History Was Never Subject to Democratic Control

Elite merchants put up a statue of a British slave trader. A band of protesters toppled it. Who decides what happens now?

Illustration of a statue with two ropes around it
Rolf Richardson / Alamy ; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Updated at 3:02 p.m. ET on August 10, 2021.

Edward Colston is lying down. Last summer, in the raging days after the murder of George Floyd, protesters dragged a 19th-century bronze statue of this 17th-century philanthropist from its plinth near the docks of Bristol, England, and dumped it into the harbor. Having been pulled out again, the statue currently rests—on its side—a few hundred yards away in an exhibition hall at M Shed, a historical museum. The bronze figure still carries the protesters’ daubs of paint. Its hands are red.

Colston’s statue was dumped in the water because in 1689, he became deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on the British slave trade. His dethronement last year was one of the most visible symbols of British solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike in the United States, slavery was never formally permitted on British soil—although it was enthusiastically embraced in its colonies—and so this country’s reckoning with the past has been slower to arrive. The statue’s fall forced Bristol to confront how much of its growth and prosperity was built on the buying and selling of human lives.

However, the controversy over Colston did not end with the statue’s removal. The We Are Bristol History Commission must now decide Colston’s final resting place. Led by academics and appointed by Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees—the first elected Black mayor in Europe—the panel is trying to do something new: speak directly to the city’s residents, through a series of public meetings, to deliver some semblance of a democratic mandate.

The Colston statue was put up in a public space by a minority: the rich merchants of the city, who wanted to advance their vision of philanthropy. And it was pulled down by a minority: Polling suggests that most Britons support the removal of statues linked to the slave trade, but only through legal means. “It’s an elite that put this up,” Tim Cole, the University of Bristol social-history professor who is leading the commission, told me. “In a sense, it’s an elite that took it down as well.”

Culture wars feed off the idea that someone else is imposing their values on you without ever consulting you. The undemocratic origins of the Colston statue are inconvenient for those who believe that the monuments of the past should be left undisturbed (and unquestioned) forever. But Bristol’s statue war is also a cautionary tale to those on the left who want to take matters into their own hands.

The fight over the Colston statue—like the fight over Confederate monuments in the U.S.—is a lesson in how history is made and remade. If the future of statues were left to municipal councils and risk-averse private institutions, almost nothing would change. And if the issue were left to activists, too much would change for most people’s tastes.

In Britain, the issue is heated enough for Boris Johnson’s Conservative government to have taken an official position on controversial monuments. The policy is called “retain and explain,” and it displeases activists at both ends of this debate. Defenders of the status quo view any demotion of Colston as a slight to their heritage (much as defenders of contested figures such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest do in the U.S.). To those on the other side of the argument—proponents of toppling the statues by any means necessary—merely adding a second plaque to a towering sculpture of an imperialist or enslaver is an insulting token gesture, one that ignores the insidious intentions of the people who put the statue up in the first place.

Many of the Confederate monuments in dispute in the U.S.—such as the Lee statue recently taken down in Charlottesville, Virginia—went up long after the Civil War ended. State and local governments in the American South frequently chose to commemorate rebel leaders at moments when white leaders were consolidating their power over Black residents (as during the expansion of Jim Crow laws at the turn of the 20th century) or fending off their attempts to secure fair treatment (as during the civil-rights movement).

The Colston monument has, likewise, always been political. Cole told me that the statue was put up in 1895—some 174 years after Colston’s death—in response to another statue. That one celebrated the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, a conservative who disapproved of Britain’s high-handed attitude toward its colonies.

Those agitating for a Colston memorial wanted it to stand within what Cole calls “statue spitting distance” of Burke, who had been critical of the city’s slave trade. Burke had also argued for fair taxation, while Bristol’s 19th-century merchants championed trickle-down economics, which, according to Cole, “says that actually the way wealth is redistributed in society is through acts of philanthropy​​.” Colston, who endowed schools, hospitals, almshouses, and other institutions, was therefore the merchants’ hero. His statue was funded not by the taxes of a grateful populace but by private, and largely anonymous, donors. In other words, it was an eight-foot-tall bronze middle finger to Burke’s admirers. It was the product of a culture war from the start.

In Britain, the latest wave of the so-called history wars began six years ago, when campaigners tried to remove a statue of the ardent imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, in Oxford. (They took their slogan, “Rhodes Must Fall,” from South African campaigners who had made the same argument in their own country.) Efforts to remove the Colston statue date back even further, to when Bristol’s International Festival of the Sea, a major civic event of the 1990s, failed to acknowledge the city’s role in the slave trade.

This important context is largely ignored by those who saw the Bristol protesters as vandals and hotheads. The vigilante action against the Colston statue followed decades of prevarication and attempted compromise over whether and how he should be commemorated in Bristol. In 2018, the municipal council withdrew a proposed second plaque for the plinth. It would have added to 19th-century admirers’ description of Colston as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city,” by noting his “active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America.” The plan faltered after Richard Eddy, a councilor from Britain’s Conservative Party, objected to this wording, calling it “revisionist” and “historically illiterate,” and suggested that stealing the plaque might therefore be justified. “If it goes through, it will be a further slap in the face for true Bristolians and our city’s history, delivered by ignorant, left-wing incomers,” Eddy said at the time.

