John Bird: We don’t need our bloodthirsty past looking over our shoulder

Better to have Brunel rather than slave trader Colston to symbolise Bristol

Edward Colston’s statue was a meeting point to me and my Marxist comrades. We would meet in its shadow to decide which pubs we went to to sell our revolutionary newspapers around Bristol city centre. I was a temporary Bristolian with my girlfriend, and as we were both committed to the overthrow of capitalism, we had to have something to do to push the cause on.

Selling the Workers Press was the answer. Hence the meetings of the handful of revolutionaries in the shadow of the slave trader’s effigy. So central, so ‘essential’ you might say.

The revolution did not come. People went off to do other things. I got myself sorted out with the police, hence I had no need any longer to cringe in Bristol’s shadows. But every now and then I thought about those meetings. And that statue, but not as anything special.

Colston seemed to be everywhere. He was ‘Bristol’, it seemed. He had the big hall, called Colston Hall, named after him. And then there had been hospitals and schools and orphanages. He seemed to have done much for the ordinary people of Bristol. And in the late 19th century they put up a statue to him that lasted, on its city centre pedestal, until last weekend. But was Colston, as he had been painted, ‘essential’ Bristol? Was he really the historical person you wanted standing ad infinitum to represent the best of Bristol? In the very centre of the city?

The city fathers seemed convinced that his good must have outweighed his evil. Or so it would seem, for they pooh-poohed all attempts to remove it, or even provide a plaque that explained, as a nota bene, Colston’s heinous means of profitable extraction.

Whilst in Bristol to turn a penny I used to knock on doors selling prints of the SS Great Britain, unable to get a job due to my illegal status. It was a print of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive steamship. A railway builder who had built the great Great Western Railway, his ambition was that you would travel on his railway line to the far west, and then set off on the SS Great Britain to America. A true – almost global – link in iron. A girdle around the Earth. Alas it didn’t work and it ended up as a hulk in the Falkland Islands. Brought back to a Bristol dock in the late ’60s. I was a part of the team of people selling prints around the doors of the old boat; only later to find out that only 3p, a mere nothing of the 75p charged, got to the reformation of the wreck. In protest I left and transferred to going round doors instead, selling brooms and dustpans and brushes for Betterware; all in a full range of garish colours. That alas was not as profitable as the mighty prints of the mighty SS Great Britain, even if it was a con.

Bristol’s city fathers seemed convinced that Colston’s good must have outweighed his evil

So I went back to print selling. Not very principled, but I was a Marxist on the run from the police for petty crime after all, and principles came a good second.

It was while selling the prints on the Whiteladies Road that I met a very awkward man (this is in 1970) who alerted me to the fact that Colston was a slave trader. And that the creation of Bristol and its mercantile prosperity was drenched in the blood of slavery.

I was incredibly surprised that this school teacher fellow was not realising that all of capitalism was drenched in the blood of the poor, the workers and the slaves of capital’s profit seeking. Why get upset about one slave trader, ran my particular Marxist argument (many Marxists would have disagreed) when the City of London, Wall Street and the Paris Bourse were drenched in the blood of slavery. And even a little country like Belgium could hardly hold its head up high with the millions killed in the Belgian Congo. “But, but,” he railed against me, “do you think that having this man’s image towering over the centre through his hall, statue and other signs was the best image and lesson for future generations? Don’t we want to get our children to aspire beyond this ugly symbolism?”

Before we parted after a glass of wine and his purchase of two prints, he did say, “Better have Isambard Kingdom Brunel, engineer and train and ship builder up there than that vile Colston. Brunel would not pollute, by his very presence, our city centre. Endorsing slavery by just being there.”

Over the decades I heard about many people of Bristol and beyond wanting to get rid of this “endorsement of slavery”. That Bristol and Liverpool in particular, two prominent slave trade-enriched cities, had to come to terms with their bloody pasts. But it seemed that there were too many who wanted this particular benefactor to Bristol to remain in his pride of place. And there he remained until last weekend, when a sense of anger at a distant killing, of George Floyd, and at the ever-present slave trader’s effigy, led to his sudden removal.

Perhaps, let us suppose, the city fathers had realised that they indeed needed some kind of symbol of their city. That they had originally chosen, as a replacement for Edward Colston, the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as my friend back in 1970 suggested. Actually there is now a statue in Bristol to Brunel, unveiled in Marsh Street in 1982 and since moved to Temple Quay.

It’s important, is it not, that you have symbols that don’t make us feel that we are always controlled by a bloodthirsty past, where profit could be so callously exacted.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue