How a 17th century UK slave trader became a focal point for the Black Lives Matter movement

Protesters pull down a statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in College Green, Bristol. Source: AAP

Anti-racism protesters in Bristol who toppled a statues of a 17th century slave trader have prompted a global debate over monuments to historical figures.

In the British port city of Bristol, the toppling of a statue has prompted a global debate about monuments to historical figures.

Protesters recently tore down a prominent statue of 17th century merchant Edward Colston before dumping it in the Bristol harbour.

Following the incident, the UK's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said those who attack public property “will face the full force of the law”.

However, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, who is black, was more sympathetic.

"I can't and won't pretend the statue of a slave trader in a city I was born and grew up [in] wasn't an affront to me and people like me,” he said.

"I think circumstances came to a head at this particular moment in time and people felt the need to take the statue down."

So, just who is Edward Colston and how did his statue become a focal point for the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK.

Who was Edward Colston?

Edward Colston, was born in 1636 and became the most senior executive of the Royal African Company, a company which at the time held a monopoly in England over trading along the west coast of Africa.

This, of course, included the trading of slaves.

During Colston’s time at the Royal African Company, the company enslaved and traded over 80,000 African men, women and children to the Caribbean and the Americas, according to The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. 

Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England.
Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England.

Many thousands of those slaves died on the journey due to the squalid conditions on the vessels.

Richard Benjamin, head of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, said it was crucial to see historical events in a modern light.

"It is important people see the reality of the growth of the British Empire and imperialism," he said.   

"The representation of Edward Colston was highly contentious and offensive to many, and in bringing him down, it is important to note we are not erasing history, but instead making history,” he said.

Historian David Olusoga said should have been torn down years ago. 

"Statues are about saying 'This was a great man who did great things'," Professor Olusoga told the BBC.

"That is not true, [Colston] was a slave trader and a murderer."

Following his career at the company, Colston had a political career with the Conservatives as a Member of Parliament for Bristol. 

A heated debate

The toppling of Colston’s statue has prompted a heated debate among the broader public over the role of monuments in memorialising and celebrating the role of historical figures, especially those with tarnished records on race.

Protesters in London also vandalised a statue of former war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the words "was a racist" sprayed in graffiti under his name.  

Protesters cited Churchill’s alleged responsibility for the 1943 Bengali famine, which is estimated to have killed over two million in India, as one of the reasons for the desecration of the statue.

Colston's statue, erected in Bristol in 1895, has previously generated controversy on a local level, with an unsuccessful petition asking the local government to have it removed. 

Meanwhile the debate has prompted similar discussions in other countries.

In Belgium, an online petition calling for the removal of statues of colonial-era King Leopold II has garnered more than 30,000 signatures.

In the United States, a statue to confederate General William Carter Whickham was pulled down amid protests in Virginia, the former capital of the confederacy.

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