In the end Marti Burgess was surprised how easily he fell. For all of her 50 years – and for 75 more before that – the bronze statue of Edward Colston had stood tall on its plinth at the heart of Bristol, a plaque underneath describing him as a “virtuous and wise” philanthropist. His name had been committed to memory by generations of schoolchildren and, lest they forget, inscribed on Colston Tower, Colston Hall and Colston Avenue. Yet with only a few tugs on the ropes protesters had fixed around his neck, he toppled to the ground, bowing to the inevitable like a condemned man. Burgess, who had been visiting friends, watched the moment on Twitter. She shared the news with her family via WhatsApp. “Forty years of chatting,” her mum replied. “Five minutes of action.”
That was when she wept. On her way to work every day she’d had to walk past the likeness of the 17th-century slave-trader. On some days she would ignore it; on others the mild-mannered corporate lawyer would swear or even spit at it. “You’re constantly being told you’re British,” she says. “But actually, are you British if that’s what you have to confront?”
The fall of the statue on the first Sunday of June showed how deeply the protests against racism that have been bursting out across America since May are resonating in other countries. Cities across Europe are confronting the murky sources of their wealth. Last week, a college at Oxford University finally bowed to years of pressure and promised to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes, a prominent British colonialist.
For Burgess, the felling of Colston’s statue marked the beginning of a more personal kind of soul-searching. Colston had been a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, a close-knit group of businesspeople from Bristol who then – as now – dominated much of civic life. When the bronze came down, members of the modern-day Merchants issued a bland statement of sympathy with the protesters’ “peaceful and powerful stand against racism and injustice”. But the society, which grew rich in part by levying fees on slave ships, has done little to support the struggle against racism in Bristol.
Two years ago the city council decided to add a second plaque to the Colston statue highlighting his involvement in the slave trade, but the plan was delayed indefinitely because of the Merchants’ determination to water down the new wording. Until recently, guests at the organisation’s boozy dinners were shown a glass cabinet supposedly containing Colston’s fingernails and locks of his hair. Until 2017 girls at one of the schools named after him, which the Merchants still run, wore chrysanthemums – apparently Colston’s favourite flower – on its annual Commemoration Day. In short, the Merchants are, as the historian David Olusoga puts it, the “high priests of the Colston cult”.
Despite all this, only four months before Colston fell, Burgess had agreed to become the organisation’s first black member. As soon as the statue was dumped in the city’s harbour her Twitter feed began lighting up with questions. “When’s the next Merchant Venturers meeting?” someone asked. “Should be interesting.” “Must be odd for you, Marti,” wrote another, “considering you are a Merchant Venturer now and they love the guy.”
Burgess ignored some messages and wrote brief replies to others. In the days that followed, she turned down scores of interview requests; she has no desire to be seen as a “community leader”. But the messages made her question herself: “What am I doing joining an organisation with that history?”
One of the things Burgess remembers most vividly about growing up in Bristol in the 1970s was the language of the classroom: “Being called the w-word, the c-word, the n-word”. With her thick-rimmed spectacles, neat, short hair and carefully considered speech, she comes across as a calm and authoritative figure. But there’s a glint behind her lenses when she talks about Bristol’s past.
On her way to work every day Burgess had to walk past the likeness of the 17th-century slave-trader
Burgess was born into a city where it has never been easy to be a black person, and which still ranks as one of the worst places in Britain for racial inequality, in spite of having a black mayor. For a few decades in the 18th century, Bristol was Britain’s biggest slave-trading hub. Ships licensed in the city transported slaves from west Africa to British-owned plantations in the Caribbean and brought home sugar and other produce. Direct and indirect profits from the traffic in slaves built much of the handsome Regency architecture for which the city is known. Slaves rarely passed through the port and black people were a small presence in the city until after the second world war, when Britain’s imperial subjects were urged to come to the “mother country” to fill labour shortages.
Among those who came were Burgess’s grandparents, who set sail from Jamaica in 1953. They had never considered themselves anything other than British – they kept a picture of the Queen on their wall – and were surprised to find out how many people in the mother country saw things differently. Like others who arrived in Bristol after the war, they moved into bomb-damaged neighbourhoods, the only areas where landlords were prepared to rent to black people. Black children were discouraged from taking exams in Bristol’s schools. Black men were banned from working on the city’s buses until 1963.
