A Few Words about Bristol and That Statue by John Miskelly

Toppled statue of slaver Edward Colston by Olumide Osinoiki

Special thanks—photo courtesy of Olumide Osinoiki. Here’s a photo montage of the statue toppling.

Bristol, England. If you didn’t know it before you probably do now. The city made international headlines on June 7 when Black Lives Matter protesters tore down a statue of infamous slave trader Edward Colston, rolled it to the very same harbor where Colston’s human cargo was once loaded and unloaded, and dumped his likeness into the water. Unsurprisingly, such a visceral, bold, and brilliant gesture made headlines round the world. Even in Spain the name Edward Colston was trending on Twitter.


For right-thinking citizens of the town this would have been an incredibly cathartic moment, euphoric even. I am beyond envious not to have witnessed it first-hand. Petitions have been circulated around the town throughout the years asking for that statue to be removed, being as it was an affront to the town’s large black population and situated in the centrally located “fountains” area of the city, a major thoroughfare for anyone visiting the city center. Many people—many black people—probably had to walk past that statue every day. The statue, as I write, is lying on the murk at the bottom of the city’s harbor. Good riddance to putrid shite.

Good riddance to putrid shite.

But the story won’t end there. The enormous wealth Colston accumulated through his trade in abducted and traded Africans means numerous streets and institutions bear his name. For years local heroes Massive Attack have refused to play Colston Hall, one of Bristol’s main entertainment venues, which will, finally, have a new name once it re-opens this year after renovations. Colston School is a private institution originally set up as an all-boys boarding school by Colston in 1710. There are several pubs and bars named after the slaver. There’s a Colston Street. There’s a Colston tower. Each one is at best a whitewashing of his crimes, at worse a celebration of the man and a goading affront to human decency.

That being said the nature of Britain’s colonial history and the roots of the nation’s wealth mean there are many other towns across the islands of the U.K. with large minority communities living under the dark legacy of their own Edward Colstons. So why might the Bristolian BLM protest end in such a no-nonsense, “ if the ditherers in charge won’t do it…” manner?

Throughout its existence going back hundreds of years Bristolians have been unusually partial to rioting.

Without being confrontational or disparaging to other cities’ efforts my short answer would be that Bristol is simply more radical than anywhere else, and not just in recent history. Throughout its existence going back hundreds of years Bristolians have been unusually partial to rioting. One of the more infamous disturbances, in 1831, took place in the elegant Queen’s Square, close to Temple Meads train station . An incidence on 2 April 1980, directly related to the events of June 7, and now known as the St Pauls riots, involved black youth facing off against police in an era where racial tensions were high and The National Front (a racist far right movement of the ’70s and ’80s) activities were rife. Much more recently, in 2011, riots broke out in the once-but-now-much-less-but-also-still-a-bit sketchy road of Stokes Croft. Without going into too much detail the origin of the disturbance is thought to be the raiding of a squat in which police believed petrol bombs were being stored before their intended use against a recently opened branch of supermarket chain Tescos, against which the local community had been protesting against for months prior. 

 A couple of touring bands I saw come through town from the U.S. suggested it was the U.K.’s Portland, Ore. Although I’d take issue with this in some regards, it isn’t an unfair observation, especially in terms of the huge amount of both recently arrived and long term residents who subscribe to the various trappings to which for the sake of brevity I will refer to in non-pejorative terms as modern hipster everyday activist culture—bikes, vegetarian/vegan diets, green-living, craft beer, zines, art, music, et cetera. Indeed only last year Bristol was named the vegan capital of the world.

Bristol’s current status in the U.K. as something of a byword for the modern cultural left follows on from its reputation throughout the ’90s as a centre for politically charged music. The Bristol Sound became short-hand for a style of music and visuals that was an amalgamation of various elements of the city’s black musical history and culture, as well as the emerging art and graffiti scene.

Outside of green-living, the arts, and tossing statues into harbors Bristol has a strong penchant for long-term community organising.

Outside of green-living, the arts, and tossing statues into harbors Bristol has a strong penchant for long-term community organising. To name a couple I myself have had some kind of involvement in: The Bristol Cable is an independent co-operative media company formed in 2014, taking the form of a free newspaper and website and is credited with breaking a series of local stories. The Bristol Bike Project is a co-operative “repairing and rehoming” previously unwanted bikes. Their “earn-a-bike scheme” provides a sustainable transport option for those in vulnerable living situations or those experiencing “transport poverty” (For all it’s activism Bristol remains punishingly unaffordable for many residents.)

Bristol also has its own currency, The Bristol Pound, available for use at a large range of independent businesses across the city. On a corner of the increasingly gentrified Stokes Croft sits long-running co-operative vegan cafe Café Kino. I once saw Jeffrey Lewis’s brother’s band in the basement there. Turn off on that corner, walk for a few minutes and you’ll find The Malcolm X Community Centre, which provides a host of services and events for residents of the traditionally afro-Caribbean neighbourhood of St Pauls. A little closer to home for many Razorcake readers Specialist Subject Records sits atop The Exchange music venue. Facing the possibility of closure in 2018 the venue ran a campaign to hand ownership over to its community base through the selling of shares. As well as an annual dividend members also get priority sales on certain gigs, a discount in the Specialist Subject shop and the adjoining vegan café and of course a say in how the venue is run and managed.

There it is then. Bristol in a very small nutshell from a proud expatriate. I miss it every day and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the U.K. It’s a little scuzzy, a little weird, sometimes even a little scary, but pick away at the layers of graffiti and dirt and there’s centuries of history of which the removal of Colston’s statue is merely one significant, glorious episode. More pertinently of all perhaps, I’ve just become the first person to wrote 1,000 words about Bristol without mentioning Bansky even once.

One last serious note: the heroes of June 7 will no doubt be investigated by the police. Please look out for any fundraising campaigns to support their needs.

John Miskelly lived in Bristol for five years before relocating to Valencia, Spain. He now lives in Gijón/Xixón, in the region of Asturias on Spain’s north coast. He plans to move back to Bristol in the winter.