Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol city centre © Historic England
Edward Colston and Bristol’s Connection to the Slave Trade
Edward Colston, A hero or a villain? As England comes to terms with the unpopular realities of its past the legacies of formally revered figures are being called into question. All across England and former English Colonies, public representations of the empire and figures that have come to define it are facing the critical question, what message do they serve to convey. At the center of this ongoing debate on how to properly deal with these figures from the past is the legacy and public remembrances of Edward Colston.
Anyone not familiar with English history or unaware of this recent debate may not be familiar with the name Edward Colston. However, in my opinion, it is safe to assume that if one were to take a stroll through Bristol, a port city about a hundred miles west of London, the name Edward Colston would be hard to forget. This is simply because multiple streets bear his name, a fifteen story building named Colston tower, and a bronze statue of Edward Colston stands in the center of the city.
Who was Edward Colston?
Edward Colston was regarded to be one of the most successful merchants to ever live. The British empire relied on merchants, like Colston, to forge their relationships with foreign settlements and gain control of their territory to rule under the crown. In Edward Colston’s case, his success was built on the slave trade, delivering African slaves across the West Indies in exchange for glass beads and weapons. During his long and successful career, Mr. Colston involved himself in politics and philanthropy which made him a household name across the United Kingdom and sections of the empire. But how should a man or woman with such a legacy be remembered?
Colston’s Family Legacy
Edward Colston came from a powerful and influential line of family members. The Colston family had been a powerful force in Britain since the 13th century. Edward’s father was a distinguished member of Bristol’s merchant society and a staunch royalist who became town councilor and sheriff. However, during the British Civil War, Edwards Father fell out of favor with Prince Rupert and was forced to abdicate his positions. Edward was sent to London to complete his studies during this time of instability until his father worked his way back into power.
During Edward Colston’s time in London, he apprenticed at the Mercer’s Company, a well-renowned trade association that dealt with the importation and exportation of goods from around the empire. It was during this period that Colston learned how to trade goods and profit from them. He specifically saw how lucrative trade could be, specifically when it came to the slave trade.
Following numerous years abroad, with the Mercer’s Company, Edward Colston returned to London in 1672, where he began his trading empire. After his return, he became an important member of the Royal African Company, dealing with the gold and slave trade from ports in Africa to the West Indies.
The Royal African Company became a powerful force in the slave trade due to its legal trade monopoly over 5000 miles of West African coast and was the second mission sent to begin trade with Africa. However, in 1688 the company lost its monopoly over the West African coast and sold all 40 of its ships.
Edward Colston would eventually become governor of the company in 1689, after the divestment of its ships, and steered the company towards the diversification of its trade channels without any ships. The uncertainty of the company’s future prompted Colston to sell off all his shares in the Royal African Company in 1692. In doing so, he removed himself from the slave-trade completely.
Why Is He So Revered?
The public remembrances of Edward Colston beg the question, why is he so revered? A plaque situated below the Bronze statue of Colston reads, ““Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the virtuous and wise sons of their city. A.D. 1895”(Bristol Slavery Trail, 2017) A bit more investigating and a trip to a local Cathedral will reveal a stained glass window bearing an image of Colston and a line reading, “Go and do thou likewise.” (Heaven, 2017) If one seeks more information regarding this figure, a portrait of him, dedicated by the Bristol Corporation, a body responsible for the care of the poor within Bristol, offers a description of the man’s character. An inscription reads, “Edward Colston, the brightest example of Christian liberality that this age has produced, both for the extensiveness of his charities, and the prudent regulation of them.”(Tolvey, 1863, 143)
During this period, Edward Colston was regarded as the “highest example of Christian Liberality that this age has produced, both for the extensiveness of his charities and the prudent regulation of them” – Hayton, D. His legacy was especially celebrated in his native city of Bristol. He was revered as a philanthropist whose charitable ventures benefited vast amount of the population. Colston distributed his enormous amount of wealth in retirement, by funding a series of projects that involved schools, almshouses and generous gifts to his church.
The people who benefited from his generosity were specifically tailored to benefit a specific group of people. This, in fact, was already controversial for its time and many institutions refused his donations based on the clauses he put in place. In one instance his donations were refused, by a charity and caused him to destroy its reputation and work towards putting the institution out of business. His biases were particularly strong when it came to religion. He spoke overtly about his devotion to the Church, in order to display his good intentions to people questioning his opinions.