Burgess remembers her grandparents’ attitude: “Keep your head down, work really hard, get on with it.” Her mother Sonia was a hard worker too, though more willing to question the system. She left school at 16 without taking o-levels, but became friends with Paul Stephenson, a campaigner who led the boycott that overturned the ban on black bus drivers. Stephenson encouraged Sonia’s ambitions, and she and her husband eventually ended up running a series of successful pubs and nightclubs.
There were more opportunities for black children in Bristol by the time Burgess was at school – she went on to study law, and even bought a nightclub of her own. But the racism that her parents and grandparents had struggled against remained present, albeit in a more unspoken form. And it was personified in the name she saw all over the city: Colston.
Burgess can’t remember when she found out who Colston was and what he represented. But by her 20s she had joined a boycott of Colston Hall, the city’s main concert venue, in protest at its name. She was once thrown out of a church for objecting to the annual service in memory of Colston, which was attended by the city’s great and good in their top hats and tails.
One day in 2010 her mother’s mentor, Paul Stephenson, asked her to organise an event at Colston Hall. She agreed to break her 18-year boycott because of everything he’d done for her mum. He responded to her complaints by suggesting she join the hall’s board of trustees, with the aim of changing the name. “Rather than stay outside and throw stones at something, why don’t you go in and be at the heart of it?” he asked her.
Six years later, after taking part in innumerable meetings and negotiations, the name was dropped. Burgess downplays her own role in this, pointing to the effectiveness of activists outside the institution. But it gave her the first taste of change from the inside.
It was in 1552 that Edward VI granted the Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol their lucrative monopoly on trade in the city. Its coat of arms – a dragon, a lion, a mermaid and a winged satyr – is still a familiar sight on schools and other civic buildings. The continued prominence of such an ancient and peculiar club is not unusual by British standards. The livery companies of the City of London, for instance, still elect the city’s sheriffs, and play a ceremonial role on big occasions.
But the Merchants’ history is unusually entwined with that of the slave trade. The society campaigned to lift the monopoly held by London merchants on the trade, then helped its members dive in. When, 300 years later, a Merchant approached Burgess about joining the society, she was wary. “They’ve come across as quite reluctant to be involved in this discussion about Bristol and its past,” she says. “I’m a descendant of people who would have been transported.” She found the organisation’s cultish devotion to Colston “weird”.
“If you want to effect change in the city, the merchants are one of the levers you have to pull”
The Merchants still play a huge role in today’s Bristol however, as Burgess would discover. The organisation runs nine schools (two named after Colston) and five retirement communities, and manages several endowments, including one worth at least £250m. It counts some of the biggest local employers among its members. Burgess wanted things in the city to change: a more rounded version of British history to be taught in schools; the Merchants’ grants to be directed to the city’s disadvantaged black community; improved employment policies in local companies. So she joined. “If you want to effect change in the city, [the Merchants are] one of the levers you have to pull.”
Burgess hadn’t even met all of her 70-odd fellow Merchants when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. She had decided not to go to the demonstration in Bristol on June 7th because of the advice to avoid crowds during the covid-19 pandemic. But, watching a video of the statue she had loathed for so long finally toppling, for a moment she wished she had risked it.
Shortly afterwards, the Merchants issued their first, tepid statement of solidarity with protesters, which Burgess felt didn’t go far enough.
Others agreed. Burgess watched the snarky tweets pile up. “Don’t drink and reply,” she told herself. She talked with family and friends about her doubts at being part of the organisation. Then, nearly a week after the statue fell, the society issued a second, lengthier statement. “It was inappropriate for the Society of Merchant Venturers to get involved in the rewording of the Colston statue plaque in 2018,” it read. “We are examining our own role within the city, how we collaborate with others and accelerate our part in ensuring that Bristol overcomes inequality and disadvantage.”
Burgess was reassured that at least some fellow Merchant Venturers understood the need for change. “I genuinely don’t know if it’s the right thing,” she says of her membership. She is gambling on the chance to do something tangible for Bristol’s black community.
As for protest, she feels she has passed the baton on. On the day the statue fell, her 14-year-old daughter was in the crowd. “My parents’ generation [said] ‘that’s what they’re like’, my generation was ‘we don’t like the statue, we want it pulled down’ and then the younger generation is ‘what the hell, let’s get together with our allies and pull the bloody thing down.’”•