Alexander Adams: The Colston Statue Affair

Alexander Adams

This article briefly outlines what happened with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, why it happened and its ramifications.

On 7 June 2020, a large protest took place in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly against racism. The large gathering was in contravention on national and local restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19. No dispersal was attempted by police. Some protesters formed a mob that attacked the statue of MP Edward Colston, erected in 1895. It was sprayed with paint, damage and toppled. It was then rolled into the nearby harbour. There were no arrests. The statue was later retrieved by the Council.

Just as the mob did not detain itself over the personal record of Edward Colston, neither shall we. The heart of the matter is mob violence, threats of violence, vandalism and intimidation. The cause is irrelevant. Ask members of the social-justice mobs that attacked the statues of President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass why they chose those targets and they could not tell you. (A member of the mob that attacked Churchill’s statue in Westminster admitted in a television interview that she “had never met the man”.) The vastness of the mob’s anger is matched only by its ignorance.

The police watched but did nothing. Apparently, some officers wanted to prevent the attack but were instructed by commanders not to intervene. The mayor was in the police control room. Bristol City Council has long wanted to remove the statue but was not able to force through the political decision. A majority of the polled population of Bristolians opposed removal of the statue. However, the left-wing council and mayor saw the opportunity to use the mob to act on their behalf. Rather than defying authority, the mob was acting in accordance with the wishes of authority in committing this crime and was successful in doing this with the connivance of Council, mayor and police commanders, who all shared a progressive political outlook. The council, which currently has on its website pages the legend #blacklivesmatter, tweeted its approval of the demonstration.

It was not a statue celebrating slavery. It was not, notwithstanding the hysteria of the defilers, a device for perpetrating or restoring slavery. It was a monument to a respected gentleman, trader, employer, Member of Parliament and benefactor of his home city who happened to be caught up in a legal but ethically reprehensible business. One could not have devised a more perfect embodiment of the moral quagmire that ordinary men and women of good standing became enmeshed within because they were born into a particular era. The individuals that destroyed the statue would, if they had been born three hundred years earlier, have been caught up in exactly the same moral predicament and given it barely a thought. The statue was the ideal tool with which one could teach about how our morals are shaped by our era and how society gives sanction to dubious practices. By destroying the Colston statue, the mob refused to confront the awkward truth it presented: that we are all morally culpable due to the moral constriction of circumstances.

The following month, serial opportunist Marc Quinn unveiled on the empty plinth without permission a 3D-printed statue of one of the protestors giving a black-power salute. It was taken down after one day. As a sculpture it was a failure – as all one-to-one replications are. (I know because I saw it in person.) It was a chance for a rich, state-supported London artist to wag his finger at Bristolians by (dare one say) colonising the vacant plinth in order to assert his moral superiority. It was half condescending stunt, half replacement tender. While the original Colston statue was a piece of serious artistry and a very handsome piece (see opposite and page 12), the Quinn effort was feeble. However, replacing an accomplished piece of public statuary honouring contributions of an important person with a plastic representation of a protestor who had been duped by local authorities into participating in an act of criminal vandalism is not an inapposite symbol of our era. 

Collective Guilt

The justification for destruction of part of the city’s heritage was that the statue celebrated a slaver. I have yet to hear the Council, mayor or protestors condemn the city’s mosques dedicated to a religion founded by a slave-owner. How many of those “anti-slavery activists” have debated Muslim theologians on the tenets that (under some interpretations) countenance slavery today? How many of them wrote letters of protest to the embassies of Chad, Mali and Sudan, where slavery still persists? In truth, there was no “anti-slavery activism” on 7 June; it was a carnival of virtue signalling that culminated in criminal-damage-as-performative-anti-racism.

If the council puts Colston’s statue in the local museum in its vandalised state as a tourist attraction (rather than returning it to its plinth), I propose they replace it with a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. Let us have an African slave in chains and with him his African slave-owner. This represents the historical reality that European slavery of Africans relied upon active participation of Africans, who sold to Europeans (and Arabs) prisoners of war, members of other tribes and unwanted members of their own tribes. And slavery wasn’t something only Africans endured – there were many “white” slaves too, including homeless children taken from the streets of London and sent to work in appalling conditions in the Tobacco Plantations in Virginia along with convicts who weren’t all serious felons but were imprisoned because of the consequences of extreme poverty. According to Don Jordan’s book White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, if you were transported from Britain and unlucky enough to end up in a Virginian plantation you could have a red hot bodkin pushed through your tongue before being hanged for stealing a rose from the owner’s garden. It is a must-read book for anyone concerned about Slavery. This portrayal would conflict with those who think in exclusive terms of Westerners as predators and non-Westerners as prey; such a proposal would likely not find favour with Bristol City Council.

