Edward Colston (1636–1721) was a Bristol-born merchant who made some of his fortune from the slave trade. Yet, in the 19th century he was seen mainly as a philanthropist. In 1895, the city of Bristol erected a monument in his honour in the area now known as The Centre. The statue became controversial by the end of the 20th century, as Colston’s activities as a major slave trader became more widely acknowledged. Since 1990, there had been unsuccessful campaigns and petitions calling for the removal of the statue. On 7 June 2020, during the global protests following the killing of George Floyd in the United States, Colston’s statue was pulled down by demonstrators. The statue was then rolled down Anchor Road and pushed into Bristol Harbour. A debate then ensued. While some saw the toppling of the statue as an act of vandalism entailing criminal damage, others saw it as a legitimate way of condemning atrocity and protesting racism and inequality. Others thought that the statue should have been brought down with the consent of the local government and the general public.
The toppling of Colston’s statue raises a variety of issues in philosophy, ethics and political theory, including issues related to the ethics of memory and forgiveness, the moral and political value of protesting, the legitimacy of historical moral judgements, the relationship between aesthetic and moral value, among many other issues.
The workshop will invite selected speakers and also call for papers to explore some of the following questions from a variety of theoretical and political perspectives:
- What is the proper purpose of monuments and statues?
- What is commemoration and what is it for?
- How should we decide what monuments to erect (and keep) in public spaces?
- Should we judge historical figures (and past authors) by today’s moral standards?
- What kind of respect, if any, is an artwork owed?
- Is it morally acceptable to destroy public artistic monuments?
- Can a monument be artistically beautiful or valuable while being also morally despicable?
- Are the protestors guilty or erasing history (“cancel culture”) or are they engaging with history. In other words, are they desecrating or are they in fact making a commemoration?