Edward Colston's statue being thrown into Bristol Harbour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Edward Colston's statue being thrown into Bristol Harbour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologist Kevin Potter on why the statue of Edward Colston obscured the past

I have spent the last 19 years working as an archaeologist in Bristol. Not my home town but a place whose history I know more intimately than anywhere else and which I care deeply about. I have excavated very real evidence of Bristol’s slave-trading past, which is of genuine value. I will never forget finding a Consch shell within 18th century deposits, its provenance immediately obvious, beautiful but chilling.

I have excavated the physical remains of people who lived and worked in the city, including affluent merchants whose wealth was tied with slavery, again valuable work.

I have visited the house of plantation owner Piney, which is a public museum, and found it a valuable historical experience to reflect on the (comparative to Colston modest) affluence; the painted porcelain and polished floorboards innocuous and innocent-seeming, but obtained from suffering.

In short, I like to think I understand the value of our physical history, even that which we would not wish to celebrate. It teaches us and helps us reflect and at times grapple with difficult realities.

Statues do not. They are celebrations not objects that elucidate history. In fact, their purpose is to present and define a particular, in Colston’s case false, narrative. As David Olusoga correctly said, the statue to Colston presented him as a great man, which he was not, he was a murderer. It gave a misleading perception of history. More importantly, it is an affront to civilised society to celebrate a man responsible for the enslavement of c85,000 people. 

That statue had no historical value, because it was not intended to teach us, to help us learn. It was intended to give a false impression and to champion a figure we should remember in a very different way. Its greatest contribution to genuine history was in providing yesterday’s iconic scenes. I actually think it should be left underwater for all to see, carrying a rather different and historically significant message.

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