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  • Writer's pictureMartin Clarke

From Statue to Effigy - words on the fall of Edward Colston

It was Sunday 7 June afternoon. I was on Twitter.

Black lives matter, Bristol style, toppled by a young crowd.

The Edward Colston statue that was living for years on borrowed time. Saddam memories flashed in front of me

I watched the dancing on the prone slave trader who

Gave his name to half of Bristol and I was with them.

Yes ....yes..YES. That is good I thought, good for them

To bring him down. Should have happened many years ago

A grotesque tribute erected 175 years after his death to counter

Liberal moves in Bristol was now revealed to be........

Hollow bronze not solid. A husk of the citizen, the society pillar, the benefactor

So, Ted Colston lying on the square, paint of shame applied, it’s now farewell.

At evening 8, Mairi sang the Burns Slaves Lament on my ipad,

I guess perhaps not knowing of the Bristol event.

And at the same time I was watching on my phone at the clanking piece

Now an effigy and not a statue, was rolled.

Over and over he was rolled by the joyous band, not MOB, to the wharf side.

The very docks where 200 slave ships had tied up

All at Colston’s bidding, to load their cargos

Trading goods to exchange for West African men, women and children

There he stayed, precipitous, stuck on the edge , for a second or two ,

As the ghost ships and the silenced slaves they had carried

Looked on. Hostile. Lingering. Relishing.

Willing the next step to follow.

Then the bronze cadaver was tipped headfirst to the depths

To an eruption of celebration – into Davy Jones locker in the Bristol docks.

Days later he has been cleaned of the sticky mud , but

will keep his fresh red and blue paint, and dinks.

Now to stand in a museum, The M Shed, in full educational context. Hallelujah.

I was shocked by my emotion , still am, euphoria not too strong a word. Delighted that art can move, and be moved. Pigeon splattered

Public sculpture just for once in the spotlight – art shouldn’t just be, it should Stir emotions it should provoke. It should come, and it should go.

What a symmetric and right solution, not to smash him up

But to make him feel a little , just a little , like those whose lives he wrecked

And like those bodies and souls he abused, jettisoned or sold .

It seemed so totally the right thing to do. No-one was hurt, a problem solved .


Reflecting on my own 70 years. The recently arrived kindly Windrush-fresh Jamaican man who waved to me every morning when I walked to infant school in the 1950s.

My father’s family from St.Ann’s in Nottingham , a City with a history of riots By the exploited. I remember the short-lived violent St Ann’s race riots there.

1958 just weeks before Notting Hill = born of suspicion, poverty, ignorance. White on black then white on white; the simmering tension lasted years.

Captain Athelstan Popkess the Chief Constable, denied the racism

His name then written big, in capital insult, on a city bridge – my first graffiti.

I recall the courage of Eric Irons the city’s first black magistrate.

No statue for him.

I remember the terror of the prowling black-baiting teddyboy gangs

their flick knives, and sharpened bicycle chains, who terrorised the town.

Black and White Minstrels drove me from the home sitting room,

Toxic to me not yet to my parents.

Then sixties school resistance demos against the fascist Monday Club

Trying to recruit boys to their cause. All this defined who I was.

In 68, Enoch Powell fresh from his Rivers of Blood, came to my university

Exeter, to speak. A tame privileged audience, or so he thought.

Sixth year of Vietnam protests, Martin Luther King then Bobby Kennedy, assassinated a few months before and our young schoolboy world in turmoil.

So Powell entered the den of lions lions and my friend, although

Typically off his head, still had enough bravado and residual sense

To climb on the stage and bang a kettle drum so loud

It brought an end to proceedings along with sixties scrapping.

All this came back to me on that Sunday night at and after Mairi’s lament.

Thought myself pretty well smugly non-racist, anti-fascist,

A celebrant of multiculturalism not a member of anything,

Someone who was colour-blind, I think and I hope,

In all my years of employment.

But my knowledge of the misery of slavery is sadly skin-deep

So time then to start to re-educate myself before it is too late

Not doing enough other than chiding the casual racism of others

But not enough ANTI-racist. Not enough to change for the better

Living 40 years in a largely white small town in the South Cotswolds it’s too easy not to see the suffering.

So what to do ? Put something on paper.

A few facts and then a few thoughts

The first black settlement in Britain was in the 3rd century at Burgh by Sands in Cumbria - established by Moors serving as Roman soldiers who settled in the area.

Bristol slaving started with traded English and Irish slaves from 1000 to 1100 AD

Between the 16th and 19th centuries over 10 million West Africans were enslaved by European traders

By the early 18th Century a quarter of Londoners were involved in the slave trade.

Trading was stopped in 1807 but it took 26 more years for slavery itself to be stopped.

Compensation of £20 million was paid in 1835 - £17 billion in current value, all paid to 46,000 slave owners, not a penny to slaves. Repayment of the debt to the original two loaning bankers finished in 2015.

After payment to their owners the slaves themselves, under the ‘Apprenticeship’ scheme, were forced to work the fields for a further six years after the supposed abolition of slavery – 45 hours a week for no pay.

In all 500,000 people were sold into slavery by Bristol traders

That money and the inherited wealth created by slavery makes up 10-20% of land and property owned in Britain

And let’s not forget the good thing we did, the Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 in Britain - 42 million slaves are working in the world now.

Now some thoughts on what would be...

The view of the Colston sculptor

John Cassidy from Manchester - did he know or care about the man he carved and cast - did he question why Bristol had waited 175 years. A good statue technically people think. He made a good living by making monuments to aldermen, councillors, business folk around Britain. Did he care where his fees came from - did he care about the morality of his subject’s work - I guess not. Should artists care ...I let the question hang.

The view of Colston

He rarely visited Bristol, even when its MP, yet peppered the city with his name, sponsorships and bequests but, and this is central , only to those who shared his beliefs. I would guess he resented the 175 year gap before he was monumented. I guess he regretted nothing of his slave trading as his black slave girl mopped his brow on his death-bed.

The view of the Slave - it’s clear.

Why in God’s name would their torturers and their backers be honoured , surely all monuments to slavers and slave owners should be removed by whatever means. Let’s get it done.

Art and Passion

Monumental art is there to move, challenge and reform - it is political.

Ai Wei Wei taught me that - he suffered. Imprisoned, exiled, tortured for his art - his statements and writing. His strength of will and courage opened my eyes .

Let it be central. Artists and sculptors should care where their commission fees came from. They must care about the subject and what they did, what they represent. Trite words but true,

And there’s some new language of abuse that I’ve had a small taste of, and that I need to grip , to get to know better - words on Facebook [racebook], a cacophony of hate and bile, love and support. These new words to me, they seem to be the weapons of abuse - like woke folk and unicorns, gaslighted millennium snowflakes and more - terms I don’t understand rolled out to smother passion, pain and heartaches

What are statues for ?

Why should we look upwards and genuflect - is it power, is it symbol, is it security or all. Why should they be there forever these puffed up poppinjays.

Bristol has triggered a chain of events, physical, artistic and literary. Leopold ll falling in Antwerp, Rhodes now going in Oxford -others all across the USA.

I agree with the Fallists - let’s liberate some plinths.

So for me at least the Colston toppling has made art relevant, and will be a catalyst for change in myself and, just maybe, in the world.

Written 21.6.20 for the Mairi Campbell Ceilidh and read later in the day. Now printed with minor changes here.

Martin Clarke OBE

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