10 min read

What should we do with all the old statues?

(after we throw them in the ocean, that is)
What should we do with all the old statues?

Hello, grownups!

I just got back from a couple of weeks of roadtripping around the UK, getting to know this strange island we've moved to and trying to remember how to do thrilling pre-pandemic things like eat in restaurants and talk to other human beings. My favourite place we visited was Bristol, because it felt like a hybrid of Cape Town and Berlin (my two favourite cities). I particularly liked it because I consider myself a bit of a statue-toppling enthusiast, and Bristol just opened an exhibition of their most famous toppled son: Edward Colston.

Colston's name is everywhere in Bristol. There are streets named after him, halls, schools, heck, there's even a pastry named after him. Until last year, there was also a honking big bronze statue of him right in the middle of town, and then during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Bristolians pulled it down and yeeted it into the harbour.

The bronze statue of Edward Colston
bye, felicia

Colston was a sea merchant who traded stuff like wine, fruit and textiles... oh, and people: from 1680 until 1692, he was involved in the transatlantic slave trade as a member of the Royal African Company, the business that sent more African slaves to the Americas than any other. During his time leading the company, it shipped more than 84,000 African people to the Americas where they were sold for labour on sugar and tobacco plantations. 19,000 of those people died on the journey.

a coat of arms featuring two racist depictions of African people, and an elephant in the middle
the coat of arms of the Royal African Company 🤮

All of this slave trading made Colston fabulously wealthy, and he didn't have any kids, so he donated a lot of that money to charities around Bristol. He set up and supported almshouses, hospitals, Anglican churches and schools. It's estimated that the value of his donations would be worth around £5.5-million today.

Predictably, a lot of people got mad when his statue was pulled down. Some said that you can't judge a 17th-century man's actions by the morality of today, some said that bad deeds don't erase the good ones, some said you can't let "howling mobs" destroy public property. Many people said that while they don't condone what Colston did, that you should not take down statues, because to do so is to erase history.

But statues have never been about communicating history. They're mythmaking tools, and they tell us much more about the people who put them up than about the people they depict. The story of how Colston's statue went up in the first place is actually a perfect example of that.

Edward Colston died in 1721, but the statue wasn't erected until 174 years later, in 1895. The original plaque on the base reads that it was "Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city." That plaque is a lie on many levels, but especially that it was "erected by citizens of Bristol". It was really the passion-project of a single rich aristocrat named J. W. Arrowsmith.

A statue from the Victorian era of the Edward Colston statue

1895 was a time of profound social change (sound familiar?) when socialist ideas were taking hold in England. The working class was in revolt, with masses of people joining unions, organising workers' strikes and protesting against their exploitation. It was a pretty scary time to be a rich aristocrat, and Arrowsmith decided to build a mythology around Edward Colston in direct reaction to that social change.

Historian Roger Ball has a brilliant article about all this:

The historical figure of Colston was being reinvented in the Victorian period to represent the economic, social and political perspectives of the Bristol business elite … Ritual commemoration, celebration and memorialisation of Edward Colston in the Victorian public domain were crucial to propagating both the elite concept of Colston and the belief that this concept was validated by long-standing tradition.

Colston wasn't the only philanthropist of his time. He wasn't even the most generous; other Bristolian merchants of his time donated more money to charity than he did, and even managed to do so without trading a single enslaved person. Colston was chosen to be honoured as the "father of the city" because Arrowsmith felt that he represented the ideals of the business elite in the 1800s Putting up that statue was a way of sending a message to the working classes, like "see, this man was super rich and look how much nice stuff he gave you, he was basically a saint, isn't it nice to have kindly rich philanthropists running society?"

J. W. Arrowsmith went to some extreme lengths to build a mythology around Colston, going so far as to spread pseudo-religious stories about him (including one wild tale where a dolphin saved his life by plugging a hole in one of his ships with its body). Arrowsmith initially tried to raise money from the public to set up the statue, but he wasn't able to because nobody else cared about Edward Colston, so he ultimately paid for most of the project himself. "Erected by citizens of Bristol" indeed.

So when the Colston statue served as the site of public mythmaking again in 2020, that was really a fitting continuation of its story.

The empty plinth where the Colston statue once stood, now covered in graffiti and "Black Lives Matter" signs
The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, photo by Caitlin Hobbs

It's easy to look at all the bronze statues of dead white dudes (often on horses) that litter cities around the world and think that they represent a long historical tradition. They're designed to feel that way: eternal, mighty, inarguable. But, truly, most of those bronze statues you see represent a very specific historical moment. Fully half of the monuments that have recently been the centre of protests in recent years were built within just a 30-year period: 1889-1919 (the heyday of Cecil John Rhodes and modern colonialism). And the protests around them represent a re-evaluation of that historical moment and its effects on the present. It asks questions about the roots of today's inequalities, and what should be done about them. This is not an erasure of history, but deep engagement with it.

There have been discussions about the Colston statue for decades. At some point, the city added a new plaque next to the statue mentioning Colston's history as a slave trader, but there was no agreement about the exact wording of it. There were appeals through the "proper channels" to have the statue removed from the public space. And nothing happened.

Until protestors used it in a thrilling moment of political theatre, by literally "recontextualising" it into the context of the bottom of the bloody ocean (where, incidentally, the bodies of 19,000 Africans enslaved by the Royal African Company also went). Activist Jen Reid, who climbed onto the empty plinth afterwards and raised her hand in a Black Power salute, said "My immediate thoughts were for the enslaved people who died at the hands of Colston and to give them power. I wanted to give George Floyd power, I wanted to give power to Black people like me who have suffered injustices and inequality."

