History: St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and Contested Histories
The history commemorated in Bristol made international headlines in June 2020 when demonstrators toppled a Victorian statue of merchant, philanthropist and slave-trader Edward Colston. Then they dumped it head-first into the harbour.
This wasn't the first attack on a historic statue, but it ignited in the UK what had been a largely American debate about contested histories – and who deserves a celebratory statue.
But statues aren't the only way to mark history, and Colston's name was all over Bristol.
The Windows of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol
Parish churches like St Mary Redcliffe have a long tradition of funeral monuments, usually for local worthies. Chapels, effigies, plaques, floor slabs, that sort of thing. But the mid-nineteenth-century saw a different trend emerge, with people commissioning stained glass windows dedicated to their dearly departed. At St Mary Redcliffe, the new windows were included with preservation of medieval glass as part of a decades-long restoration, beginning in the 1840s.
These new windows remembered the usual smattering of recent mayors, churchwardens and merchants, but in 1866 the vicar proposed a memorial to a long-dead man whose reputation was just then being reforged as one of Bristol's most eminent sons: Edward Colston.
Now, a window isn't a statue. These usually depict Biblical figures or stories, and have a small dedication tucked away somewhere. The story might have a special significance to the deceased, like St Mary Redcliffe's Sunday School teacher being commemorated with an image of Christ blessing children.
Colston's north transept window showed the Good Samaritan, reflecting the charitable giving that earned him his commemoration. This was also the story Colston had adopted as a sort of personal motto. He was making his own myth, even before the Victorians got hold of him.
But what did the Victorians want with Colston?
Madge Dresser has flagged the trend on both sides of the Atlantic for memorialising imperialists during this peak period of imperial expansion. Although she resists suggesting that those promoting Colston's reputation shared the Jim Crow objectives visible in the US, the explanation she offers instead carries a similarly protectionist impulse. Colston, she says, was useful not only for celebrating Bristol's civic and mercantile history, but also in uniting a divided political class against a growing working class labour movement. 150+ years on, Colston could still speak to a paternalist tendency among Britain's elites.
What Replaces Colston?
After the statue's swim, there was a reassessment of Colston's legacy across Bristol (the reckoning had been brewing for some time). Both the cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe committed to removing Colston windows, and the church launched a competition for replacements. New designs for four panels, by local artist and doctor Ealish Swift, were unveiled in September 2022.
Though they don't reference him directly, the new designs deliberately incorporate Colston's history into a wider story about Bristol's community, past and present, conveying a strong and simple Biblical message. Taken together, the four panels unite humanity, with Christ, in a loving neighbourliness that erases the racial differences on which fortunes like Colston's were built.
The building of that fortune looms large in the first panel, which shows a sailing ship in a storm. We might think of Christ's disciples needing him to calm Lake Galilee, like in a traditional stained glass Biblical scene – but this isn't a fishing boat, the men aboard are Black Africans, and Christ himself stands in the prow, one of them and among them. This is the Middle Passage, the deadly transatlantic route taken by slave ships for European merchants, many of whom were based in ports like Bristol.
The second panel again makes clear where Christ stands: as ever, he is with the oppressed and marginalised. He holds a placard as part of Bristol's more recent contribution to Britain's race-relations: 1963's Bus Boycott. The boycott was organised to protest the local bus company's whites-only hiring policy, and succeeded around the same time that US Civil Rights marches were gaining traction. Such workplace discrimination was outlawed by the end of the decade, and Bristol's first non-white bus conductor, a Punjabi Sikh, was hired in September 1963.
The Inequality at the Heart of the Debate
This second panel points to the inequalities behind much of the recent reckoning with contested histories, especially around race, gender and sexuality. The contest emerges around the legacies of colonialism, slavery and patriarchy, and backlash against their reinterpretation.
Familiar historical narratives that allowed privileged communities (eg. white/straight/male/European) to feel proud of their ancestors, and themselves, have been challenged. For all its emotional difficulty, the challenge is factual: if we're proud of some of our ancestors for building the Iron Bridge near Telford, we must also recognise that some other ancestors shipped thousands of Africans across the sea in chains. It's complex, but two things can be true at once. We can be proud of Britain's textiles heritage, but we should also recognise who picked the cotton and why. That needn't diminish Britain's achievements in textiles. But the achievement also doesn't diminish the atrocity.
