James O'Brien reflects on the moment his view on slaver statues changed

8 October 2021, 16:50 | Updated: 8 October 2021, 16:54

By Tim Dodd

James O'Brien has reflected on how his views on the presence of statues of slavers in the UK "changed" when the statue of William Colston was pulled down in Bristol in June 2020.

The conversation comes as The City of London Corporation has decided to keep controversial statues of a slave owner and slave trader at its Guildhall headquarters, which will have “plaques or notices placed alongside them, with contextual information about the two men’s links to slavery”.

Reflecting on his previous views, James said: "I think I would've meant it when I said 'come on, this is our shared history, and no matter that it was your ancestors who directly benefited from it or were enslaved from it, in the 21st century, in the the modern world, we must all talk together about how we move forward'.

"But that changed for me oddly when the statue of William Colston was pulled down in Bristol."

The Grade-II listed bronze statue of the slave trader, which used to stand on Colston Avenue, was pulled down in June last year by Black Lives Matter protesters. 

Crowds cheered as the controversial monument was pulled down by a group who had scaled it before attaching ropes to it and bringing the statue crashing to the ground.

Read more: Toppled Edward Colston statue goes on display in Bristol

"It was when that statue was pulled down, it was then I framed a question," James said.

"As with all questions about decency and equality, it is built upon empathy.

"The way I managed to achieve empathy was by simply imagining walking down a road, or walking past a statue that honoured the memory of a man who had enslaved my ancestors.

"And the way that I managed to achieve empathy was to imagine having to explain to my daughter or my son why I lived in a country that honoured the people that enslaved my ancestors, that sold them like chattel and goods... And I couldn't do it."

Read more: LBC needs your help to raise money for our charity,  Global’s Make Some Noise!

He continued: "I could explain what slavery was. I could explain how it happened, I could explain the history of it, I could explain the moral context and the endemic racism and white supremacy that allowed people to go to church on a Sunday and then count their profits from their investments in the slavery trade on a Tuesday."

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