With the ongoing saga of the proposed second Colston plaque, Bristol once more finds itself at the heart of widespread debates sweeping the UK on the problems of slavery and trauma commemoration.

Unusual, alongside a handful of other port cities such as Liverpool and Hull, for the extent of its involvement in the slave trade, Bristol also has a relatively developed history of commemoration projects. The Bristol Slave Trade Action Group (BSTAG) was established in 1996 and immediately launched a number of high-profile projects, such as the inauguration of the harbour-side Pero’s Bridge, named for the enslaved African Pero Jones, and the development of the Slave Trade Trail walking tours – predating similar efforts by Uncomfortable Oxford by some two decades.

Throughout the years, the Colston statue has remained a lightning-rod issue, with fractious debates over whether to remove it, to allow guerrilla-art installations such as last year’s 100 Bodies piece, or to add an additional plaque. Most recently, debate has raged over the second plaque wording. As historian Christine Chivallon demonstrates, it is a lightning-rod that has inevitably drawn newer race-relations issues and disputes: in 1998 National Front extremists seized debates about the statue’s removal to distribute leaflets calling for the deportation of ethnic minorities (in their words, ‘malcontented ethnics’) to their ‘ancestral homelands’.

Some commentators have criticised groups like BSTAG and Countering Colston, and their efforts particularly around the Colston statue, as ‘divisive’ – language that recalls that used to justify the ‘Pact of Forgetting’ around Franco’s regime, something now rocking contemporary Spain, or the Martin Walser controversy in Germany. (Walser, a prominent writer, objected in the 1990s to ongoing Holocaust commemorations as ‘the continuous show of our shame’ and denounced the Berlin Holocaust Memorial for ‘turning the capital’s centre into a concrete, football field-sized nightmare’). But for most, Bristol’s activism represents not only a moral imperative, given the city’s exceptional economic dependence on slavery, but also an important leading role that other areas of the country will have to follow.

Historian and curator, Marian Gwyn, for instance, examines projects to commemorate and raise consciousness of slavery in Wales at the time of the bicentenary of slave trade abolition. In particular, she applauds the ‘Sugar and Slavery’ exhibition at Penrhyn Castle in Bangor (whose former owners maintained sugar plantations in the West Indies) and the Gateway Gardens ‘Bittersweet’ project, which explored the relationship between changing plant varieties in Welsh historic gardens and the new forms of trade enabled by the slave trade. For Gwyn, these efforts are a long overdue first-step in a heritage culture that ‘explicitly promotes the traditional Welsh way of life as white and rural’ and in which intersections with black histories have been ‘singularly under-represented in Welsh interpretation and consciousness’. As more and more places come to reckon with the past, the role of self-interrogation for iconic sites like Bristol can surely only grow and not diminish.

But how to avoid crossing the line from ‘commemoration’ into ‘entertainment’? As Gwyn’s article notes:

[Penrhyn] castle witnessed an increase in visitor figures of 20% in 2007 (compared to 2006), largely due to the ‘Sugar and Slavery’ exhibition. Onsite retail and catering spend also increasing, confirming that there is a direct commercial benefit in broadening heritage interpretation and engaging with new audiences.

Clearly, widening engagement and commercial viability are no bad things. But as commemoration efforts co-evolve with the UK’s growing heritage sector, is there a risk of losing sight of the violence of the events that we seek to memorialise? This question is one of many that University of Central Lancashire’s Institute for Dark Tourism research seeks to answer, asking if, and what it means when, engagements with death and suffering become ‘attraction-supply’ driven. Successfully engaging a wide public and negotiating the hurdles of present-day opposition, while at the same time maintaining a sense of discomfort with the past is a daunting but increasingly significant task. The Colston plaque is only the tip of the iceberg.

Works Cited/ Further Reading:

Carracedo, Almuneda, and Robert Bahar. The Silence of Others. Cinephil, 2018.

Chivallon, Christine. ‘Bristol and the Eruption of Memory: Makingteh Slave-Trading Past Visible.’ Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 2, no. 3, 2001, pp. 347–63.

Gwyn, Marian. ‘Wales and the Memorialisation of Slavery in 2007.’ Atlantic Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 299–318.

Niven, Bill. Facing the Nazi Past : United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich. Routledge, 2002.

Stone, Philip. ‘Consuming Dark Tourism: A Call for Research.’ E-Review of Tourism Research, vol. 3, no. 5, 2005.

Young, James E. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. Yale University Press, 2000.

(cover image for blog by Andrew Kelly)

Related Events/

Experience CARGO
16 October 2019, 10:00am – 4:00pm
FREE (but sessions must be booked), Watershed
A special advance event giving you the opportunity to see the outlines of the forthcoming immersive exhibition CARGO, which offers an alternative narrative to the story of the transatlantic slave trade.

Further details and booking link 

Beyond Apologies: Past Guilt and Urban Futures
16 October 2019, 10:45am – 12:00pm
FREE (but booking required), Watershed

Michele Curtis, Thomas Hermann, Lawrence Hoo, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Louise Mitchell, Olivette Otele, Anne Thomas and Andrew Kelly

The status of Edward Colston in Bristol has been the source of much debate and controversy – including calls to move his statue to a museum and the renaming of Colston Hall. It’s part of a wider debate about how Bristol should deal with its involvement in the slave trade but also about how cities deal with guilt generally. Looking at the experience of how other cities have dealt with the slave trade, the confederacy, the Holocaust, and the French colonial past, among other issues, this panel brings together writers, artists, academics and activists to debate how guilty cities should feel about their past and – critically – what cities do about this to create better futures for all.

Further details and booking link

Walk: Contested History with Madge Dresser: Bristol Slavery Trail
18 October 2019, 2:00pm – 3:00pm
£8 / £6, starts at Watershed

The Bristol slavery trail was first devised in 1999 but has gone through many different interpretations since. This walk, led by Madge Dresser, who has been working on the trail since that time, will concentrate on Central Bristol and will include revelations based on new original research. It will debunk some myths, show some of the many different ways the city’s prosperity was based on the labour of enslaved Africans, and consider some current controversies arising from the city’s slaving past and how it should be remembered.

Further details and booking link

Share this/