A blank wall on Bath Road in Bristol has become host to a massive mural depicting one of the most horrific events in the city’s history. Now in a nearly complete state, the almost cartoon-like mural underlines what a precious gift democracy is and how difficult it is to attain.
The artist, Scott Buchanan Barden, says his motivation to undertake this massive work was not simply to highlight a very important but largely forgotten milestone in the history of British democracy. In fact, he sees a clear parallel between the Bristol riots in 1831 and the current situation in North Africa and the Middle East where extreme brutality to suppress legitimate protest always seems to be the first instinct of the ruling classes.
“At a time when attention is focussed on North Africa and the Middle East where ordinary people have been asserting their rights to greater democracy and an end to corruption, I feel it’s important to remind ourselves that the brutal treatment being meted out to them is not much different to what many citizens of Bristol were subjected to in similar circumstances just 180 years ago,” he explained.
“We look on at current events in the Middle East with a degree of unwarranted arrogance and feeling of moral superiority, often forgetting that our own path to democracy was just as bloody.
“What brought people onto the streets of Bristol was the fact that reactionary elements in the House of Lords had thwarted a parliamentary bill that would have enfranchised many more people in Britain. Public demand for this had been growing ever since the French Revolution 40 years earlier.
“Out of a population in Bristol of some 104,000 at that time, only about 6,000 were eligible to vote and most of these were part of the establishment of property and business owners. Political corruption was endemic throughout Britain, with many MPs representing ‘rotten boroughs’ that had little or no electorate to speak of.”
The artist went on to explain that it is interesting to note that military commanders are not always willing to carry out the kind of draconian measures against their own people often demanded by their political masters at such times.
“The Egyptian army’s refusal to be Mubarak’s pawn a month or so ago was crucial in saving thousands of lives. Unfortunately the same doesn’t seem to have happened in Libya. In 1831, a local military commander – an Irish guy called Brereton – was initially reluctant to use force against the Bristol protesters and it was only after extreme political pressure that he did so. As a result, hundreds of people were butchered by his dragoons in and around Queen’s Square.
“He was subsequently court-martialled, amazingly not for the massacre he had committed but for his initial leniency. He shot himself before the court-martial ended.
“The Bristol event is a sad reflection of the fact that, no matter where it may be in the world, we seldom seem able to overcome oppression without innocent blood being spilled on a massive scale.”
Bristol Riots 1831 mural (132 ft long) painted by Scott Buchanan Barden on Bath Road, Bristol – opposite Paintworks.