What Britain can learn from India and Estonia when it comes to problematic statues

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The statue of Edward Colston was smaller than I expected. Lying on its side in Bristol’s M Shed museum, it seemed devoid of power, and the only sign of its contested history was the red graffiti daubed across its surface.

As deputy governor of the Royal African Company (the governor was King James II), Colston was responsible for transporting thousands of enslaved Africans – including women and children – to the New World. A third of them didn’t even survive the journey. It made Colston fabulously rich, and he donated some of that money to schools and charities.

His statue was erected in 1895, 174 years after he died, and there have been decades of debate about its removal. An explainer plaque was proposed in 2018, but nothing happened until June 2020, when anti-racism protestors – who this week were acquitted of criminal damage by the courts – toppled the statue and rolled it into Bristol harbour. It was fished out by the council, who held it in storage until June 2021, when it was put on display at the M Shed. 

Over the past year, many countries have debated what to do with the statues of people who did morally questionable things. That’s because statues have power. They were erected in the past for a specific reason, and their continued presence (or not) tells you what a nation values today.

When the Soviet Union conquered Estonia, they filled it with statues as a sign of conquest: propaganda to whitewash Communist atrocities and wipe out Estonian identity. When Estonia liberated itself in 1991, most of these statues were torn down and dumped.

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