The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.
The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.
The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.
On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.
Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.
I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.
The toppling of the statue
At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.
For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.
The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.
The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.
One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.
In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”
The wider significance
The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.
Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.
The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.
This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.
In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.
One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.
These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.