Statues Can’t Swim: Heritage Forms Washed Away in Decolonial Currents

by Magdalena Buchczyk and Duane Jethro on 7 July 2020

Statues are able to organise and dissolve whole communities … Still, the head [that a statue] ends up losing symbolises the head we too have lost; a loss that is also a gain, since it is proof that the image has accomplished its purpose: to pull us out of our boxed-in ways of thinking, awakening us and confronting us with our own fears and hopes. Returning us to a life of plenitude and contradiction.

– Pedro Azara, To Lose Your Head(Idols)


On 7 June 2020, as a result of a fortnight of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, the world’s attention turned to a city in the West of England. News agencies and online media were filled with footage of a dramatic scene; the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston. Dropped in spectacular fashion, the statue was dragged and rolled down to the river’s edge then dramatically plunged head-first into the murky green water of the dock. Yet as the statue fizzled into the depths of the harbour, news about the city’s long-standing frustration with Colston’s legacy foamed to the surface, initiating a public discussion about statues, heritage, race and belonging that trails a long historical wake.

Drawing on our heritage research in England and South Africa, we wade into the discussion to consider the conceptual issues that arise from the submerging of Edward Colston’s monument and the recent bout of toppling and drowning colonial statues and their museum futures.

Edward Colston was a Bristol-born merchant of the Royal African Company, philanthropist and Member of Parliament. Today Bristol bears a wide imprint of Colston’s legacy, from Colston Avenue, Colston Street, Colston’s School, Colston [concert] Hall and Colston Tower elevated above the centre of the city. He endowed schools and almshouses, and his name is commemorated in several Bristol schools and the “Colston bun”, a sweet made with dried fruit. Yet it is precisely this omnipresence, and especially the odious source of the wealth sponsoring these public endowments (generated in the slave trade) that have sparked outrage. Seen as drawing a dividing line between black and white city-dwellers, these contestations have led to Bristol being described as a divided city.

© Magdalena Buchczyk
© Magdalena Buchczyk

Image 1. The statue of Edward Colston with one of multiple initiatives highlighting his colonial legacy.

Image 2. Anti-racism protests taking place in 2017 in the Bristol harbour where Colston’s statue was drowned in June 2020.


For decades, groups of residents, artists, scholars and activists tirelessly tried to address the question of Colston’s cult in the city, making repeated attempts to challenge these colonial traces in its streets, squares, buildings and monuments. Much of this critical attention was directed towards the Colston statue itself. For example, the image above (Image 1) shows the monument of Edward Colston with a series of posters attached to the base of the statue, labelled “slave trader”, “murderer” and “human trafficker” placed in 2017. The statue was once shackled, yarn bombed and a traffic cone was placed on its head. The artist Hew Locke, commissioned by Spike Island, turned the statue into a fetish. He covered the photograph of the statue in kitch jewellery and trinkets to make modern Bristol’s “founding father” into a devotional object full of cheap luxury. On another occasion, a new plaque, entitled “Unauthorized Heritage”, was mounted on Colston’s statue, stating: “This commemorates the 12,000,000 enslaved of whom 6,000,000 died as captives”. And in October 2018, the statue became part of an installation marking Anti-Slavery Day, when 100 human figures were placed in front of the statue to evoke the image of the way West African slaves needed to be squeezed on-board ships on the way to North America and the Caribbean.

As a result of such repeated interventions, the local authorities worked on a new plaque that was intended to acknowledge the slavery-related chapter of Colston’s biography. The text proposed by the City Design Group of the Bristol City Council read:

As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.

These moves to recontextualise the statue were blocked by local elites and Conservative politicians. However, the vigorous and contested activity around the statue illustrates that Colston sits at the heart of tensions and dynamics of remembering and forgetting in the city, as both a material image and as a historical figure that dominates how Bristol makes sense of its colonial history and its ongoing legacy.

The submerging of Colston’s statue, signifying erasure from public space, and symbolic and cultural murder, is not unique in the history of art. Statues were flogged and drowned in the past. In this history the sea is imbued with real and symbolic powers of purification. The Mediteranean is populated by statues tossed or sunk in antiquity. Well preserved underwater, fishermen regularly drag them up from the ocean floor. Yet it is also a turquoise abyss, a salty paradise of death and pain, home to the world’s first underwater museum filled with sculptures memorialising the migrants who died trying to make their way to Europe. The oceans’ waters are the source and salve for the historical pain statues carry. Michel-Rolph Trouillot concludes his book, Silencing the Past, with a remarkable account of Haitians’ abuse of a Christopher Columbus statue, saying; “the word “kolon” in Haitian means both Columbus and a colonist. Perhaps they associated him with the ocean from which he came. At any rate, when the angry crowd from the neighbouring shanty towns rolled down the Harry Truman Boulevard, they took the statue of Columbus, removed it from its pedestal, and dumped it into the sea”. Antony Gormley sculptures from the Crosby Beach, covered in barnacles, perpetually drowning, disappearing and re-emerging with the tides of time, poetically express statues’ fluid cultural relevance.

