In downtown Bristol, on what appeared to be a city’s attempt at its own national mall, shall we call it a ‘municipal mall’, stands a statue to Edward Colston; philanthropist, member of parliament, local hero and slave owner. Colston is officially commemorated in Bristol through his philanthropic endeavours, with schools that he founded bearing his name, and countless halls, restaurants and residences bearing his name. The most obvious connection directly to the town however is a statue to Edward Colston on Colston Avenue bearing the words, “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895”.
What I wish to reflect on here is not the official state sanctioned site of memory, the Colson monument but rather the counter protest that surrounded the monument. Surrounding the memorial on the day of our visit were roughly 100 concrete figurines in the shape of people laid on the ground. Above the figurines wooden blocks bearing the words, “nail bar workers”, “farm workers”, “domestic servant”, “sex worker”, “here”, “and”, “now”, “car wash attendant”, “sex worker”, “here”, “and”. I remember standing at the Colston statue and originally thinking that the figurines represented examples of modern slavery. Sex worker and domestic servant jumped out as particularly demonstrative of my inkling. Even farm worker in a North American context seemed to be particularly pressing with stories of illegal immigrants being brought to America exclusively for cheap labour and the solution of the current administration being to build some sort of physical barrier to prevent this. However, on further reflection, I somehow could not reconcile nail bar workers and car wash attendant with modern slavery. To the best of my knowledge and research, these two jobs are not flooded with enslaved people. In all honesty, I am not sure that I fully understood my own thoughts on this counter-memorial until I began writing. This counter memorial points to the all-encompassing nature of slavery. While there are still experiences of modern-day slavery, but to point exclusively to modern slavery largely misses the point. That slavery still exists is awful, but the long-lasting implications of slavery are even worse. As Poet Miles Chambers put it, “We can look at the descendants of the slaves and economically they are still worse off; psychologically they are still worse off; mentally they still feel collectively as inferior; more African-Caribbean males are disproportionately in prison and in the judicial system; they do worse at schools; economically are paid less and are working less” (Parkes, 2018). The very existence of the Colston statue continues to devalue the lives of these individuals. Colston remains a representative of the fact that a city cares more about its own economic success than about the individuals who funded it, and their descendants who are still paying the price “here and now”. To me this counter-memorial stands as a symbol of empowerment. While there is no way to eradicate slavery, this display and all others in the wider Countering Colston movement show descendants of slavery that they are valued as members of the community. It stands as an acknowledgment of the fact that slave money still exists in Bristol and that the value of an individual is no greater because they donate money than if they were a car wash attendant or farm worker.
The fact that these two memorials take up the same physical space is a metaphor for the experience of living in Bristol. Where it is easy to point to the negative actions that Colston perpetrated, it is much more difficult for locals to separate their own identity from that of the slave trader. As we learned, children in Bristol used to be shown Colston’s hair and fingernails. Graduates from the Colston Girls School take great pride in the name of their school. This instills fond memories of, if not Colston himself, certainly the name that dominates the town. To live in this complicated space of memory provides a much less straight forward approach to memory than simply changing the name of everything bearing Colston to something else. The void that this counter-memorial fills then is to complicate the memory of Colston. It does not necessarily require that the name be eradicated from the entire city, and it does not necessarily require that people be ashamed to be associated with it, rather that the narrative be complicated so that those affected by the actions behind the name are still heard.
To me this is the point not only of the counter-memorial but of phantoms of the past. The project seeks to dig into the phantoms of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to promote thought and reflection. It does not tell people how they ought to think, or what the ‘right’ information is, but rather seeks to demonstrate the nuances of the stories that we tell ourselves so as to add meaning and expand the narrative for a variety of stories to co-exist.