Cleo Lake on why Bristol needs a space to acknowledge slavery’s past

In 1999, Cleo Lake was a gallery assistant at the Respectable Trade exhibition, the first major public acknowledgment that Bristol was connected to the African slave trade.

Yet the city never built on the success of this exhibit, says Lake, who upon becoming mayor in 2018 removed an Edward Colston painting that hung in the mayor’s lounge at City Hall two years before the exhibit was torn down. slave trader statue

“What really stood out to me was the number of people from all backgrounds who attended (the Respectable Trade exhibition), but in particular the number of older white Bristolians who came and said they didn’t know anything about this.” Lake said.

independent journalism
needed now more than ever

Keep our city’s journalism independent. Become a supporter member today.

“Actually, they were quite angry that they had not been educated or informed. Some people were crying.”

There are exhibits at the M Shed and the Georgian House museum to acknowledge Bristol’s slavery past, but Lake believes much more is needed.

This is where the Abolition Shed collective comes into play. The group is so named because they originally had plans to transform Sheds O and M at Welsh Back, which will become Box Hall later this year, into a slavery museum.

The latest ambitious plan for the group is to transform the former Mariners’ Chapel and Institute on Prince Street.

Hogarth’s famous triptych is included inside the Sailors’ Chapel as part of the plans of the Abolition Shed collective – illustration: Sam Kendon

“Has Bristol backed down?” asks the proposal of the Abolition Shed collective for the Mariners’ Chapel.

“Other museums have come and gone. What is evident, and it emerged from the recent campaigning and tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter demonstration… is a perceived need in Bristol for a national memorial to victims of slavery and a center for interpretation Abolition Shed.

“An opportunity for a unique museum that tells the story of both the African resistance and the anonymous Bristol abolitionists who combined to crack down on transatlantic trade. This would be a dedicated space in the heart of where the story actually happened.”

Episodes of history that would be covered in detail in the museum include African resistance on the coast, on slave ships, and on plantations; the rise and fall of Colston; the Bristol bus boycott; African American abolitionists in Bristol; and reform and emancipation.

Lake said it remains puzzling that Bristol doesn’t already have our own equivalent of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

“There are a lot of things in Bristol that don’t make sense and I guess this is one of them.

“The city needs to have a place where people can be educated and informed, so they can understand this story. Because this story is not going away. In fact, there’s more momentum going around and more momentum for people to really try to come to terms with it.”

“There is more willingness and understanding to have this now. I think there will also be international, local and UK visitors looking at Bristol.

“On the surface, people think that we are very advanced here. Of course, we had the statue torn down. This is the epicenter of a global movement.

“If you want to find information, you imagine you would go and find it here, but it’s actually quite difficult to do so right now.

“It is not transparent. It is not obvious. I think this (a new museum) would be something to appeal to the diaspora, as well as the international community in general.

“I think it would be a great draw for Bristol at a time when museums and culture departments are under a lot of pressure. I think this could be really positive.”

The potential urban landscape outside the museum – illustration: Sam Kendon

Lake added: “Some people are hell-bent on anniversaries. We had Abolition 200, which was a bit bland; What did we really get out of this?

“Some people might be thinking 2033, which is another date to commemorate abolition. But why do we have to wait until then? We have to get it going now…

“I hope and I’m pretty sure that Bristol will have this center one day. Somewhere, somehow. Of course, in an ideal world, it would be owned by the council to save on some costs and there would be a capital budget to go with it.

“We cannot dwell too long now on the £83m that will be awarded to Bristol Beacon. But that is a reality. And even if we had two percent of that, we’d be fine.

“I think it’s about the political will and the willingness, the requests and the demands of certain people and certain stakeholders to keep trying to push this forward.

“And if nothing else, this offer and plan keeps him in the consciousness of the general public who aren’t as obsessed with him on a day-to-day basis as people like me…

“While it would be nice to be part of the city bid and led by the city council, I’m not sure we have the right skills and competencies right now.

“I am also not sure that the council staff in the culture department and other areas will receive enough support to go ahead with the decolonization journey. I think there should be more support and more training.”

“I think people need to stop seeing it as a threat or as something hugely negative, but try to spin it as a positive thing. It’s about how people feel included in it. Some people may not feel they need to know or why is our story?

“It is still relevant today. The collapse of the statue and the consequences of that rebounded around the world.

“Does it have to be relevant or could it just be interesting? We’re just trying to keep it in the spotlight as much as we can. You have to start somewhere.”

Main photo and video: Martin Booth

Read below:

Listen to the latest Bristol24/7 Behind the Headlines podcast:


Leave a Reply