Well, what started out as a demonstration of support for the Black Lives Matter campaign veered off course when some of the protestors, who’d gathered in Bristol’s city centre, decided to use the opportunity to – you could say – settle an old score.
The statue of Edward Colston has long been considered an affront to the black community and it is somewhat amazing that it wasn’t removed years ago.
It will now be added to the already impressive Slave Trade installation at M Shed where the paint with which it has been daubed will stay as an extra layer of its history.
The actions of those people – on the day the bronze was toppled from its plinth – has energised on-going dialogue about how Bristol-owned ships transported about half a million Africans into slavery and how we should respond to that fact today.
Here in Bath, we don’t have statues of slavers to pull down but that doesn’t mean we can smugly look at Bristol and say ‘Not in our back yard!’ Our city has fine architecture and roads associated with many men whose wealth was acquired through the profits of slavery.
Plantation owners from the Americas and West Indies came to Bath to retire on the proceeds, invest money in a Georgian building boom or simply sample the delights of the city’s spa water society.
Slavery had been abolished by the time wealthy William Beckford came to Bath to build his tower at Lansdown, but he had inherited 30 plantations from his father and would surely be using the profits AND the compensation slave owners were given once the practice was made illegal.
Those cruelly torn from their homes and transported into slavery received nothing but the removal of their shackles.
Elsewhere, here in Bath, Great Pulteney Street – the grandest avenue in the city – was commissioned from the wealth of plantation owner, Sir William Pulteney.
Even the showpieces created by John Wood and his son were part-funded by money made from slavery.
In fact, John Wood senior’s first patron, The Duke of Chandos, was heavily involved in the Royal Africa Company which ferried slaves across the Atlantic.
According to one unconfirmed online source, even Bath Abbey features more funerary monuments to slave traders, planters and West India merchants than any other final resting place in the UK.
This – of course – is a side of Bath’s history not exactly promoted, though it must be said Bath Preservation Trust – who own and run Beckford’s Tower – has produced a booklet detailing his connections with the trade, which on sale at the facility.
It also has organised a list of teaching aids on the subject of slavery.
The Trust is also currently consulting about how this history could best be conveyed in a ‘re-interpretation’ of the tower in the future.
My request for an interview was politely declined but you will find the following statement on the website beckfordstower.org.uk
‘A development grant awarded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund will enable us to re-examine the way in which we share the story of William Beckford’s links to slavery.
We have always sought, and continue to welcome views on this difficult subject. In doing so we believe that our presentation of the Beckford story can be continually improved and make a valuable contribution to understanding the evils of slavery and its role in British life of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
If you would like to be part of the consultation process for the ‘Our Tower’ project, do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we would be delighted to hear from you.’
The leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council says that local links to an appalling history have to be confronted head-on and she will shortly be bringing people together to start a conversation about how to acknowledge this.
She reminds us that the city also has connections with people who opposed slavery – like William Wilberforce and Hannah More.
I await details of the planned webinar which will debate Bath’s response. I have already suggested Great Pulteney Street could be re-named Grand Avenue?
We are already a city full of plaques and noticeboards but maybe there IS a way of erecting something to acknowledge what helped pay for the architectural heritage we have profited from for so long.
What do you think?