On Monday, we saw protestors in Bristol tear down the controversial statue of 17th Century Slave Trader Edward Colston. Like dominoes, other traffickers, thieves and slave traders were all targeted to come down. Traffickers such as Robert Milligan, who was a 18th century Scottish merchant and slave owner who used his wealth through slavery to build London’s West India Docks to King Leopold II of Belgium, who murdered millions in the Congo. Thousands have also gathered and protested in Oxford to demand the removal of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, a businessman who pushed the empire to seize control over vast areas of Southern Africa. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been forced to address the anger and call for many other statutes and streets to be renamed and said according to the BBC: “It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade…While this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored.”
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The imposing figure of Colston was ripped down and thrown symbolically into the Bristol Harbour. Colston became a favoured son of Bristol due to his vast wealth built from his human trafficking, as he held the monopoly on the English trade in African slaves. On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to many Bristol charities and institutions meaning his legacy would live on in the city. According to figures reported in the Guardian, Colston was responsible for the theft of 84,000 Africans, in his role as deputy governor of the ironically named Royal Africa Company. Under his watch, 19,000 innocent men, women and children died in the “middle passage”, while being transported in ships bound for their enslavement. Many perished due to violence, disease and the nightmarish conditions. These stolen people were forced to live in their own vomit, fear and faeces. The bodies of the deceased captured Africans, would be thrown into the sea, discarded as rubbish and waste. As a result, images of Colston being thrown into the harbour are particularly poignant.Home secretary Priti Patel has said the toppling of the Edward Colston statue was the result of “mob rule” and “utterly disgraceful”. In my opinion, Patel’s statement is the disgrace. You may be surprised to hear that I agree with Patel, but not for the reasons you think. I think the statues of these men should stay up because we need to remember with clarity their role in British history. We need to bear witness to the violence and injustice they represented, alongside a tribute and memorial to the 300 years and countless generations of their victims.This story is deeply personal to me. I was a student at Bristol University in 1997. I was the only black student selected out of 200 students across the country to be chosen to study History at this Russell Group university.
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I grew up in central London, went to a private girl’s school in Knightsbridge and my father was a diplomat with the UN. However, when I arrived in Bristol at 19 to start my university career, I had £30 in my pocket and no idea how I was going to manage. I have a toxic and dysfunctional relationship with my father, who used money to punish and control. Penniless, I worked four jobs at the same time to pay my rent, buy books and eat beans on toast. I couldn’t afford a laptop like all my peers and was forced to walk 45 minutes each way to a deserted basement computer lab. I would start my coursework at midnight and work through the night as I had to work during the day. Each night I had to brace myself and make the decision to risk the chance of being mugged or raped, as I couldn’t afford a taxi home. The decision was clear, walk alone at 2am across the notorious Bristol Downs or don’t do my essays and fail. Failure was not an option. One night I was approached by a mugger, ironically at a cashpoint. I was withdrawing my last £5 to get a taxi home, as I felt I had pushed my luck. I charmed and bluffed my way out of what could have been a fatal situation. Every term, I went to the school welfare counsellor to beg and plead my case for some financial assistance. I was exhausted and couldn’t make ends meet. I was begrudgingly given some money and made to feel ashamed, grateful and humbled for the University’s benevolence towards me. I was made to feel like a black Oliver Twist.
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I would walk past Edward Colston’s statue through the wind, rain, scared and alone late at night. I had never even heard of Colston before I had started to live in Bristol. I think all these statutes are reflecting the true ignorance many of us live in when it comes to the education, which needs to happen in schools to the true horrors if slavery and Great Britain’s role in the generations of torture and misery. I would wonder why he had the right to stand proud, while I was made to feel so humbled. Bristol’s wealth was built on slavery and tobacco. Being half Nigerian and Trinidadian, many of the grand and imposing buildings were built on the blood of millions of my stolen and trafficked people. The utter disgrace is that as a descendant of this brutality, I was still being made to feel like a second class citizen. The Treasury recently released a fun #FridayFact, “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes”. The British people, that’s you and me, have helped to pay off the compensation given to slave owners. It took us until 2015 to finally pay off families of slave owners, which according to the Slave Compensation Commission, included David Cameron’s ‘people’. To end the slave trade, the government in effect had to pay slave owners money to compensate the loss of “property” to them as their slaves were set free. The slaves themselves where not compensated. Reparations to the African captives has never been paid.
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While my peers were partying, I was grafting, crying and riddled with anxiety and fear. Through it all I managed to achieve a 2:1 BA degree with HONS. What would I have been able to achieve without the financial burden I was under? I will never know; that was stolen from me.If you need to understand the rage and anger felt by the “mob” who ripped down the statue, image how you would feel having to walk past a monument to Jimmy Saville honouring his charity work. This was my daily reality.For real social justice, which the world is screaming for, I think a percentage of the money these men plundered from the “dark continent”, should also be set up as scholarship funds. Students/ survivors from the BAME communities should be compensated. The world is changing and I don’t want anyone to feel the humiliation I did as a 19 year-old kid. Enough is enough.