To Edward Colston
For David Olusago for his truth-telling and telling of peoples' history
Your statue is toppled, clanking to the ground
I feel my own toppling – shattering
Bristolian-born subservience: really? Can they do that? To Edward Colston?
Too late, they did (and about bloody time.)
We’re both, in part, from proud Bristol families, Mr Colston, you and I, except yours lived further up the hill - better views, cleaner air.
My lot, my Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s carved stone, cured leather, smelted zinc, taught children, served in world wars, and grew plants, traded seeds, flowers, plants, biscuits, breads, groceries, and grog, whilst you traded human beings, each with lives, family, friends, and places.
People - not slaves, Mr Colston, gifted with lost lineages, yanked from their roots.
A sudden, warm shivering up the spine, if this, what now?
The immediate excitement of the younger girl in me, discovering history for the first time, prone to lingering by Joan of Arc statues, fascinated.
Now can we start to remember that it was never just men in smock coats, like you, Mr Colston, who made history? Can we hear herstory, too? Theirstory? (Notice it wasn’t my Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s Mum’s stories that I knew, their tales and surnames lost under laundry.)
You’re rolled and chucked ignobly into the river Avon and I remember the millions of ‘slaves’ who didn’t make it, thrown overboard, ‘lost in transit’, ‘written-down stock’ in the proudly bound, paisley-covered slave ledgers.
I’m in the Gold Coast dungeons of Elmina Castle again. The tour guide says he’s closing the doors, so we know how the slaves felt, shackled, waiting to go through ‘the door of no return’, piled onto slave ships. I wish you could have been locked in that dungeon, Mr Colston, just for a day, even an hour.
We are freed, stumbling around in the sun-scorched castle courtyard, speechless and numb.
Can they do that, throw you in the Avon? Like, really?
Shock and now my body’s befuddled and confused.
Ah! In a flash I recognise my colonising ancestors battling it out with my colonised ancestors, deep in our familial bone marrow.
Who’s in charge? The oppressors and oppressed – ancestors fighting it out, timelessly, in who and how we are.
Our proud Church of Scotland Stevensons who hadn’t set foot in Scotland for generations, taming the locals, bringing civilisation to an already rich-since-Medieval-times Bengali culture.
Are we victor or victim? Or better still, both, or better still, neither. Let’s call a truce.
The little girl’s back, ashamed again for not realising that her 7 year-old question would incur such grandmother wrath: we’re a bit Indian, Nan, aren’t we?
I never ask that again, and anyway, we were kind to our servants, so that’s okay, then
(I learn to nod, frowning).
My puzzlement, Mr Colston, at my voyaging to study in Liverpool, my second love city, and another ‘great’ slave trading city, maybe at home there because of the familiarity of the murderous, unspoken shadows still lingering, the menacing of unnamed, unacknowledged racism, the menacing mistaken for faces of colour. Repetitive mistaken identity.
My further voyaging to faraway places, aid-working, fruitless attempts at appeasing the guilt of my colonising ancestors, before realising it’s not my guilt, not my shame.
And what now? Still plenty to do.
May you be pulled from the river, Mr Colston.
May Bristol find a place for you in four walls, a place of learning and engagement, with fresh air and open eyes.
May this new chapter in your history - the 7th June toppling - be remembered.
May the red paint daubed on your face remain, let’s not continue with the unnecessary cleansing of the past.
And may we all be a bit toppled by this toppling, especially the white-faced ones.
May we all remember how history has shaped this moment, and this one, and this one
May we be careful who we commemorate, recalling your altruism, Mr Colson, if we must - as Bristolians are wont to do.
Never forgetting its source: the potential abundance of 84,000 lost human lives, skeletons lining the walls of opulent slave traders’ mansions.
May we unshackle ourselves and each other, moving on, at last, from 1895.
If this is a land of hope and glory, Mr Colston, let’s start by telling the truth.