The charge of revisionism is obviously correct: The plaque was meant to provide a counterpoint to the uncritical celebration of Colston. “Historical illiteracy” is less justified, however: Colston was a slaver, and he used his money to embed his vision of Bristol, and himself, into the very bones of the city. In addition to his statue, M Shed has another exhibition showing the gory paraphernalia of the slave trade—the leg irons, the ship manifests—that created some of the £71,000 that Colston left to charity when he died. That gift, worth $22 million today, is what Colston Hall (a concert venue since renamed Bristol Beacon because of the protests) and Colston School (now Cotham Gardens Primary) once commemorated.

The history wars are about one thing, and Eddy’s comment—that stealing a revisionist plaque might be justified—demonstrates what it is: Who gets to take matters into their own hands? Soon after the Colston statue was dethroned, the gravestone of a former enslaved person brought to Britain was defaced in a Bristol churchyard in a counterprotest. That same summer, the artist Marc Quinn snuck a progressive replacement for Colston, in the form of a resin cast of the Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid, onto the empty plinth. (The mayor’s office allowed the Reid figure to stand for a day before ordering its removal, fearing that the provocation would lead to violence.)

In the BBC’s documentary about Colston, Statue Wars, a man named Nigel Horlock explained why he climbed onto the empty Colston plinth and held up a Union Jack during a counterdemonstration. “This is our country, and we’re proud of it. It wasn’t about Black and white; it wasn’t about race; it was about our heritage.” Although few Britons have any clue who Colston is, the counterprotesters felt strongly that the empty plinth represented a victory for another political tribe.

Britain’s Conservative government is skeptical of protest movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter, and in January it announced “new legal protection for England’s heritage.” Anyone hoping to remove a statue must now obtain full planning permission, through a lengthy bureaucratic procedure. Although billed as a triumph for democracy and due process, the change is likely to be so tedious and convoluted that it will frustrate protesters’ efforts almost entirely. And then we will be back in the situation Bristol found itself in, where years of attempted compromise led nowhere, and eventually the dam burst.

“Retain and explain” is a neat slogan, but as an official policy, it is disingenuous. The reality is that some of the people who control the sites of existing monuments refuse to add any context to them, seeing any compromise—any indication that yesterday’s luminaries built their fortunes upon brutality—as a defeat for their own values.

Yet direct action against statues of contested figures generally alienates the persuadable majority. In a poll released last year by the Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, 70 percent of respondents agreed that “​​a minority of political activists are being given too much say over how Britain treats its monuments.” In short, defenders of the status quo usually have inertia on their side. A statue of Cecil Rhodes looms over the public space of Oxford’s main shopping street, even though many in that university city view the brutal colonialist with ever greater suspicion. A recent commission by the college that owns the statue’s site recommended its removal—but the authorities, citing the government’s new guidance, have declined to take it down, and that is that. “We don’t have a process for deciding whether the public realm created by a set of 19th-century elites will always remain the public realm that we live with,” Tim Cole told me.

If anything, Colston’s critics have an easier task than opponents of other monuments, because Colston is obscure outside Bristol, because the debate in that city has been going on for decades, and because, unlike some other controversial statues, it stood on public land. A poll released by M Shed found that a majority of respondents believed the protesters were right to pull the statue down; only 20 percent disagreed, arguing that “it should not have been taken down by any means,” and 19 percent said it should have come down, “but the protesters were wrong to pull it down.”

The We Are Bristol History Commission cannot hope to make everyone agree with its eventual decision, not least because some of the anti-BLM protests draw on national networks dedicated to rabble-rousing. When the Colston statue first went on display at the museum in June, the campaign group Save Our Statues, in an effort to tamp down turnout, encouraged its followers to reserve all the free tickets. This act of sabotage forced M Shed to abandon timed-entry slots. On the other side of the debate, left-wing protests have spiraled into wider anger about heavy-handed policing, and led to riots in March. Bristol’s mayor blamed the ensuing violence on outside agitators. Some activists on both sides don’t seem to want the city to find a peaceful compromise, because the Colston statue’s symbolism draws attention to their cause. They want a live debate, not a resolution.

Back at the museum, on the wet weekday afternoon when I visited, a line had formed to gain entry to the gallery. Most onlookers paused in front of the statue, now much diminished by its horizontal position and the slashes of graffiti defacing the body. Early responses to the display at M Shed indicate that Colston will never return to his former glory on Bristol’s dockside. “I feel quite weird seeing that in the flesh,” one young woman told her companion. “He killed all those people.” Until the final decision comes through, Colston will rest here, allowing visitors to take in his wise expression, his fine clothes—and the red-stained hands of a man who got rich by treating others as property.

This article has been updated to clarify that although slavery was not legally permitted on British soil, it was tolerated in some instances.