Those who wish to defend statues of dead white men on free speech grounds invariably undermine their case by failing to support that right for living people, especially those with marginal identities who say things they don’t like. Free speech isn’t just about who can speak, or whose statue stands or falls; it’s about who chooses not to speak because the consequences aren’t worth it, and who disappears from history without being heard at all.
The Colston Four admitted fully to their role in toppling the statue but pleaded not guilty to criminal damage. Their case went to a jury trial at Bristol Crown Court. The prosecution argued that the four were common criminals who had damaged property. Colston, they said, was ‘irrelevant’ to the trial. The defence, however, turned the case into a ten-day history lesson, calling the historian David Olusoga as a witness. The jury heard in detail about the horrors of slavery – the rapes, the murders, the branding, the trafficking of children – and about the statue itself: even when it was put up, nobody really wanted it. The defence argued that the statue was a ‘hate crime’. They also pointed out that the total cost of the damage caused by toppling it and dragging it along the pavement was only £3750.
Less than a week ago, many of Bristol’s institutions bore Colston’s name. The performing arts centre Colston Hall was established on the site of Colston’s School in 1867. Colston Tower, an office block, was built in 1973, on Colston Avenue, just opposite the statue. ‘It was not until one night in 1998,’ Adam Hochschild writes in Bury the Chains, ‘that someone scrawled on its base’ the words ‘slave trader’. This was the first in a series of artistic engagements with the Colston statue that have mixed parody, pathos and anti-colonial resistance in remarkably creative ways.
Perhaps the oldest bronze statue in the world is the Dancing Girl, a 4000-year-old, 10 cm figure found in 1926 at the Mohenjo-daro archaeological site in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. In Sindhi, Mohenjo-daro means ‘mound of the dead men’. The statue – now in the National Museum in New Delhi – depicts a gangly teenage girl whose body language looks remarkably modern: insolent and unimpressed.
When I studied in Oxford a decade ago, I often passed under the stone statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College before I turned down Logic Lane to the philosophy department. Rhodes meant nothing to me in those days. My eighteen years of education had not once mentioned colonialism, and my head was often down as I trudged through the streets, falling into the common error, noted by Alan Bennett, of ‘confusing learning with the smell of cold stone’.