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Readers' Responses: Edward Colston slavery statue and the effectiveness of direct action

From Maureen Wright – Bristol Humanists

The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, UK, became a focal point of controversy due to Colston's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. On June 7, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest, the statue was toppled by demonstrators, dragged through the streets, and then thrown into Bristol Harbour. The act sparked a wider debate about how historical figures with ties to slavery and colonialism should be memorialized. Subsequently, the statue was retrieved from the water and will be displayed in a museum, along with placards from the Black Lives Matter protest, to provide a more complete historical context.

I read with great interest the account of the 'woke' debate between David Warden and Daniel Dancey (October edition of Humanistically Speaking). I found it really interesting but felt, as a now-Bristolian, I had to correct David's picture of the removal of Edward Colston's statue.

David commented that "removal by democratic consent would be another matter". But how to gain this consent? I've lived in Bristol for more than 40 years, and in that time there have been constant attempts to bring the anomaly of the statue to our Council's attention. In this time, the local authority in question has been Bristol, then Avon, now Bristol again, and of varying political hues.

There were many, many petitions, numbers signing them rising into the tens of thousands as time passed, as well as public debates about what should be done. One suggestion was a replacement plaque which put Colston's role as benefactor in the context of where the money came from. Indeed, wording was agreed and the plaque made, but apparently it's still languishing in the basement of City Hall. Although this is probably a result of bureaucratic buck-passing, not publicly grasping the nettle (whatever the outcome) is an insult to those whose ancestors were slaves and Bristol is a city with a large African-Caribbean population.

So why has the Council failed to act? Although many people feel strongly about the issue, it is unlikely on its own to be a vote-catcher, particularly at a time when Council funds are stretched and services are being cut. And the Society of Merchant Venturers who raised the statue to Colston are still very powerful in the city, both economically and as members of the Council, as well as funders of projects which benefit the city. Power really is is a basic factor in the "woke" debate.

Interestingly, there has been considerably more democracy since the statue came down. It has been displayed, still damaged and daubed with paint, in the museum of Bristol's history with an accompanying explanation of his rise and fall. It's currently absent while the wording is decided, no doubt because the discussions are proving difficult.

Recently I was taking a friend from New Zealand to see our beautiful cathedral and I found the monuments to Colston temporarily covered, with an explanation, and an opportunity for everyone to give their opinion of which option to follow, neither hiding the truth nor falsifying the past. There was an accompanying exhibition giving details about everyone who had been in any way involved in the slave trade and who is buried in, or associated with, the cathedral. Again, this was to find out what people thought and ask for feedback. Buildings and schools named after Colston are being renamed, many of them also seeking the opinions of Bristolians.

So the tale of Colston's statue is not a simple one, like most discussions about "woke" subjects. One thing is clear to me: for whatever reason, the statue had to be removed before anyone addressed the problem with any seriousness.

Aaron appreciation and the genetic diktats of human nature

From David Beattie

So far in 2023, Humanistically Speaking has published more than 100 articles, around 11 by Aaron. In my opinion, without his "Design and Layout Editor" work, it would be a much duller publication; without his practical articles, much less useful. If I were Editor, I'd ask if he could increase his article count.

I would also gently suggest, however, that wishful thinking is fine, but its weaknesses should also be made clear in the text. For example, most architects could rattle off many reasons (mostly political rather than structural) why creating Aaron's modular buildings is, currently in UK, virtually impossible (We can build one million homes a year - here's how). And socio-biologists (such as Edward O. Wilson in On Human Nature) would argue that whilst cultural diktats are modifiable (we no longer lock up LGBTQIA+ people), our genetic diktats have been locked-in since the Stone Age. Darwin would argue that if these constraints don't support Nature's main diktats (Survive! Breed!) they'd be weeded out of the population. As argued in Aaron's article Humanity: a status report Humanism asks us to apply reason and "be nice". But as they say, "Good luck with that".

We really like to hear from our readers. If you would like to give us your response to any of our articles we would be happy to receive them and potentially publish (with your permission).

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01 nov 2023

In response to Aaron's contribution below and the overall context of the article, it may well be that we should be questioning the practice of erecting individual private statues in public places.

Do they not reflect the imbalances of power and wealth in any society?

Are they not just an example of overweening and egotistical pride?

Why should later generations be expected to accord them any kind of respect or reverence?

It is one thing to have wonderful works of art produced like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Other wonderful examples are Michangelo's statue of David and Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

They should obviously be retained and respected for their wonderfully inspired craftwork.

But statues to largely forgotten individuals whose…

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Statues and icons, is anyone truly pure? Some statues do seem to define whether they are crediting a single act, 'building a bridge' or a 'lifetime of work', but again, is it the thing, the work or the person being remembered? If a person builds a ship, but was also a slave trader, for example, can we still not celebrate he built a ship, or does other background invalidate that build? For every person that found a cure, led a people, built a thing or created technology, they will also have cheated on their partner, parked on double yellow lines, beat their dog or committed genocide in their off hours? Is there a degree of 'bad' required to wipe off…

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