My friend Dr Carla Lever - who studies performance and protest - often talks about the power of political gestures like this. "These performances are ephemeral, which is their strength and their power. If a picture is a thousand words, a gesture or an act is a whole book. Gestures travel faster and easier than bodies - especially in a pandemic, but also because of the barriers of visa status and privilege. A gesture can really capture a feeling, a zeitgeist."

These gestures get repeated and amplified and localised throughout the world. In 2015, student activists pulled down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and that gesture was echoed with Edward Colston in the UK in 2020, and again this week in Canada by activists protesting the deaths of Indigenous children. Colin Kaepernick took the knee during the national anthem in 2016, a gesture echoed in 2018 by students at a Jewish high school in Cape Town in protest of the treatment of Palistinians by the state of Israel. These acts build solidarity amongst activists, and an awareness of how all of these marginalised groups are connected - they were all subject to the same colonial violence, leading to similar experiences of racial injustice today.

Political performance is powerful because it's disruptive. South Africa is one of the most materially unequal countries in the world, and protests about the terrible lived experience of inequality are both ubiquitous and ignored. As Carla says, "In South Africa, service delivery protests often aren't included in the news, but in the traffic report. It's considered something you nagivate around. Something you need to avoid. But statues are visible to everyone. They're put in privileged public spaces, and the gesture of pulling them down is easy to understand. It draws people in, and you can start to have a conversation. Sadly, people care more about bronze bodies than black bodies."

Marc Quinn's statue of activist Jen Reid, who climbed onto Colston's plinth after the statue was torn down. This guerrilla artwork was temporarily installed on the empty plinth. 

What should we do with all of these empty statue plinths? I used to think that the solution was to put up new statues of people who represent a broader diversity of human history. But now I think we should just tear all the statues of individuals down. Victorian statuary was a weird political tradition from a weird time in history, when we liked to pretend that we'd Got it All Figured Out Forever and we'd never re-evaluate how we feel about any person at any future time, ever, so we can safely emboss history in bronze and stick our heroes on concrete plinths to be looked up at and admired for eternity.

Statues aren't even very good at helping us remember history. Ask Gary Younge, who's on the committee responsible for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where they've chosen to display temporary contemporary sculptures instead of putting up a statue of any particular person:

Over the years there have been requests to put David Beckham, Bill Morris, Mary Seacole, Benny Hill and Paul Gascoigne up there... But with each request I got, I would make the petitioner an offer: if you can name those who occupy the other three plinths, then the fourth is yours.
The petitioners generally had no idea who any of them were. And when they finally conceded that point, I would ask them: “So why would you want to put someone else up there so we could forget them? I understand that you want to preserve their memory. But you’ve just shown that this is not a particularly effective way to remember people.”

So let's just stop with the statues of people in public, yeah? Let's not put up a weirdly awkward Princess Diana statue. Let's not put up 1,700 new statues of every person who ever won a shiny medal. Let's DEFINITELY not threaten to throw people in jail for 10 years if they damage a memorial, thanks Tories.

Instead, let's fund more temporary public art projects. Let's build abstract memorials to larger historical moments, like the moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Let's build statues made out of materials that are deliberately designed to erode. Let's build more museums and public performance spaces.

And what should we do with the statues we tear down? I think the city of Bristol has found the right answer: it's put Edward Colston in a museum, in a space where people come to actively learn about history. The statue is displayed on its back, not elevated on a plinth that you have to physically (and metaphorically) look up to. It's surrounded by information about his life - the good and the bad (it's mostly bad) - and the whole story of his statue and the decades of protest against it. There are comments from Bristolians about how they feel about the statue, and a live poll museum visitors can take part in. Placards from the protests are displayed next to the statue. The exhibition reflects both on the history of Bristol, and on how that history continues to reverberate in the pain and disadvantage Black people experience today, all around the world. It's a vital, alive exhibition, one that encourages the viewer to ask questions rather than pretending that the ink has dried on the final draft of history.

People are mad about this. Some reactionaries who wanted the statue restored to its plinth block-booked the free museum tickets with no intention of using them, trying to prevent people from seeing the exhibition (these are the people who supposedly want history "remembered", huh?). But the nice museum staff at M-Shed are just letting people walk in anyway. So if you find yourself in Bristol, go see it. I found it extraordinarily moving.

Here is the statue of Edward Colston, as it should be: in a museum, flat on its back. Remembered, and not revered.

Wishing you informative roadtrips and lifesaving dolphins,


Dr Carla Lever is a Research Fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, UCT and currently visiting fellow at the University of Bayreuth.

Updates from Sam-Land

  • I'm very conscious of the fact that many of you in South Africa are back in lockdown and that the situation in Gauteng is dismal right now. My thoughts are with all of you, every day.
  • Friends, I am O B S E S S E D with Bo Burnham's Inside - available on Netflix. It's part visual album, part hilarious musical comedy special, part realtime footage of a man having a breakdown during the Covid-19 lockdown. It helped me to grieve all the things we went through over the past year and it's a work of genius. Please be aware that it features discussion about anxiety, depression and suicide so avoid it if you're not in the right headspace for that.
  • Speaking of grieving Covid, I found this piece in the New York Times really helpful in thinking through why I feel so off-kilter as the world suddenly opens up again in the UK.
  • Speaking of experiences that feel totally surreal now: I saw an ACTUAL MOVIE in the ACTUAL CINEMA this week, for the first time in 18 months (popcorn, the smell of other people's farts, wondering when's the best moment to dash to the loo, the whole shebang). We saw A Quiet Place II, which was a great choice for a first big-screen movie because it's actiony and super fun on a big screen. The kid actors are especially impressive (except the actor playing the baby, who doesn't really pull her weight to be honest, mostly just lays there, one star for the baby).