statue bristol equiano newton slavery
Society and Social Structures

It’s time for a new statue in Bristol – and two men deserve it most

The controversy over public monuments continues to be focused on Bristol, where the statue of Edward Colston was unlawfully removed by activists supporting the Marxist BLM Movement. There is no doubt that Colston had made a part of his fortune by investing in the slave trade, as did many Bristolians of greater and lesser wealth, but it was for his public benefaction to the poor that the Victorians had raised a memorial to him. They either did not know, failed to inquire, or simply overlooked the sources of his wealth, but in the days before the welfare state, the Victorians wanted to mark and encourage private efforts to relieve the plight of Bristol’s poor. That benefaction continues to this day, and outreaches to people of all races. History is indeed a checkerboard of moral ambiguity.

The removal of the statue posed a quandary for the Mayor and councillors. They could hardly reinstate it without risking disproportionate political controversy, yet they moved swiftly and creditably to deny the protestors further traction for their divisive ideology. By promptly removing a resin statue installed unofficially, depicting a BLM protesting woman in strident pose, the city has bought itself time and given the people of the city the opportunity to make a considered and intelligent choice. His Grace could discern artistic merit in the replacement; I am somewhat less enamoured. We probably agree that we ought not to have a ‘Boaty McBoatface’ outcome on such a sensitive issue.

Having suggested two statues for London recently, I have two suggestions for Bristol, both of which engage with the complexity of the history.

Olaudah Equiano, sometimes known as Gustavus Vassa, was a freed slave whose story captured the imagination of Georgian London. It is well worth noting, for it embodies so much of the complexity of the slavery issue. Many of our naive youth could learn from it. Far from being a ‘black and white issue’, Equiano’s story reflects the multilayered character of this country’s engagement with that aspect of history, and places it in a worldwide political and philosophical context.

Equiano said he was born in modern-day Benin. He was the son of a chief who held slaves, traded slaves, and condemned others to slavery. One of the culturally acceptable reasons for sentencing a prisoner to slavery was a finding of adultery, but perhaps we ought not to worry too many Bristolians with that detail. He was traded several times, sometimes treated badly, sometimes well. That aspect is a truth overlooked in much of the modern outrage. He was educated by his master who cared enough for him to be converted to Christianity, being baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster.

His manumission occurred in odd circumstances. His master had trusted him to trade on his account and he became very good at it. He was a slave capitalist and allowed to keep some of the money for himself. The master promised that if Equiano could raise the money to purchase his freedom, he could have it. So he did, for £40. The promise to the slave was kept: the Englishman’s word was his bond. Morality and good faith by a slave-owner, freedom through commerce. That will confuse the BLM activists.

Worse, Equiano used his freedom to work in various trades. Modern liberals assume that ex-slaves would become like them, virulently anti-slavery and anti-British. Not a bit of it: Equiano engaged in the choosing and overseeing of slaves, and why wouldn’t he? It was part of his culture of origin, and we surely must not impose our cultural norms on others!

Eventually, he became influenced by the small group of Quakers, Evangelicals and Anglicans, who formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was a strong and effective voice, and is remembered in the calendar of Saints by the Church of England each 30th July, alongside Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Perhaps a Bristol statue of all three might be appropriate?

As an alternative, the clergyman, hymnist, sea captain, former slave and slave-trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton might be considered. He, of course wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, which was sung at the funeral of George Floyd. He, too, encapsulates the complexity of the human condition which is so missing from the worldview of many BLM protestors.

We may clearly discern that slavery is wrong, but it was manifestly not seen to be so throughout most of world history in each and every culture. When philosophers began puzzling on the origins of Law, those advancing the idea of a pervading law of nature looked to find commonality across countries peoples and religions. If everybody everywhere had common values, they reasoned, this speaks to there being a ‘Natural Law’. Amongst the common rules, standards and institutions they gathered in the survey of the universally approved, were the prohibitions against murder and incest; and approval for the institutions of marriage and slavery. That is how embedded in human thinking it once was. No major world religion has an untainted history in this regard: Mohammed was a slave-trader, but we do not talk about that much.

Yet it was within dissenting Christianity that the modern worldview evolved. John Newton was a sea captain, and when transporting slaves after his marriage, he used to instruct his men to bind him to the mast when drunk, lest he sexually assault the female slaves. He was himself captured and enslaved by an African princess, yet having been on the wrong end of the institution, he returned to complicity in slaving when he escaped. Why wouldn’t he? It was the norm throughout the world. The great conversion came not through an intellectual moral reflection but though sheer terror in a fierce storm at sea when he had a near-death experience. It was this that led him to examine his life, which in turn led to him giving the all important first-hand evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on the iniquitous conditions in which humans were transported in the course of the Transatlantic slave trade.

The words of the great hymn for which he is best known, ‘Amazing Grace’, are often sung by those without this background knowledge. It speaks of revelation and redemption through the gift of Christ’s grace towards the lost, available to John Newton and George Floyd alike. It means so much more when one knows Newton’s story.

A statue of neither Equiano nor Newton would offer a naive, uncomplicated narrative for the passers-by of Bristol to contemplate. The one offered by the artist Mark Quinn of the BLM activist, however, could only serve as a monument to current moral vanity, declaring “Oh, aren’t we good!”. If we had left the monument to Ms Jen Reid in place, it might well have been torn down in its turn by future mobs, outraged by this generation’s own moral blindness over abortion: black babies’ lives also matter. Like Newton, Ms Reid and her activist friends simply cannot see this – yet.

If we are going to review our public statuary, let us do so in seriousness rather than hubris. Olaudah Equiano and John Newton were people of their time, with the same ambiguities and contradictions that Edward Colston presented. In Colston’s case, 30 years’ investment in slavery was followed by 200 years of public philanthropy. Public art ought to offer an invitation for deep engagement if it is intended to have a moral or political purpose. Equiano and Newton would do that: at least they came to move their society forward. Ms Reid and her Marxist friends pulled down a few statues: Olaudah Equiano, John Newton and their Christian friends changed the way the whole world thinks about slavery. Sorry, BLM – it’s no contest.