Most people can hardly have missed the Not Guilty verdict returned this week by the jury in the trial of the so-called “Colston 4”, the four people from a crowd of hundreds put on trial for pulling down the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader misrepresented for many years as a philanthropist, and dumping it into Bristol Harbour. This was right and proper; a guilty verdict would have been a travesty.
The act of pulling down this statue was not criminal damage or vandalism, nor was it an attempt to erase history. Years of effort to have the statue removed or at least put into context had been blocked, delayed and sanitised by vested interests. The toppling of the statue was an act that reclaimed Bristol’s city centre for all its people, an act that recognised all our histories, all the history we have long ignored, supressed and left languishing at the margins, too cowardly to truly acknowledge.
I think it’s telling that so many accuse them of what we all as a nation have long been complicit in ourselves - the real erasure of history, the refusal to acknowledge and recognise the impact of the slave trade and the worst excesses of our colonial past. Colston hasn’t been erased or removed from the history of Bristol, he has simply been put into his proper context, at last.
This dramatic foregrounding of the realities of our history, forcing people to confront the uncomfortable truths of our nation’s past, was an important moment. That it makes people angry and uncomfortable makes this clear; I hope that rather than further divide people it has made more of us stop, think and reflect on the legacy of not only people like Colston but our nation as a whole. And I think it has, despite what the confected outrage of some parts of the press and the internet might suggest.
So instead of this poor attempt at a show trial, we should instead thank the defendants and everyone else present that day for their service to our city and our country. That a jury of their peers found them not guilty is most welcome as it shows that many people understand this and that the narrow-minded, fearful and bigoted are fewer in number than the volume of their disingenuous outrage might suggest.