What Marvin Rees said about Colston in February

He’s [Colston] a peddler in slavery, misery, murder, and rape.”

Back on February 17, Marvin Rees came to UWE and answered questions on a range of topics. Here’s what he said on Colston, and the Colston name, at the time.

Question: Do you think it’s important to get rid of the ‘Colston’ names and some of the other slave traders’ names in Bristol?

M: So, I’ll give you a frank personal thing on that; when I first came in, myself and a number of a number of black people in the creative sector said that the best thing to do is to keep that debate away from me; I’m the first mayor of African heritage in Europe, and then someone came and asked me in cabinet, actually a black person asked me in cabinet, and I reprimanded them them for it because I said: “you know this is loaded”, right? I don’t have the freedom to talk about these issues in the way that some of the other people do. 

That’s the hard reality of it, right. You know, “Marvin Rees gets elected, black mayor wants to get rid of Bristol’s history”, right? We just talked about racism [earlier in the discussion]. Now that gun’s loaded, right? It’s already pointed at my head. I could be the one to give people the knock to pull the trigger and then I suddenly start getting compartmentalized into a mayor that is just tied up in race, can’t get over it, can’t rise above it, and keeps indulging it. And then I get trapped in the kind of narrative that a black mayor talks about black issues and doesn’t talk about the economy. 

But having said that, I think – you know, I’m not 100% sure. What I think the real problem is is the way it’s remembered, right. So, if you go to the plaque on the Colston statue it says that he’s a “wise and virtuous son of the city”, right? No he’s not, right. He’s a peddler in slavery, misery, murder, and rape, right. Now you may say that he took some of that money and he gave it to certain good causes; and Madge Dresser, who’s a UWE professor, will say: he didn’t give money to everyone, he gave money to what he considered to be deserving. 

But let’s be honest about it, let’s be truthful about it, and then you as a city make a decision: do you want a statue up, you know, representing that person – I prefer to go down that line.

But even with the Colston Hall, with a change in the name, one of the things I suggested was you should have a plaque that says this is, you know, call it whatever it’s going to be called but have a plaque that says: “this is the day the name was changed”, because that prompts the story: “why did you change the name?” right. Because we, as a city, once had streets and halls that were named after him, this slaver. He wasn’t the only one, but one of many, and we, as a city, decided we were no longer going to do that; that’s the fullness of the story – talks about what we were, and talks about the debate that happened at the time, and talks about what you want it to be. But you never, you’re not airbrushing out, which is what some people then charge this element of history with. We shouldn’t – we’re not trying to sterilize history.

Question: What about Colston Tower – how do we get rid of that name?

M: Again, I’d be worried about kind of leading the charge myself because, you know – is it the most important thing for me? You know, I’m more, you know; of all the things I can spend my time on, changing the name of Colston Tower – symbolic; that ain’t gonna do anything about keeping a disproportionate number of young black men out of the criminal justice system or off community treatment orders or mental health, it ain’t gonna improve their educational trajectories, you know, and I think sometimes; so I think it has its place. If you come and say, “I’m gonna carve out a bit of time”. If you was to say to me “do you know, Marv, I wanna go for that” I’d say “go for it, fantastic”, but I’m not gonna spend my time on it, you know, when I’m trying to house people at the moment – what I spend my energy on. But I do think – I have explored the view. 

I think it would be fascinating for the city have a grown up discussion about that, and I would welcome a day in which Bristol said: “you know what, we don’t want to call that Colston Tower anymore, that’s not where we’re at, it’s not who we are, and we’re going to remember this day as the day we changed their name – and, in fact, the day the name was changed becomes an anniversary in Bristol’s calendar. I think that’d be incredible.

Featured photo taken by Joe Newman – thanks Joe!