The overriding aim of social-justice activists is to impose upon the population a narrative of inherited collective guilt: white British people (historically and now) are complicit in the unique evils of colonialism and slavery. Thus, all action that collectively punishes this group is acceptable. This includes the destruction of their culture, public humiliation, rote apologies and reparations. None of us (whatever our colour) has experienced slavery or supported it; none of us should be forced to apologise for something our ancestors may (or may not) have approved of. Remember that we are also descendants of people who abolished slavery, forbade it abroad and patrolled the seas to curtail the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery in the Americas under the British took place at a time when there was no universal suffrage and therefore it was not a matter that could be approved of electorally by the British public. After initially participating in slavery abroad, no people ever did more to oppose slavery than the British.

When a half-educated firebrand lectures you on slavery, ask her what year Britain abolished slavery and you will get no answer. Anti-slavery and anti-racism – in the current forms we see most publicly – are nothing more than excuses for a deep hatred of our society and its founding pillars of tradition, patriotism, capitalism, Christianity and colonialism. Social-justice activists delight in destruction, motivated by moral fervour and burning malice. They are not horrified by racism but secretly delighted, using it as a weapon as against well-meaning ordinary people, getting them to participate in broad coalitions. Activists invent new forms of “institutional/systemic” racism to maintain the illusion that non-racist people are inherently and implicitly racist and thus deserving of the elite’s control and castigation. This is the triumph of the righteous (mainly white) middle-class, university-educated allies of “marginalised minorities” over the hordes of (mainly white) working-class “racist thugs”. It is another manifestation of the class snobbery that refuted – then concealed – the mass rape of children and young women in cities across Britain because they were the “wrong” colour, religion and class.

It could hardly be clearer than the Communist symbols sprayed on statues to Robert Peel, Churchill and Queen Victoria. Middle-class, university-educated vandals attack patriotic symbols that may not be revered but are widely respected by traditional patriotic, white working-class people. The general sentimental attachment to Baden-Powell, Churchill and Queen Victoria does not entail a complete acceptance of their opinions regarding race but now – in our hyper-charged, social-network-facilitated, emotionally labile cancel culture – accusations are enough to get a person or artefact removed from the public square. Cancel-culture definitions are ever expanding, ever changing, never appealable, never reversible. Offence-taking is used insincerely and tactically to claim territory (via cancellation) and to put people on the defensive; this process intimidates the majority, who become fearful, silent and compliant.

Take a look at the hundreds of thousands of published pages and hours of lectures/speeches delivered by professionals in education and you will encounter a distorting mirror universe of social justice, where minorities in the West live hunted lives and ordinary social interaction are atrocities upon their dignity. This is a frighteningly alien world where there is talk of “human beings/Brown skins/Black bodies/marginalised voices” because to use the word “people” admits the possibility of a plurality of experiences, lives, viewpoints, tastes, wealth and politics. Social-justice activists literally talk of “skins” as if they were big-game trophy hunters. For activists, the “Black experience” is uniformly monolithic, invariably oppressed, irrefutably one of suffering; it is a narrative they use for material gain and political advantage. 

What we can do?

Do you think that taking down statues of Rhodes and Colston will satisfy activists or just encourage them? When actions are not goal-focused, limited and pragmatic but instead a hubristic religious crusade driven by spite and utopianism then they will be unremitting. When you have been trained by school, university and media to believe your society is founded upon injustices of slavery, rape and genocide of other peoples, then no price is too high and no reparations will suffice. Do you think that your culture is safe in the hands of groups which think this way? If these activists – so pliant, so poorly informed, so easily moved to incontinent fury – undeniably forgo empathy for people of the past, can they tolerate contradiction by the living?

In these pages you will read of the onslaught on historical monuments and cultural artefacts committed by zealots, mainly in the USA. The events of this summer will not end in autumn; they have only just started. All across Britain, there are moves to destroy our culture, especially in London under the direction of the mayor. We must retain our statues. Even if they commemorate individuals we do not agree with, their presence reminds us of how our society has changed. How can we state that slavery was once acceptable if we have erased all public traces of it? Isn’t such action opening the doors to tomorrow’s conspiracy theorists? Either way, erasing history is not a practice that ends well for anyone. 

Across the country, hectoring agitators, paid lobbyists, obsessive cranks and cynical politicians are (through legal means) attempting to remove public art that belongs to you. Defend physical culture by getting involved. Share this article. Subscribe to The Jackdaw and The Critic. Attend council meetings. Sign petitions. A website to monitor threats to public monuments and co-ordinate resistance is at Visit and share it; consider contributing.

Should anyone think me partisan on this, I remind him/her that I have publicly deplored dismantlement of the Palast der Republik in Berlin, removal of GDR murals and statues, wrote in favour of many architectural projects in Communist countries and currently oppose removal of statues to Marx in the UK. Regardless of whatever you may assume my beliefs to be, I trust even critics will concede it would be misrepresentation to claim I have not consistently defended free expression and opposed iconoclasm. If you believe in these principles, I invite you to do the same and act, especially locally. Apathy and inaction will result in your culture being controlled and the history of your nation (good and bad) being erased.

Alexander Adams’s book Iconoclasm, Identity Politics & the Erasure of History is published by Imprint Academic on 6 October.

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