The Colston Statue

During a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol on 7 June 2020 the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down. A year later we reflect on these events and their impact

By Bristol Museums

We The Furious (2020) by Keir GravilBristol Museums

There were protests around the world after the filmed murder of George Floyd, whilst being arrested in America. All Black Lives Bristol organised a protest against police brutality and racial inequality. On 7 June 2020, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Bristol.

Protestors pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, graffitied it and threw it into the harbour. Four days later, Bristol City Council retrieved it. Museum conservators stabilised the condition and preserved the graffiti.

The Mayor of Bristol then established the We Are Bristol History Commission. Their role is to build an improved shared understanding of the city’s story. This is their first advisory project as a group.

Black Lives Matter Placards (2020)Bristol Museums

There has been public debate about Colston’s legacy and Bristol’s involvement in the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans for decades. The 2020 protest achieved what many anti Colston campaigns had not. The statue was removed and became worldwide news. It became part of a fierce debate about racial and class inequality, the past, and who is remembered in public space

The empty statue plinth became a gathering site on the evening of 7 June. People placed placards around it, talked and celebrated.

The following day Bristol Waste collected all 550 placards and took them to M Shed Museum in Bristol. There, they were dried out and photographed. A selection will now be added to the permanent archives.

Colston Must Fall (2020) by David GriffithsBristol Museums

Who was Colston and why did he have a statue?

Edward Colston’s family had long-standing links with Bristol, though they moved to London when he was only six. He was engaged in international trade and became a high official of the London-based Royal African Company (1680-1692). 

They had the monopoly on the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans until 1698. As such, Colston played an active role in the trading of over 84,000 enslaved African people (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died on their way across the Atlantic. 

As a Bristol MP late in life, he campaigned to keep the slave trade legal and on favourable terms for traders. When Colston died, he left about £71,000 to charity (comparable to over £16 million today). He had given money to schools, almshouses, hospitals and Anglican churches 

In response to increasing class divisions the city’s elite reinvented him as a patriarchal role model and an emblem of charity, 170 years after he died. His statue was proposed as a symbol of civic pride, but it was also part of rivalry between the rich merchants of Bristol. 
Sir W.H. Wills donated a statue of MP Edmund Burke around the same time. The Colston statue attracted little financial support and was largely funded by a small number of anonymous donors.

Unveiling Colston statue (1895)Bristol Museums

Timeline of events

The following pages provide an overview of the statue’s history and related Bristol events.

Colston in Shackles (2018) by Faith MBristol Museums

1636

Edward Colston was born 1636 in Bristol, England. He died later in London in 1721.

1867

In 1867, Colston Hall opens in celebration of his life and legacy. It receives no funding from Colston and is named after its location, Colston Street.

Unveiling Colston statue (1895)Bristol Museums

1893

A wealthy businessman called James Arrowsmith proposes a Colston statue as part of city centre redevelopments.

1894

Statue committee is set up to raise funds but it struggles to raise enough to have a statue made. ‘A Friend’ donates most of the money. Meanwhile, Sir W.H. Wills gives a statue of former M.P. Edmund Burke to the city.

1895

Colston statue is unveiled, 174 years after his death. The date is ‘Colston Day’, his annual commemoration. 

1920

Rev. H. J. Wilkins publishes a history of Colston, highlighting his role in the transatlantic traffic in Enslaved Africans, and his political and religious prejudices.

1934

In The Guide to Bristol, published in the year of the centenary of the implementation of the Slave Emancipation Act, all reference to Edward Colston is dropped.

March 1958

The statue is moved slightly to the north of its original position when a new road layout is created in the centre.

Sold Down The River (1999) by Tony ForbesBristol Museums

1973

Derek Robinson publishes A Shocking History of Bristol. The book reveals Colston as a leading investor in the slave trade and questions his ongoing celebration in annual rituals.

May 1996

Bristol’s Festival of the Sea celebrates the city’s maritime past. There were complaints that it didn’t acknowledge Bristol’s role in the slave trade.

1998

‘F**k off slave trader’ is painted across the Colston statue. It is the morning after an audience in St. Paul’s was told about Colston’s role in the Royal African Company, as part of a consultation for the city’s first major exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade. 

Ray Sefia (then Bristol’s only Black Councillor) compares a statue of Colston to one of Hitler. It creates fierce debate in the local press.

1999

 A Respectable Trade? Bristol & Transatlantic Slavery exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

2000

Under the Bridge is shown on ITV. The 30 minute film highlights Bristol’s connection to the slave trade. 

2000-2006

Bristol & Transatlantic Slavery display at Bristol Industrial Museum.

2006

Artist Hew Locke’s Restoration images displayed at St Thomas the Martyr Church, Bristol.

Colston in Shackles (2018) by Faith MBristol Museums

2007

 Breaking the Chains exhibition opens at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

September - October 2007

‘Artists for a name change’ protests outside Colston Hall, when the venue was used to host Abolition 200 events.

2007

‘Drops of blood’ (red paint) appear on the Colston plinth. 

2015

Countering Colston campaign is launched to end Bristol’s celebration of Colston and to help decolonise Bristol.

May 2018

Knitted shackles are added to the statue by Faith M.

Colston Statue Recovery (2020)Bristol Museums

June 2018

Lord Mayor Cleo Lake removes a portrait of Edward Colston from her office.

18 October 2018

Anti Slavery Day commemoration Here and Now appears at the base of the statue. 

2018-9

Debate over the wording of an additional plaque to acknowledge Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. Disputes aren’t resolved so the plaque isn’t added.

February 2019

A Legacy Steering Group is formed under Cllr Asher Craig with the aim of publicly acknowledging the city’s role in the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans.

7 June 2020

 Colston statue is pulled down, rolled along the road, and thrown into Bristol Harbour during an All Black Lives Bristol protest.

11 June 2020

Statue is retrieved from Bristol Harbour for the safety of vessels navigating the area.

Black Lives Matter placard (2020) by UnknownBristol Museums

16 June 2020

Grave of ‘Scipio Africanus’, a rare memorial to an enslaved African young man, is vandalised in Henbury. 

15 July 2020

Marc Quinn’s statue of Jen Reid is installed on the plinth without permission. Removed the following day. 

September 2020

We Are Bristol History Commission is formed under Mayor Marvin Rees to build a better shared understanding of Bristol’s past.

December 2020

Four people charged with criminal damage to the statue. They plead not guilty and are committed to trial.

Credits: Story

For more information please visit our Online Exhibition 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Black History and Culture UK
Celebrate Black history with a selection of art and culture in the UK
View theme
Google apps