Eloise Savill grew up in Bristol and works in the modern slavery charity sector. In this following piece she reflects on historical remnants of the slave trade here in the UK and their ongoing implications for Black communities and People of Colour today.
The Harmful Normalisation of Slavery
Growing up in Bristol, I had little appreciation of its violent past and the normalisation of racism around me. The statues, buildings and street names that surrounded me all functioned to celebrate the slave trade, with no appropriate acknowledgment of the damage caused.
Like Reni Eddo-Lodge’s sickness she felt when visiting Liverpool and recognising slavery’s legacy throughout the city[i], I was horrified as I got older and became aware that Bristol was built on the profits of slavery and continued to honour slave traders.
Edward Colston was a slave trader in the 17th Century and Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. He was responsible for the enslavement and transportation of an estimated 84,000 people from Africa, during which 19,000 slaves died on the journey[ii]. His statue has stood on Colston Avenue in Bristol’s city centre since 1895, despite campaigns for it to be taken down.
The statue, as Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu suggests, ‘embodies the racism that black people experience today’[iii]. It has acted as a memorialisation of the slavery of black people and the oppression that they still face in our society.
This is the time for a proper education about Britain’s colonial history and an introspective look at our complicity in these atrocities. The complicity which has upheld the statue of such a destructive and violent figure for so long, despite desperate cries for change.
The Fall of Edward Colston
At Bristol’s Black Lives Matter protest on 7th June I stood with protesters and watched as a group of people toppled Edward Colston’s statue from its stand, knelt on its neck, and threw it into the harbour’s murky depths.
The statue lying at the bottom of the same harbour in which he orchestrated the slave trade, seemed a poetic fate for the statue of Colston. Symbolic of the drowning and disposal of so many of his victims.
These cheers have been echoed across the world, poignantly with Reverend Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s memorial service saying that:
“All over the world I’ve seen grandchildren of slave masters, tear down slave master statues”[iv]
The significance of this moment has not been lost and the cries for reform which have gone on for centuries are finally being heard.
Time to de-colonise the curriculum
Britain’s colonial past and slave trading history is immortalised all around us in statues and monuments, but without the education necessary to understand the extent of these crimes. It’s an airbrushed version of the violence which built so much wealth in the UK, and the UK’s power globally.
In 2019, a proposal for a plaque for the statue, explaining Edward Colston’s role in the slave trade, was scrapped after the description was watered down by Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, failing to acknowledge his victims and diminishing his crimes[v].
The memorialisation of Edward Colston does not serve an ‘educational’ purpose, especially without explanation of his brutality.
There is a fundamental need for the teaching of the British Empire, colonialism and the slave trade in our schools. Our violent history can no longer be ignored and should no longer be honoured.
Transatlantic Slave Trade and Modern Slavery
Working in the Human Trafficking sector, it’s clear that despite its abolition over 200 years ago, slavery has never fully been eradicated.
That said, there are crucial differences between the transatlantic slave trade with the modern slavery that we see today.
The transatlantic slave trade can be characterised by the visible and legal ownership of Africans by white supremacist powers, with no right to compensation for the victims for the atrocities inflicted upon them[vi]. Modern slavery is a more hidden, insidious crime and can affect people from any demographic. Traffickers coerce, deceive and force individuals into a life of abuse, servitude, and inhumane treatment.
Race and slavery
The enslavement of Black people within the transatlantic slave trade feeds into prejudices about people of colour which still persist in minds today. As Reni Eddo-Lodge accurately points out, ‘Looking at our history shows racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society’[vii].
This othering of communities is not a thing of the past and there are similarities in the way some of the UK’s biggest companies continue to profit from human rights abuses today[viii]. In a society where discrimination and structural racism are still prevalent, social and economic marginalization places people of colour in positions vulnerable to exploitation and highlights the link between race and trafficking[ix].
This racism at the core of our history is missing from our education and is at the heart of a system which contributes to modern slavery today.
How can we understand and dismantle racism and inequalities today, if we have not begun to understand the foundations of the systems it was built upon?
Part of a Global Movement
The calls for change around the world have become contagious and are finally being heard. Through community activism and campaigns related to the Black Lives Matter movement, the landscape is starting to shift.
The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan has been removed in London and the colonial figure of King Leopold II, who brutalised the Congo and killed an estimated 10 million people, was removed in Belgium[x]. Oxford University has voted to remove the statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes[xi] and more statues around the world are soon to follow.
This is a clear sign that the organising and mobilising of communities globally can achieve change.
For Bristol, there is much more work to be done, with names from the slave trade still remaining on countless schools, buildings and streets such Colston School, The Wills Memorial Building and Blackboy Hill.
I feel a collective pride for my city, for standing in solidarity with Black communities around the world, speaking out in the face of injustice.
The destruction of these structures of oppression is a momentous moment in our fight to address structural racism and the inequalities which underpin modern slavery today.
You can donate to the Black Lives Matter movement in Bristol here which is raising funds for Changing Mindsets at the Malcom X Centre. This is a youth group at a local community centre which supports young people to a positive and independent life.
[i] Eddo-Lodge, R., 2017. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. p.2
[ii] Olusoga, D., 2020. The Guardian. The Toppling Of Edward Colston’s Statue Is Not An Attack On History. It Is History | David Olusoga.
[v] BBC News., 2019. Edward Colston: Plaque to Bristol slave trader axed over wording
[vi] Volder, E., Why colonial slavery should not be equated with human trafficking (‘modern slavery’). Impact.
[vii] Eddo-Lodge, R., 2017. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. p.56
[viii] Eccles, B., 2020. Forbes Human Rights Really Aren’t All That Important: Just Ask 200 Leading Companies
[ix] United Nations., 2001. The Race Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons— Especially Women and Children
[x] Pronczuk, M. and Zaveri, M., 2020. Statue Of Leopold II, Belgian King Who Brutalized Congo, Is Removed In Antwerp.
[xi] Mohdin, A, Adams, R and Quinn, B., 2020. The Guardian. Oxford college backs removal of Cecil Rhodes statue