Poem: On the Fall of Edward Colston

On the Fall of Edward Colston

Let them pull the statues down

Let them sing around the town

Let them scream in fascist faces

And disrupt the brutal stasis.

*

I have seen the soft rebuttals

All the pleas to be more subtle

But this speech in quiet voices

Smothers those who beg for choices.

*

Let them pull the statues down

Let them throw them on the ground

Let them vent their rage and pain

And find air to breathe again.

*

I’ve been silent and complicit

Made excuses to dismiss it

But I knew our heart was rotten;

Those in pain have not forgotten.

*

Let us pull the statues down.

Let us build a better town.

Let us force the fascists back.

I will help you to attack.


I wrote this last Sunday, to try to express my feelings at the news that protestors had removed the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumped it in the river.

The action was non-violent (no people were hurt), powerful, and important. Yet so, so many white people were flooding social media to condemn it. Their ignorance and thoughtlessness churned my stomach.

I, too, was raised in a society where peaceful protest was put on a high pedestal, and defined away so that the only protesting actions that were deemed acceptable were those that inconvenienced no one at all.

Protests must be approved by police first.

Strikes must be scheduled to ensure the least possible disruption to service.

A man kneeling when the national anthem plays is deemed shockingly disruptive. To the extent that he lost his career.

I only started to learn a little about civil disobedience when I studied philosophy at A Level. 16 years old and no one had mentioned it to me before.

Oh, I had heard of Martin Luther King. I knew he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and that he was killed. I knew about Rosa Parks solely because the character Odetta, in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, was a black woman who had been involved in the protests, and she reflected on Rosa’s simple action of not moving from the ‘white’ section of the bus.

But I didn’t know what civil disobedience is or why it is important. That it is the action of breaking laws because those laws are unjust, as a form of protest. I didn’t understand until I took a A Level that most colleges didn’t offer, because it isn’t thought relevant to career development.

And even then, I don’t think I got it. How could I? I had been insulated from black history and the history of British imperialism my entire life. It had not featured at all in any history class. Oh, I learnt that the Spanish did terrible things to the Incas and the Mayans, but the British…?

Since then I’ve done work to try to understand. I know that there is a lot more work left to do.

For example: I did not know the history of Edward Colston, until those protestors tore down his statue.

I did not know that campaigners had petitioned to have the statue removed and been refused.

I didn’t know that the plaque on the statue described him as ‘virtuous and wise’.

I didn’t know that a new plaque was proposed that put his philanthropic contributions to the city in the context of his transportation of 84,000 enslaved people, of whom 19,000 died.

I didn’t know that the new wording was blocked by the Society of Merchant Venturers and revised wording that minimised his flaws has continued to be debated while black people in the city had to walk past the statue praising him.

Yet white people decry the destruction of this statue because the statue is supposed to be teaching us about history?

No one learnt anything from this statue but lies. And peaceful, law-abiding efforts to remove the statue to a museum, or even change the plaque to put the statue in the context of history, failed.

An MP – a Minister of Parliament – had the gall to compare this statue to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. (A historical site he also wrong thought to be in Germany, rather than Poland.)

A tweet from Simon Clark MP, replying to @IrvineWlesh: Irivine, it's precisely because Germany has bravely confronted her past that Auschwitz stands as a memorial of man's inhumanity to man.
The tweet has now been deleted, but responses to it are still visible.

Auschwitz is a museum that memorialises those murdered by the Nazis and presents the history of the terrible crimes conducted there for the purpose of education. The statue of Edward Colston celebrated him as virtuous. Virtuous! A man who transported 84,000 people into slavery and killed 19,000 of those.

Again: lawful attempts to place this statue in the context of Edward Colston’s violent history had failed. The statue was purely there to celebrate him and rewrite history to mention only the his philanthropic contributions. Contributions that were paid for with the blood of black people.

A better comparison would be what Germany did to the site of Hilter’s bunker: it is an unmarked and unmemorialised car park now.

Statues like this one don’t educate, they celebrate. And it is right that we remove them from our streets.

Martin Luther King is remembered by white people as an advocate for peaceful protest. But we should remember that he also said that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’

Black people have been unheard for a long, long time.

I submitted my poem to a market that publishes poems in response to news stories. It was not accepted, and to be honest, I expected that. I hope they choose poems by black people, whose voices deserve to be heard above mine.

This is a poem for a specific moment in time, however. And it seems worth saying to share a message that other white people seem to be struggling to hear: something is very wrong in our society. And it affects black people disproportionately.

The celebration of slavers and other rich white men who perpetrated genocidal atrocities continues in our towns and cities is a part of what’s wrong.

We can stop that. We can say: we do not celebrate these men and what they did. We can say: these are not the aspects of our history that we want people to venerate when they come to our towns and cities.

We can remove the goddamn statues.

You can take action today.

You can write to your MP and ask for the removal of statues that venerate slavers. The writetothem.org website makes it easy to find out who your MP is and send them an email.

You can sign the petition to remove all statues of slavers across the UK.

You can sign the petition to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum.

You can donate to support causes that combat racism and police oppression, such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, and the Black Lives Matter UK Legal Fund.

It’s important that we educate ourselves and each other, but it’s even more important that we take concrete action to create change where we can. As a disabled person, I can’t get out and protest, but I can donate, I can write to my MP, I can sign petitions, and I can ask for change in the institutions I work for and with.

All of us can take some kind of action to build a better society. And we should.

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1 Response to Poem: On the Fall of Edward Colston

  1. Heath Graham says:

    Well said, Thank you for sharing.

    I feel like nearly everything I’ve learnt about indigenous history came after shool, sadly. Studying archaeology and history at university helped. It shouldn’t require someone following their own curiosity though – it needs to be placed front and centre in education.

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