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The trial of the Colston Four - to charge or not to charge?

The Colston Four were acquitted of criminal damage despite toppling statue of slave trader Edward Colston - Abi Ramsay explores whether this was the right decision

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Image Credit: Caitlin Hobbs

On 7 June 2020, Bristol made the news, like many other cities in the UK, as thousands of protestors took to the streets to form Black Lives Matter protests. The protest in Bristol, took the crowd to the re-gentrified hub of the city; the Harbourside. For Bristol, a city built on the wealth of the slave trade, there are reminders of the bleak history throughout its urban landscape. Street names, such as Guinea Street, Jamaica Street and Codrington Place are all reminiscent of the city’s involvement with the slave trade, but it is the Harbourside which holds most of this history. Here, we have Pero Bridge, named after Pero Jones, a slave bought and brought back to Bristol by sugar merchant John Binney. It is also in this area that we find the many legacies of Edward Colston, and his influence over the city.

Edward Colston, an English merchant, was heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade. He was referred to as a philanthropist, who brought a lot of money to the city of Bristol, with many of its buildings having connections to his name – Colston Hall, Colston Girls School and Colston Tower. There was also a statue of him built in 1895, 174 years after his death. This took pride of place in the middle of Bristol Harbourside, until, on 7 June 2020, it was toppled and dumped into the waters of the harbour by protestors.

"Why should the Colston Four have been charged for an act which has allowed Bristol to acknowledge and learn from their history of slavery, as well as an act that has become, not only a turning point in the UK BLM protests, but a chance for the whole country to take a look at their approach to racism?"

On January 5 2022, the Colston Four – Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Jake Skuse – who were behind the toppling of Colston, were acquitted of their charge of criminal damage. This response has divided the country, with some calling it a step in the right direction for public change, and others worrying it will incite crimes of a similar nature.

A Bristolian myself, I have been aware of Colston’s influence over the city, performing concerts in the Colston Hall, having friends that went to Colston Girls School, and seeing the statue whenever I walked from Cabot Circus to Park Street. However, although all these reminders of Colston pointed out the importance of his wealth on the urbanisation of the city, it was never made clear as to where Colston got his money from.

In 1920, 100 years before the BLM protests which would finally see the removal of the statue, a biography of Colston’s life was released by H.J Wilkins. In this, he exposed Colston’s involvement with the slave trade, and from around 1990 onwards, there were murmurings that these should be referenced on the plaque of his statue (which read “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895” ), or that his statue should be removed.

However, nothing was done. In 2018, Bristol City Council started to make moves that a second plaque would be added to the plinth of the statue, pointing to Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. This plaque was reworded numerous times, and was even produced, before it was vetoed by Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees in 2019 as he didn’t agree with the wording.

So in 2020, when the Colston four toppled the statue, there was a sigh of relief amongst those who had been protesting against it for so long. The statue, which was graffitied many times, and had caused so much controversy, had finally been removed. This marked a turning point for Bristol, with this one action kicking into process a flurry of changes around the city. The Colston Hall and Colston Tower were renamed the Bristol Beacon and Beacon Tower, respectively. Colston Girls’ School is now the Montpelier High School, and after being fished out the harbour, Colston himself has been placed in the M Shed, a museum about the history of Bristol, in a display designed to start the conversation about Bristol’s unpleasant history. He has been left in the rope used to pull him down, is still covered in graffiti, and is lying down, to highlight the monumental nature of the event.

The journey of the statue faced national – and even international – news so it was only natural that the trial of the Colston Four faced as much scrutiny. But the lasting question after their acquittal is – should they have been charged?

The prosecutors argued that the crimes of Colston himself should be set aside by the jury, and that the jury should not use the history of Bristol as reasoning for the action to take place. Instead, they asked that it be viewed as criminal damage to a Grade II listed site. But, it is the history of the statue that makes the toppling of it so reasonable. In setting aside the history of the statue, the prosecutors were asking the jury to forget about the 84,000 people who were enslaved in order for Colston to accumulate his wealth. They were also asking the jury to forget about the 19,000 of the 84,000 who died at sea, kept in inhumane conditions, abused and chained, all of which Colston was complicit in with.

By asking for this history to be forgotten, the prosecutors gave the defendants the grounds for their arguments. Their denying of the history of Colston highlighted the importance of the statue’s removal – after all, this history which had been known for 100 years since the publication of H.J Wilkins’ work, had been consistently denied in the first place, which led to the Colston Four and BLM protestors taking the action into their own hands.

So why should the Colston Four have been charged for an act which has allowed Bristol to acknowledge and learn from their history of slavery, as well as an act that has become, not only a turning point in the UK BLM protests, but a chance for the whole country to take a look at their approach to racism? Of course, they shouldn’t.

However, this verdict is not without its issues. The acquittal of an evident act of criminal damage could make it harder for future crimes of a similar nature to be prosecuted. It was also an emotional trial – made harder to be policed due to its longstanding associations with racism, and human rights abuses. The Colston Four also had a strong defence – free speech, their right to conscience, and that a conviction would be disproportionate interference with those rights. They also argued they were preventing a crime, with the statue causing issues for so long, it already should have been removed. This argument was also backed by historian David Olusoga, who gave testimony at the trial. Opposition to the verdict felt that this placed Colston himself on trial, rather than the four who were being charged. This inclusion of historical evidence, however, proved to be the basis for the Colston Fours innocence.

What has this trial taught us then? The international intrigue surrounding the Colston Four has drawn attention to a trial which has both made progress for our country, whilst also potentially causing problems for future convictions of a similar essence. It has allowed Bristol to examine its approach to controversial historical figures and finally teach Bristolians where the city’s wealth came from. It means that Colston will no longer be thought of as a philanthropist, but rather acknowledged as a slave trader. It has also taught people, perhaps, how to form a strong defence against criminal damage charges, making future prosecutors’ jobs just that little bit harder…

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