s race relations are discussed, and crucially understood, by all members of society and not just those in British black and Asian disaporic communities. High school children are still more likely to learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks than they are to learn about Claudia Jones, the founder of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, or the campaigner Doreen Lawrence.[11]

Long-lasting and meaningful discussion about decolonization in UK school and university syllabuses has begun but implementation is staggered and selective. One thing immediately noticeable is that this October during the UK’s Black History Month (first begun in 1987), there have been more frequent news items, TV shows, newspaper articles, and cultural and social discussions about individuals and black history than over recent years. However, as ever with Bristol (and Britain) more still needs to be done. Removing a statue and changing the curriculum is not enough, but it is a start. Some tangible changes already exist. Colston was raised from Bristol Harbour four days after he sunk and now resides, in secure storage, in the city’s MShed museum. Curators have promised to leave all of its dents, paint marks, and protest damage on it as signs of the statue’s recent history. Black Lives Matter protest signs that were placed around the plinth in June have also been saved for future museum display. One kindergarten-level school named after Colston already adapted its name in 2018, and in the past few weeks Colston’s Girls’ School has voted to change its name too, but another high school in the city named after him remain unchanged at present.[12] A stained glass window at the city’s historical St. Mary Redcliffe’s church is also in the process of being removed.

Bristol remains divided on Colston’s legacy and on confronting its own slavery history and its integral involvement in the slave trade. Recently, the Colston Hall announced it would be renamed “The Bristol Beacon,” a decision that did not meet with universal approval, with The Telegraph (often known for its more conservative views) even agreeing that the renaming was a failure. Why not, some campaigners have argued, name it after one of the figures of the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, such as Paul Stephenson? Inspired by events in Montgomery, Alabama, and Stephenson and the bus boycott campaigners’ influence led to changes in racial equality and race relations later in the 1960s, both in the city and later in the UK. Stephenson is a key figures in black British civil rights history but remains relatively unknown at the national level.[13] Renaming the Colston Hall was not always done for obvious reasons. In 2017, those behind refurbishment and redesign of the building admitted in local news interviews that they wanted to remove Colston’s name not because of any concern about his connection to slavery but because the controversy of his name would discourage corporate investment and sponsorship of the building. Ironically, considering they were talking about a man bound up in slavery and the slave trade, economic commercial interests came to the fore.[14]

So Colston still haunts the city. There have been calls to keep the stone base up so that it can be used as a site of protest, and indeed art installations and living art performances have appeared around and on it over the summer. The first and most notable came just one month after Colston fell, in July 2020, when the figure of protester Jen Reid was placed on it. She had been photographed, arm raised in a Black Power salute, after Colston came down. The council removed the artwork in less than forty-eight hours, however. The city’s mayor has promised more public conversations and studies about the city’s slavery past and what will happen to the plinth in the future. But this is an all-too-familiar refrain reminiscent of debates before Colston was toppled. Bristol has much to learn from cities in America about what to do in the aftermath of statue removals. In particular, it could learn a lot from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where some of the plaques were also removed, in particular, one of Jefferson Davis.

Because Colston’s plinth is not actually fully empty of his legacy yet, the plaques detailing his maritime connections and the four fish-like dolphins, part of the Colston family heraldry, are still there. This means, at the time of writing four months after the statue fell, evidence of Colston’s physical presence remains. Precisely why these have been left is not clear, though perhaps the fact that these look like passable forms of acceptable civic artwork, and the fact that the majority of Bristolians do not realize these figures are also connected to Colston, offer some explanations. As has been revealed in America, a statue is more than just the figure. The plinth plays a role too, especially as they often contain the biographical, devotional, and explanatory detail that draw the most ire from subsequent generations. The Colston family’s aquatic figures being left behind, and possibly forgotten as extensions of the statue that once stood above them, are signs that when it comes to the symbolism and understanding of its complicated history in the UK, every detail matters. They are also a current lasting legacy that says again, removing a statue does not go far enough.


Photo by Krysten Blackstone (University of Edinburgh).

Colston’s almost-empty plinth in September 2020, with the Colston family symbols (fish/dolphins) visible—another two are situated on the other side. At the time of writing, these figures and the plaques about Colston’s life remain in place.


[1] The Avon connects to the Severn Estuary and the English Channel, eventually following into the Atlantic, making the harbor a long-standing strategic trading port.

[2] Of the estimated 84,000 men, women and children shipped to Caribbean and North American colonies during the period Edward Colston was engaged with the Royal African Company’s trading, approximately 19,000 are thought to have died on the trans-Atlantic route.

[3] One often publically forgotten aspect of Merchant Venturers history is their funding of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, which in turn began greater English exploration and interest in North America. During the seventeenth century, the society and its members traded in slaves, and they called for Parliament to open up more access to West African slave trading at the turn of the eighteenth century. Edward Colston was not the only society member to be involved in slavery and the society’s philanthropic money is similarly tainted with this past. For more, see “The Society of Merchant Venturers,”

[4] Wording from one of the Edward Colton statue’s stone plinths. Whether you see dolphins or fish is a matter of observation—the figures are more like catfish but are often described in sources as dolphins, taken from Colston family heraldry (whose artwork offers confused semi-fish/semi-dolphin depictions).

[5] Another long-standing Bristol tradition (though only observed by a select few), Colston Day commemorates the anniversary of the Society of Merchant Venturers gaining their Royal Charter in 1639. The naming of the day correlates with Colston’s November birth date and often saw the Colston Society distribute money and gifts—including a local sweetbread called a “Colston bun” sweetbread—to schoolchildren. It was announced recently that the Colston Society was disbanding its charitable organization in 2020—another reaction to recent protests.

[6] In 2014, the local Bristol Post newspaper found that 56% of the city’s residents wanted the statue to come down.

[7] Local police called not intervening a “tactical decision”—suggesting they were willing to let it happen in order to stop further riot.

[8] In the weeks after Colston’s removal, there was an increase in long-standing calls to have the statue of prominent British imperialist Cecil Rhodes taken down outside Oriel College, Oxford (where #RhodesMustFall protests have been galvanized for the last few years after similar campaigns in South Africa). Despite several protests and on-going discussion, the University of Oxford, Rhodes, is still standing (at the time of writing).

[9] Legacies of British Slave-ownership, University College London,

[10] See #Charlestonsyllabus,

[11] Doreen Lawrence is the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in a racist attack in London in 1993. The investigation, police failings, and wider discourse of the murder led to inquiries and public reports into the “intuitionally racist” nature of the Metropolitan Police Force. Baroness Lawrence, as she is now, sits in the House of Lords and regularly campaigns for BAME equality in Britain—at present she is investigating the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities.

[12] “Colston’s Girls’ School to change its name despite public poll asking for it to stay”, ITV News (October 2020),

[13] The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, MShed Museum,

[14] “Bristol’s Colston Hall to Drop Controversial Name” (2017),