A Statue Was Toppled. Can We Finally Talk About the British Empire?Roundup
tags: colonialism, racism, British Empire
Gurminder K. Bhambra is a professor of postcolonial and decolonial studies in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
Tens of thousands of people protested in British cities in solidarity with those rising up against police brutality against black Americans in the past week. They highlighted similar injustices in Britain. Protesters in the city of Bristol drew connections between a white police officer’s killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, and the histories of colonialism and the slave trade. On Sunday, they toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, trampled over it and rolled it into Bristol Harbor.
Between 1672 and 1689, Colston’s Royal African Company shipped about 100,000 enslaved people from West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean, branding them on their chests with his corporation’s acronym, RAC. Disease and dehydration killed more than 20,000 people taken onto those ships by Colston’s company, and their bodies were thrown into the ocean. Yet Colston’s bronze statue, which was erected in 1895 in Bristol, was engraved with the inscription “ … one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of the city.
Toppling statues is one way of unsettling accounts of the past that fail to acknowledge the broader truths of the British Empire. Attempts had been made through petitions and letters and engagements with local authorities to change the inscription and to reconsider the names of civic and public institutions that continued to honor him. But to no avail. This week, people of all backgrounds joined together to highlight the multiple injustices embodied in the statue and took matters into their own hands.
The glorification of the British Empire despite its histories of colonization, plunder and enslavement is evident in the plethora of statues to its architects. The toppling of Colston’s statue begins a conversation about how we are shaped by our past and that we are accountable for how it configures the present.
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