Colston’s statue would not be the last to be bathed in outraged ignominy in this round of dethroning. On 10 June 2020, a statue of Christopher Columbus was also beheaded and tossed into a lake in Virginia; another would be toppled and drowned in the Baltimore Inner Harbour on the 4th of July: that is following the sharp US Presidential Executive Order criticising the ‘assault on the collective national memory’, the setting down of hard prison time for vandalism, and the establishment of a National Garden of American Heroes. But the method of Colston’s toppling carried a special sense of symbolic justice: just as slaves had been tossed overboard en route to the Caribbean and America during the Triangle Trade, Colston’s materialised legacy was ceremoniously cast into the dock. As Bristol City Council hauled the mud-drenched statue of Edward Colston from the harbour for cleaning and storage in a museum, the historian David Olusoga reminded the British public that statues are not about remembering history, they are about memorialization. For Olusoga, the rolling and removal of the statue was history in itself. In that sense Colston’s toppling did not constitute an act of forgetting or erasure. It was a form of historical poetry, as Bristol’s mayor put it, and a moment of learning and critical history-making.

Water, paint, sweat, blood, excrement and urine; fluids are the traces of the contemporary statue wars. It was the human effluent from the portaloo, performatively spilled by the political science student and activist Chumani Maxwele that seemed to revive Cecil John Rhodes’ figuration as a signifier of colonial exploitation. As part of an impromptu, strategic protest about institutional racism, the bare-chested Maxwele assailed upon the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the foot of the University of Cape Town’s famous Jameson steps. Blowing a whistle, and dressed in running tights and a pink hard hat, Maxwele wielded a porta-potty, or effluent container, in wild but calculated bouts, dousing the plinth of the brooding, magisterial statue in human excrement.

Rhodes’ washed the soiled proceeds of mineral extraction and dealing by making generous philanthropic donations, especially for higher education, through establishing the Rhodes Scholarship and donating the land upon which the University of Cape Town would be built. As with Edward Colston, these were moves to secure a kind of posthumous redemption. Maxwele’s actions were like pouring accelerant on smouldering kindling, firing up activism on campus that eventually blazed into the national and international news media. A group of UCT students and academics galvanised for a sustained protest about the statue’s place on campus rallying under the hashtag #RhodesMustFall. They argued that the statue not only caused deep offense to black students, who viewed Rhodes as a historical tyrant, but also that its continued, uncritical presence on campus symbolised the university’s lack of real will to transform as an institution of higher learning. It was out of the fire and fluid of this movement that the call for the decolonisation of institutions of higher learning flared up, mainstreamed as a set of practises of radical critique of colonial legacies within institutions of higher learning, culture and public memory.1

Commemorative culture, especially as it relates to colonialism, slavery and issues of race and racism are shifting, sometimes involuntarily, with old ways of knowing being removed, and sometimes even being drowned. Decolonial currents are fast flowing, with change coming abruptly, surprisingly without warning, creating confusion about relations between past, present and future. Caught in the tide, confused resisters were chided by one RhodesMustFall protester in 2015, “if you do not understand what’s happening, then the future is moving faster than your consciousness”. If statues can’t swim, they might, like the monument of Colston, be subject to ambiguous amateur search and rescue missions or dubious, petty tit-for-tat activities like the retaliatory destruction of the gravestone of Scipio Africanus.

As the tide recedes on white supremacy and colonial legacies, museums have become harbours for these unwanted statues. The statue of Edward Colston, for example, resurfaced in a museum, as discussed by Bonnie Greer. Out of the water, lying on a conservation table, Colston’s statue is drying out in a “secure location”. The head of collections and archives at Bristol City Council indicated that it would be preserved in the state “as he was tipped into the dock”. The statue of Rhodes is still locked away for “safe-keeping”. As many other objects that were once intended to be destroyed or made to rot (e.g. the heavily musealised New Guinean malanggans), the statue will be suspended in time and become part of collections.

The drying, saving and potential exhibition of toppled statues poses questions about the afterlives of such objects. If we have reached a tipping point in the ongoing struggle for the reframing of knowledge about colonial legacies, we need to ask how museums should navigate such turbulent waters. The task is neither to neutralise and de-politicise the objects nor undertake left-to-die rescue missions. If objects entering the museum risk losing their capacity to be affected by the roiling storms of activism and art intervention, what can museums bring to the public decolonial struggle? How can they maintain and mobilize the affective presence of the objects in the debates on colonial heritage, while also doing their job of conservation? Strangely, then, this may indeed be a watershed moment for museums too, as they’re identified as spaces of future preservation of problematic heritage. Engaging seriously in decolonial future making might not necessitate keeping pace with change by fishing for statues but perhaps require, instead, swimming against the institutional tide and developing new kinds of radical vision and truly inclusive practices, in research, institutional culture and public engagement.



1) That is, notwithstanding decolonization’s important and undeniable conceptual and historical roots in indigenous struggles against settler colonial legacies, as an adjective for the fraught, unfinished processes of claiming national independence among nations especially on the African continent, and important concerns about its uncritical transposition outside of settler colonial settings.


Magdalena Buchczyk is an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at CARMAH at the Humboldt University Berlin and Museum of European Cultures in Berlin (MEK). Her current research explores the MEK’s complex history and future-making practices through the museum’s textile collections. Magda’s research in Bristol (2017 – 2018) and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities (UK).

Duane Jethro is a post-doctoral researcher in the research project, Making Differences: Transforming Heritage and Museums in the 21st Century, at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, CARMAH, at the Humboldt University Berlin. CARMAH was founded by Professor Sharon Macdonald, and is funded by her 5-year Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. His book, Heritage Formation and the Senses in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Aesthetics of Power, was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury Academic.