Britain's role in the slave trade has been re-examined, and not everybody's happy with the result. Critics have accused activists of 'cancelling' history by toppling statues, and historians of re-writing history itself. But history is always a re-telling of events, and every generation re-writes. All that's changed recently is that voices and perspectives not previously given voice have started (being allowed) to speak up. The cosy idea that Britain's chief role in slavery was ending the trade has come up against the uncomfortable truth that for so long, Britain was a key trader.
Bristol in the World's Story
Port cities like Bristol are especially linked to Britain's slaving legacy, given how their fortunes were tied in to the shipping companies and the triangular trade between Britain, Africa and the Americas. Slaves would be shipped from Africa to work plantations in the Americas, from which raw materials would be shipped to Europe for the manufacture of goods that could be shipped to Africa and traded for more slaves. And so on, all via the port cities.
There's even an apocryphal story about the bells of St Mary Redcliffe ringing to celebrate the defeat in parliament of an abolition bill which would have severely hampered trade.
That story is doubtful, but more convincing is the result of a 2017 study indicating high levels of racial inequalities lingering in twenty-first-century Bristol.
The Four New Window Panels
Swift's remaining two new designs bring the replacement window into the 2020s. One shows that contemporary terror to the British far-right, a boatload of refugees – among them a family with haloes, fleeing Herod's persecution. In the fourth, Christ stands among a diverse group of Bristolians. In all four scenes, he is among the people and one of them. The message? These are the neighbours of Leviticus 19:18, the text which runs along the window's edge and replaces Colston's hollow exhortation to follow the Good Samaritan's example.
Colston's is a complicated legacy. Gifts from his fortune helped many poorer Bristolians, but that fortune was fuelled by the profits of enslaved labour. Should one fact be remembered without the other? I would suggest not. But a statue, or memorial window, praises the good while effacing the bad. Colston as the Good Samaritan, never the slave-trader. However much defenders claim the statue reminds and teaches, there's a gaping hole in the lesson.
Should the beneficiaries of Colston's charity have felt guilt over the source of their support? Possibly. Should the British people of the 2020s feel residual guilt for the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade? Probably not, but we ought at least to recognise that everyone living in the economy built on that trade has benefited from it, as well as from the other fruits of empire, however dubiously gained.
Colston's paint-daubed statue now represents something different, and has entered a new chapter in the history of Britain's race-relations, in a museum. That's a positive step towards greater historical understanding and nuance. Meanwhile, St Mary Redcliffe's new window connects the strands of Bristol's history and engages with the legacy being lived in the modern city far more than the memorial it replaced.
Image of Colston in the harbour: Ben Birchall, https://ndla.no/subject:846a7552-ea6c-4174-89a4-85d6ba48c96e/topic:9bbad122-b6a1-47e7-8b20-b16e8893cfd5/topic:44505a83-0d5b-4241-b27d-382fa216f1e2/resource:8dad5ad5-9831-4fca-831c-9637ba60447f
Colston statue pre-harbour dip: By John Cassidy - Self-photographed by Simon Cobb, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80038516
Final image of Colston statue: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boliston/51235720672/
Roger Ball, 'Myths Within Myths...Edward Colston and that statue', Bristol Radical History Group.
Peter J Cobb, 'The Stained Glass of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol' in Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society CXIII
Madge Dresser, 'Monumental folly – what Colston’s statue says about Victorian Bristol', Apollo Magazine.
Antonia Layard, 'Edward Colston: Listing Controversy', University of Bristol Law School.
Antonia Layard, 'Listing Controversy II: Statues, Contested Heritage and the Policy of ‘Retain and Explain’', University of Bristol Law School.
Ealish Swift's Artist Statement: https://irp.cdn-website.com/21812df9/files/uploaded/Entry%206%20Combined%20Panels%20Final.pdf
Bristol Cathedral joint statement on Colston windows: https://bristol-cathedral.co.uk/news/a-statement-on-colston-windows