When my husband called me over to watch the video of Colston’s statue being pulled down and unceremoniously tipped into the river, I felt what I can best describe as shocked delight. It’s very personal for me. Not only am I a Bristolian born and bred, but my secondary school was Colston’s Girls’ School, founded by the slave trader. (Actually he founded Colston’s Boys’ School and there was some money left over, so they set up one for girls too). Every November we would go to Bristol Cathedral for ‘Commemoration Day’, wearing bronze chrysanthemums in our blazer buttonholes (because they were said to be his favourite flower). We would sing ‘For all the saints’ and hear the reading ‘Let us now praise famous men’. After the service some girls went down to his statue and decorated it with their chrysanthemums.
But I am pleased to say that I was one of those who questioned all this. My closest friend in the sixth form was Philippa Gregory, who later became the historical novelist. She wrote A Respectable Trade, a powerful revelation of the Bristol slave trade (and of the treatment of women).
So I am glad the statue has gone. Although it was undoubtedly a criminal act, it seems a fitting way to – I sincerely hope – end the ‘respect’ paid to a man who caused so much death and suffering. However I don’t want Bristol to just forget its dubious past, which is why I was always hesitant about proposals to change street names and rename the Colston Hall. We need to learn how to keep remembering without celebrating the past.
Meanwhile, I am thankful that at long last his extensive philanthropy is no longer buying the city’s silence. I am reminded that: ‘If I give all my money to the poor … but have not love, I would have gained nothing’.