The Commemoration of Slavery: Dominant and Counter Narratives in Bristol

Aman Gupta

October 2018

 

This research emerges from the recent debate about the Rhodes statue in Oxford. It raised questions about what and how should history be remembered (Kaplan, 2007:390). Similarly, in Bristol, there is a debate around the statue of Edward Colston; who, like Rhodes, was an imperialist involved in the subjugation of colonial subjects. The contemporary debates around the Colston Statue signal a broader debate that Bristol is having with regard to its slavery past (Gallagher, 2014). This paper encourages us to think about how space can perform a conversation between dominant and counter narratives; and this conversation is embedded in a milieu of contested discourses and knowledges. This contemporary debate is especially pertinent to those that suffer from the ruins of empire. For Stoler, ruins are not only the “functional sites of lieux de memoire (Nora, 1989:19) such as monuments “leftover” from empire, but more importantly, are “what people are ‘left with’” [and] what remains, [and] the aftershocks of empire”(Stoler, 2008:194). I conclude that dominant historical narratives can be challenged through alternative memories, which reinterpret sites of memory, and thus I go beyond Nora’s analysis (1989) suggesting that milieux de memoire can be reclaimed. Through an understanding of Foucault and discourse as well as New-Materialism, this research aspires to articulate contestations of commemoration and in doing so understand how “imperial formations persist in their material debris”(Stoler, 2008:194) in Bristol. Deciding to designate a particular site as heritage, ascribes particular meanings to them, foregrounding the construction of particular influential narratives (Jacobs, 1996; Bhabha, 1990); it is a political act. At each of these sites collective identities and social order are defined, negotiated, contested and reproduced (Jacobs, 1996). This paper is part of a broader project of how Bristol’s colonial past, and especially slave trade, gets represented in the city’s public spaces. I seek to answer the following two research questions: first, how does the dominant historical narrative of the slave trade get represented and challenged in public spaces? Second, how are different objects and forms of representation deployed to narrate particular stories about the imperial past and its present legacy.