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We must acknowledge, not celebrate, our colonial history

ByJemma Hoolahan

Mar 9, 2017

Colston Hall, a renowned music venue and concert hall in Bristol, is once more the target of a petition to have its name changed. Colston Hall was named after Edward Colston, a rich official of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on slave trading in Britain during the 17th and 18th century. Bristol is an incredibly multicultural and diverse city, and it is an insult to the inhabitants of the city to have an important building such as this named after a figure whose wealth was gained through the slave trade.

This is not a new debate, as the same question was raised in Bristol in 2014, and the campaign in Oxford last year to remove Cecil Rhodes’ plaque and statue gained significant traction. Controversially, the Cecil Rhodes statue was kept, despite the Oxford Union voting in favour to take it down, as donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was removed. This prioritisation of wealth is a direct affront to the issues that the campaign was seeking to tackle.

Currently, those in favour of keeping Colston’s name have deemed the renaming ‘unnecessary’ and an erasure of history. Conservative councillor Samuel Waite, who is a member of the Keynsham Town Council in Somerset, stated his opposition on the grounds that he “thoroughly hate[s] the politically correct, left wing practice of rewriting history”. There have been claims that it would ignore the wealth that Colston brought to the city, and ignore the fact that Colston used his fortune to support philanthropic projects, including the building of schools, almshouses and churches.

However, as protesters have highlighted, “everything Colston gave to Bristol, he took from slaves”. There is moreover a statue of Colston which claims him to be “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city”, yet mentions nothing of his dealings with slavery. 20,000 Africans died under Colston’s transportation of slaves. This man, who so explicitly benefited from imperialism and the horrific exploitation of human beings, is not a figure that should be honoured.

It is vital that Bristol responds to the demands for Colston Hall to be renamed. In fact, changing the name of the hall would not be an erasure of history, but with the ensuing publicity would raise awareness of Britain’s colonial past. It would be an active acknowledgment of the problematic aspects of our colonial history, and would go some way to apologising.

Little is done to acknowledge the misdeeds associated with colonialism, and although it is only a small action, changing the name of this building is a step in the right direction. Indeed, it may prompt a resurgence of the ‘Fall of Rhodes’ campaign, and enable a greater awareness of the way we commemorate and remember the past.

On a simple level, it is an insult to ask black artists to perform in a venue that commemorates a man like Edward Colston, and appears to honour the atrocity that was the slave trade. Artists such as Massive Attack, who are one of Bristol’s most celebrated bands, have refused to play there whilst the name remains.

A music venue in the middle of Bristol should feel accessible to everyone. It should not be darkened by or perpetuate a colonialist past. We need to apologise for our imperialistic history, and instead celebrate the growing diversity and multiculturalism of cities in the UK, of which Bristol is surely one.


Image: Eirian Evans

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