On Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol city centre, an inscription reads that this monument was erected in 1895 to commemorate “a virtuous and wise son of the city”.
According to that narrative, Colston was a businessman and philanthropist. But nowhere on the statue does it mention that his riches came by profiting from the trade in human life. Nowhere does it mention how the slavery he benefited did untold harm to thousands of men, women and children.
Last weekend in the USA, the debate over whether southern states should have statues memorialising those in favour of maintaining slavery erupted into neo-Nazi and Klansman violence.
Here in Bristol, the scenes of activists removing statues in Baltimore and Carolina has reignited the debate of how we continue to recognise (or not) our own slaving past.
Let’s be frank: Bristol has a problem when it comes to talking about slavery.
There’s a small section in the M Shed about the history, and I remember as a kid going to an exhibition at the City Museum that explored the slave trade in the South West.
But all in all, there’s a great big echoing silence where there should a conversation about how our city earned its wealth, and who profited from the cruelty and murder of the slave system.
But while the silence on slavery deafens, the name Colston rings loud and clear wherever you go.
There’s Colston Hall — soon to be renamed. There are the schools, and the parade, and the many, many streets that commemorate him.
How is it that a man who made his money by benefiting from slavery is better memorialised in our city, than the people who suffered as a result of his actions?
Those who believe Colston’s statue should be removed argue that whatever good deeds the man did, his money was the result of cruelty and violence. To keep the statue is to whitewash the devastation and destruction of slavery, they say, as well as its legacy that we still live with today.
Meanwhile, the people who believe the statue should stay accuse their opponents of similarly whitewashing history. Their argument goes that removing the statue is to hide these crimes and ignore figures from local history.
There is a third way. We could keep the statue, and oppose it with a memorial to all those whose lives were harmed or destroyed by slavery.
Whether this is a plaque on the statue itself that acknowledges Bristol’s slaving past, or a sculpture to stand opposite Colston and directly challenges his monopoly on the narrative, we have to find a way that recognises and makes a noise about the ugly and destructive aspects of our history.
Because one thing is certain: this silence cannot continue. The rage in America throws into relief how much Britain and Bristol in particular needs to acknowledge its history.
The invisibility of Bristol’s violent past against the visibility of the men who profited from it is the true whitewashing of history.
It’s time we talk honestly about our city’s heritage. Let’s start with a statue that finally commemorates the horrors of the slave trade.
Sian Norris is a novelist, short story writer, poet and journalist. Her first book Greta and Boris was published in 2013 and she’s currently working on a novel about Gertrude Stein’s circle. She writes for the Guardian, New Statesman, politics.co.uk, Open Democracy, Prospect and others.