Those who have not been to Bristol, UK have probably never heard of Edward Colston. That is, never until Sunday, June 7, 2020 when the paint-smeared statue of the 17th century merchant, slave trader and philanthropist appeared on the news around the world as it tumbled into the Avon. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you: slave trader and philanthropist written in the same line.
Colston has been a source of controversy in Bristol for many years. There are those who would have taken a hammer to the sculpture long ago. But there are others who are inspired by his noble work. Because Colston used his ill-begotten wealth to support hospitals and churches.
The statue was not the only bow to the distinguished man - his name appears on many Bristol landmarks. There is Colston Avenue, Colston Music Hall and even the Colston bun - a sweet pastry with dried fruit, candied peel, and spices. And the creator was, yes, you guessed it, Mr. Colston himself. Bristol children are still gifted the bun on Colston Day and it used to be distributed to poor kids in the Colston schools with eight wedge marks so that individual portions could be torn off to share within families, plus a piece called "staver" eaten immediately to "stave off" hunger. Not to mention the generous gift of 2 shillings also financed by the fine man.
When he died in 1721, Colston bequeathed all his wealth to charitable foundations. The problem is that the money that still supports some of these trusts came from the proceeds of the Royal African Company which moved some 84,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. Shackled and sold as slaves.
When Colston´s statue was first paint-sprayed and then toppled, pictures taken by local photographers showed a protester kneeling on his neck - very much like the image we know so well from the George Floyd video. The bronze figure was later dragged through the streets of Bristol and thrown into the harbor. Where it belonged in the first place, some would say. Others, like Priti Patel, Britain’s first female Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Cabinet Minister, called it “utterly disgraceful”.
So, can we separate Colston the slave trader from Colston the philanthropist? Let’s examine a few other examples.
Pablo Neruda was a mid-20th century Chilean Nobel laureate whose poetry and life were the symbol of resistance to one of the world´s bloodiest dictatorships. Quotes from his One Hundred Love Sonnets still grace upmarket Valentine´s Day cards and his Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
In 2019, the Chilean Parliament voted to rename the country´s principal international airport after Neruda. Those who voted in favor said that the poet´s name “because he made all Chileans proud” should be the first thing they saw when arriving in Santiago. But after a string of protest from local feminists, the idea was scrapped. The decision was based on the discovery of a page from Neruda’s memoir, where he described raping a woman when he was a diplomat in Ceylon.
“I took a strong grip on her wrist and led her to the bedroom. The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive,” he wrote.
And although the book was published some 50 years before, the quote resurfaced during the #MeToo movement. Right on time to block his nomination.
There is no denying that Neruda was a literary genius whom Gabriel García Márquez lauded as “the greatest Spanish speaking poet of the 20th century”. He also helped thousands of Republican refugees escape to Chile after the Spanish civil war. Yet his personal closet was jam-packed with horrendous skeletons – such as his ruthless neglect of Malva Marina, his daughter, who was born with hydrocephalus and died aged 8 in Nazi-occupied Holland. In fact, he never once mentioned her in his 400-page memoir. And in the months following the girl´s death in 1942, he did nothing to help her mother and his first wife, Marietje Hagenaar, to escape to Chile. Marietje ended up in a Nazi transit camp but fortunately survived.
So, was Neruda a genius or a monster? He was probably both. Just like Colston was a family man, a philanthropist and a slave trader. And we cannot separate one from the other. They are intricately merged.
The problem arises when we must decide if such figures should receive our applause or censure. Should streets be named after them or should they be punished by public oblivion? We seem to forget, for example, that Alfred Nobel himself was an arms merchant and that the money which now finances the Nobel Peace Prize ( recent winners include Afghan teen Malala Yousafzai and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) comes from dynamite, an invention that have literally and figuratively blown millions of lives to shreds.
Likewise, no one would ever dream of naming a music hall or a street after Jeffrey Epstein yet, according to many, the financier was a generous patron of hospitals, universities and film festivals. His was a charitable empire built on deception all the while he was a sexual predator.
By definition, a dichotomy is a division into two mutually exclusive or contradictory entities such as Colston, Neruda or Nobel. Marvin Rees Bristol Mayor and the UK’s first directly elected black mayor, expressed it only too well hopefully putting an end to the Colston dichotomy forever.
“Education of our history has often been flawed. More accuracy of our city’s history which is accessible to all will help us understand each other, our differences, our contradictions and our complexities.”
Author Notes: Real story, real life.