Keep out of Bristol’s slaver street names debate, ministers are told

Figcaption Keep Out Of Bristols Slaver Street Names Debate Ministers Are Told
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

A history commission set up by Bristol’s mayor after the toppling of the Edward Colston statue has urged ministers to stay out of debates on the future of dozens of city streets named after slave traders.

Prof Tim Cole, the commission’s chair, said a new audit by Bristol city council had identified a handful of streets named after Colston, whose company enslaved at least 80,000 Africans, and dozens more streets named after other slave traders. “It should be up to people who live on those streets to decide – it is an uber-local issue,” he said. “If a bunch of people who live on Colston Avenue want to change the name of their street they should be empowered to do so.”

The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, has warned that “town hall militants” and “woke worthies” have “street names in their sights”. While Jenrick’s proposed new “retain and explain” planning policy will apply only to plaques and monuments, there are growing concerns that ministers’ inflammatory rhetoric will make it harder for locals on opposing sides to have conciliatory discussions about the future of street names.

“These kinds of divisive phrases add to this sense of a culture war,” said Cole, who is based at Bristol University. “We need a more thoughtful way to explore the past and think about the public realm. It is stoking fires that don’t need stoking.”

The names of Bristol’s slave-owning merchants can be found throughout the city, such as in the Colston Arms pub. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

After the Colston statue was brought down by Black Lives Matter protesters in June, the headstone of an enslaved African man was smashed in Bristol. A statue of a black playwright was also attacked in the city.

Some commissioners fear Jenrick’s proposed laws will prevent the city from deciding the fate of other local monuments. History professor Madge Dresser accused the government of a power grab. “It is a bid to control history and to bring these vital local decisions under the overcentralised and partisan grip of the Tory party,” she said. “Its tone is hectoring and needlessly divisive. It seems supported by those elements in the party whose grasp of history is at best traditionalist and at worse stone-cold ignorant.”

Jenrick’s proposals could backfire, say other commissioners. Nigel Costley, TUC south west regional secretary, said blocking change could lead to people taking matters into their own hands. “Cities have always changed and people will find ways of changing things for themselves if you don’t allow local democratic processes to work,” he said.

The commission will also be making recommendations to highlight the struggles of workers and other marginalised groups in the city. “We have to recognise that the formal statues in the city completely fail to represent Bristol. There’s only one woman and that’s Queen Victoria. There’s been barely any recognition of black people and the working class. It’s been wealthy white men who have been put on pedestals and that needs to change,” said Costley.

While the commission is yet to make any recommendations on the future of the empty plinth where Colston once stood, there are fears the far right might attack any monuments erected to mark the city’s involvement in the slave trade.

The statue of Edward Colston is pushed into the river during the Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Dresser said she would like a counter-memorial placed near the empty Colston plinth. “Personally, I would like to have a monument to the contribution enslaved Africans and their descendants have made to the prosperity of the city,” she said. “But I worry that this might be vandalised and attract the attentions of the far right.”

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Although the commission has limited resources, it turned down funding from the influential Society of Merchant Venturers, which once counted Colston as a member and managed institutions in the city bearing his name, in order to maintain its independence. The society said it respected the commission’s decision. Costley said he was glad the funding had been rejected. “They’ve tried to reform but they’re too steeped in the past,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government would not comment on the suggestion that the renaming of streets would be blocked. “For hundreds of years, public statues and monuments have been erected across the country to celebrate individuals and great moments in British history,” they said. “Any removal should require planning permission and local people be given the chance to be properly consulted – that’s why we are changing the law to protect historic monuments.”

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