The year 2020 was historic, not just for the coronavirus pandemic taking a hold of the world, but also because of the Black Lives Matter protests. The protests were heard around the globe, and in the U.K., they were especially memorable in the city of Bristol. In 1895, a statue was erected in the city to commemorate the Bristol-born sea merchant and slave trader Edward Colston.
Since the 1990s, many locals and organizations had been campaigning to get the statue either removed or adjusted to reflect Colston’s history as an enslaver. These proposals were declined or simply ignored. But in 2020, people who objected to the statue’s presence in Bristol took matters into their own hands.
On June 7, 2020, a group of some 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Bristol for a rally. When they reached the site of Colston’s statue, protestors threw a rope over the bronze figure and pulled it to the ground. The statue was pushed down to Narrow Quay, where it was then heaved into the harbor.
The protests in Bristol made headlines across the U.K. and in international news. Police protection was put in place around other controversial statues, should protestors be inspired to rip from their stands too. After the event, Bristol police claimed they had made a “tactical decision” to allow the statue’s toppling, fearing if they had intervened, it would spark further uproar.
A commission set up to analyze what to do with the statue and plinth conducted interviews with over 13,000 people. The report they published stated that “a majority of respondents felt positive about the statue being pulled down.” The statue was quickly and quietly fished out of the river by the council as it was a navigation hazard. It was transferred to M Shed, where it has been put on display in its toppled, graffiti-covered state.
A small group of protestors faced criminal charges for pulling down the statue. Known as the Colson Four, they were put on trial for criminal damages in 2021 and found not guilty in 2022.
The empty plinth remains—standing on a street that still bears Colston’s name—and its future is uncertain. Many in Bristol and elsewhere believe the plinth should remain empty with a plaque explaining the events leading up to and including June 7, 2020. Others believe it should be used (and has been used) for temporary art displays.