Four people accused of tearing down the statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest after the death of George Floyd in 2020 have been cleared of criminal damage.
Cheers were heard from the public gallery when the verdicts for Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Jake Skuse were returned, before the defendants were released and hugged supporters waiting outside.
The bronze memorial to the 17th century merchant had stood in the city since 1895, but was pulled from its plinth during the demonstration on 7 June 2020.
It was dragged through the city to the harbourside by protestors, where it was thrown in the water at Pero’s Bridge, which is named in honour of enslaved man Pero Jones who lived and died in the city.
Days later, the statue was recovered from the water by Bristol City Council and put into storage before months of work to clean and preserve the state it was in.
Members of the public are now being asked by the We Are Bristol History Commission, which was set up following the protest, what should happen to it next.
Since the statue has been relocated, campaigners who want to see it restored to it’s Bristol plinth are urging supporters to block-book tickets to the museum to prevent visitors seeing it.
The Save Our Statues campaign group said the council has a legal obligation to repair the Grade II statue. before a democratic vote can be made on its future.
Who was Edward Colston?
Colston was a wealthy businessman who traded in woollen textiles and wine, and was involved in Britain’s slave trade past.
He joined the London-based Royal African Company in 1673, which at the time had the monopoly of Britain’s slave trade, and later took on the role of deputy governor in 1689.
By this time, the company had transported around 100,000 enslaved Africans in chains to the Americas, all of whom had been branded with the firm’s initials RAC on their chests.
Due to the unhygienic and cramped conditions, many who were enslaved died on their journey, with their bodies said to have been thrown overboard.
Why did Colston have a statue?
The 18ft bronze statue of Colston was built as a memorial to his philanthropic works, and has stood on Colston Avenue in Bristol city centre since 1895.
The inscription on the statue read: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”
Before his death in 1721, Colston donated money to many causes in the city, including funds to sustain schools, churches, founding almshouses, Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School, and founding a religious school for boys.
His legacy has seen him honoured in many places around the city, with streets and buildings bearing his name.
His involvement with the slave trade was the source of much of the money which he bestowed into the city, according to Historic England.
Despite being born in Bristol in 1636, Colston did not live there as an adult and conducted all of his slave trading in the city of London.
Where will the statue be displayed?
On June 4, almost exactly a year since it was toppled, the bronze went on public display at the M Shed museum in Bristol, alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest and a timeline of events.
The statue, featuring graffiti and damage from when it was pulled down, is unable to stand upright and so is displayed lying on a wooden stand.
The display at M Shed forms the first part of the public consultation, with a survey also launched for people to provide their views on the future of the statue and of how Bristol’s history is told.
Options include removing the statue from public view entirely, creating a museum or exhibition about the transatlantic slave trade, or restoring the statue to its plinth.
Dr Shawn Sobers, associate professor at the University of the West of England and part of the commission, said the effects of the statue being pulled down “ricocheted” across the UK and the world.
“We know this isn’t an isolated incident, we know that there are statues across the world that celebrate slavers,” Dr Sobers said.
“At the same time, the anti-racist movement isn’t about statues. It’s trying to eradicate racism from society and bring equality where there’s racial disparity which cuts across economic divides.
“But statues are a symbol of how seriously our cities in Britain are actually taking these issues.”
Dr Sobers described putting the Colston statue on display as an opportunity to tell a “wider history” and encourage people to speak about it.
“It’s not an exhibition, it’s not trying to answer all the questions,” Dr Sobers said.
“We’re using this opportunity to find out what local people think because we have to live in this city together.
“We know it’s not going to be an overnight process but as a history commission we’re going to take the answers on board, consult other people in the city and put recommendations back to the city on how we feel it can move forward.”
An image in the display shows the unveiling of the Colston statue in 1895, with crowds of smartly dressed people gathering in the centre of Bristol for the event.
Pictures also detail how the statue was pulled down, rolled through the city and then thrown into the harbour – surrounded by people recording what happened on phones and cameras – in June last year.
After the statue was pulled down, hundreds of people that had attended the protest laid their placards around its empty plinth.
More than 500 of these were collected by teams from the city council before being carefully dried out and stored. Only six form part of the current display at M Shed.
A selection of quotes, representing a range of reactions to the statue being toppled, form a slideshow on the wall behind it.
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