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The images of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being toppled, defaced and “strangled” by hundreds of protesters, and then thrown into the river on the British port city of Bristol, will be on our minds for a long time. The truth is that something like this is priceless. This brave collective action has marked one of the most significant moments of the enormous wave of anti-racist struggles which has arisen internationally after the brutal murder of US citizen George Floyd.

By: Daniel Sugasti

The correct attack on the representation of the old slave trader has opened a debate about the political traits of the so-called historical memory. Colston [1636-1721] was regarded as nearly a saint in Bristol. He grew rich in the 1600’s trafficking Africans who would then be sold as slaves in the Americas. His business earned him a seat on the British Parliament, as well as allowing him to become a philanthropist in his birthplace. The local bourgeoisie, aware that its prosperity was largely due to the slave trade, decided to eternalize the figure of Colston with that statue, as well as giving his name to at least 20 streets, schools, buildings, etc.

However, if there is any doubt about how seriously the bourgeoisie understands the ideological struggle – including the relation between symbology and historical memory -, it can be enlightening to recap what happened after the anti-racist movement got rid of Colston’s monument. Immediately, the city’s government rescued the statue from the bottom of the river and, the news say, it will be restored and exhibited in a museum.

But this tug-o-war of symbology between the oppressors and the oppressed did not end then. A new chapter occurred when the statue of a Black activist with the fist raised appeared in the same spot Colston used to be. The statue represented Jen Reid (a dweller of the city) and was created by British artist Marc Quinn, which called his work “A Surge of Power”. The creation and deployment happened in complete secrecy, taking the authorities by surprise. Thus, the city awoke in July 15th with a new statue in place, which by her feet had a plaque with the inscription “Black lives still matter”. A beautiful counterattack by the anti-racist movement.

Quinn thought of the sculpture as a “temporary installation”, perhaps because he knew it would not be there for long. And indeed, the city government removed the statue in less than 24 hours, stating the obvious: that Quinn had no authorization. However, it was evident they felt the blow. The mayor of Briston did not dare to put Colston in his former place, saying only that a debate would happen about racism and historical memory. On the other hand, Quinn’s work would be brought to a museum for its author to “reclaim or donate it” to the municipal collection.

The activist Jen Reid stayed by her statue, her fist raised high. “This is fucking brave, that’s what it is”, she said. The most intense moment of the morning, according to her, was “seeing the children approach me and raise their fists. Black and white children, all together.” On his part, the artist declared than “Jen created the statue when she climb the pedestal and raised her fist”. Now, “we have crystallized that”.

The enslaving past of the United Kingdom

What the anti-racist movement brought to attention when it attacked not only the statues of slave owners, but that of Churchill himself, is the “untouchable” colonialist, enslaving past of the United Kingdom.

When we think about the Atlantic slave trade between in 1500’s and 1800’s, we usually are reminded of the kingdoms of Portugal or Spain, and their former colonies. This makes sense. If our gauge is, say, the destiny of the enslaved Africans, we know that around 38% disembarked on Portuguese America and 18% on Spanish America. When we think of England, usually we remember the pressures of this country to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself in the XIXth century, when the exploitation of “free” labour was clearly more profitable.

However, the truth is that the United Kingdom is an imperialism which has built itself – just all the others – on the basis of colonialism and the famous “triangular trade” of slaves, a business with which it achieved a very important position until the XVIIIth century.

The British slave trade begun in 1562, through the travels of famous corsair John Hawkins, who would soon be christened knight by Queen Elizabeth I as a reward for the good money earned. In 1625, the English took possession of Barbados, in the name of James I. Thirty years later, they conquered Jamaica from Spanish colonists. In 1660 there was the foundation, in England, of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading Into Africa. The King himself handed the writ to allow their ships to trade in the Western African coast and build strongholds, under the condition that half their earnings go to the Crown. In 1672, the company was restructured and renamed the Royal African Company (RAC). Now, as well as trafficking Africans and building forts, it could establish “factories” (spaces where it kept slaves before embarking them), employing its own soldiers.

In the XVIth century, Colston was deputy governor of the RAC, which by then had a monopoly on the slave trade. The governor was none other than the brother of King Charles II, soon-to-be King James II. It is estimated that more than 84,000 captives were trafficked in the ships of the “great benefactor of the city of Bristol”. The horrible conditions of the Atlantic crossing costed the lives of between 10% and 20% of the captives. To the survivors, a life of forced work and torture.

By the end of that century, other parts became involved in the slave trade, although they had to pay the RAC a tax of 10% of all their African exports. The increase in the activities brought the slave trade to an important position in the British economy.

The fact is, slavery and the slave trade were hugely important for the primitive accumulation of capital which would consolidate capitalism in Western Europe. The trafficking of Africans brought wealth not only to the traffickers – Europeans and their African partners – but to owners of mines and plantation on the Americas, to the bankers who financed the expeditions, and even to the first industrialists, who depended on the raw materials import from colonized zones in which slave labor was the rule.

The amount of slaves trafficked by the “civilized” English bourgeoisie was quite large. It is estimated that in 1807, the year when the slave trade was made illegal in Great Britain, more than 3 million Africans had been brought by English boats to the Americas. The sum of the entire Atlantic slave trade was of around 12 millions.

What is certain is that the triangular trade was key in the creation of the European-dominated global economy. The countries which controlled the trade experienced impressive material growth, the product of the suction of resources and the theft of the workforce of the colonized areas. Great Britain was no different. The sum of their foreign trade went from 10 to 40 million pounds during the 1700’s.

This is the past which is being disputed, bathed in the blood of millions of Africans and hundreds of colonized peoples. This dispute is expressed in many ways: the “battle of statues” of Bristol is one of them. Its is impact is an important blog of the wider Black Lives Matter in the USA, the UK, and many other countries. It is an example of direct struggle which we must follow.

[translated by Miki Sayoko]