Edward Colston remains an integral part of the cities identity. In the 21st century, Bristolians are still able to benefit from his philanthropy. The foundation of many of Bristol’s charities and schools were built on the giving of Colston, and gifts made in his honor far surpassing his death. Let alone this century, The people of Bristol have remembered Colston an Icon in terms of charitable activity. The North Devon Journal stated on November 18, 1875, “even Colston in his time would not be able to imagine the charitable groundwork he laid and the tradition of giving that have taken place in his
remembrance.” Twenty- years after the publishing of this article, in 1895 the St. James Gazette published an article describing the dedication of a bronze statue depicting Colston. The dedication was witnessed by a large gathering of citizens and was conducted by the mayor of Bristol. The funds for the statue were raised by private donations, and all extra donations were dedicated to Colston’s charities. As evident by this dedication, Edward Colston has always been portrayed in a positive light by the leadership of Bristol.
Colston the Slave Merchant
Based off of these public dedications to Colston and the many mentions of his name it seems it is safe to assume that this man left a positive impact on the City of Bristol through generosity and outstanding moral character. Records do show that Edward Colston was very generous with his wealth, donating to local charities and parishes, and established schools within the City of Bristol. In fact until the late 1990’s three local charities operating off of funds from his estate still existed. However, keep in mind his legacy is being contested today within a broader movement to address atrocities committed within the British Empire.
Despite his generosity, the public has either long ignored or been unaware of the fact that a majority of Colston’s wealth was amassed through his direct participation in the Slave Trade. Recent attempts to point out Bristol’s ties to slavery have made his business ventures better known and called into question the portrayal of the man’s legacy. Web pages such as Bright City, Dark Secrets and Bristol Slavery Trail point out sites within the city that have historical ties to the slave trade. The main objective of these websites is to make the public aware of the deep ties the city has to slavery and offer a narrative that differs from public memorials such as the ones of Edward Colston.
Overall these sources show that Bristol was a key port in the movement of goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americans. Bristol’s economy was reliant on this movement of goods, as merchants operating out of Bristol moved slaves from Africa to the West Indies, then ships laden with sugar cane and other raw goods would return to Bristol. This allowed local refineries and manufacturers to produce goods for sale or trade in Africa for more slaves.
As Bristol begins to address this part of its history it is becoming hard for citizens to ignore the one-sided portrayal of Edward Colston. It is quite obvious that citizens of Bristol, should not, ““Go and do thou likewise,” and despite his generous giving, maybe he is not one of the most virtuous sons of the city.
The Impact Of Colston’s Legacy In The United Kingdom
The Current Debate
Recent movements within Bristol have aimed to remove the Colston name from iconic sites and promote awareness of the man’s dark past. A very public display of such actions took place at the former Colston Hall, an internationally acclaimed concert venue. One of Bristol’s most commonly known bands boycotted the venue due to its name. The boycott and protesting led to the venue’s management agreeing to rename the hall upon its reopening. Furthermore, other protests around Edwards Colston’s bronze statue have occurred. These protests have been aimed at the one-sided portrayal of the man and the need for continued public education on both his doings and the cities own history.
Edward Colston’s legacy has shifted and people have recognized and unmasked the motives behind his means of enrichment. The first written biography of Edward Colston, written in the 1920’s by HJ Wilkins explicitly reported the extent of Colston’s role in the slave trade. HJ Wilkins sparked the beginning of a decades-long controversial divide in Bristol. Bristolians demanded acknowledgments to Colston’s past, leading to an uproar among the people that revered him and those that condoned his past. Close to half of the Bristol population argued that the city needed to question its past and confront the truth about Edward Colston’s personal history.
The debate consists of two sides that are strongly divided on how Colston should be remembered. One side argues that Colston should be remembered for his philanthropic work and the scores of people that benefited from his generosity. On the other hand, the other side of the debate focuses on the lives affected by the slave trade and the millions of people that died or were affected by his actions. The division is so severe, that in the most recent poll that questioned whether the Edward Colston monument in the center of Bristol must remain, 56% of the respondents voted in favor for the monument to remain, while 44% voted for it to be removed.
An unofficial plaque was secretly placed below the statue of Colston, reading, “BRISTOL, Capital of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1730-1745, This commemorates the 12,000,000 enslaved of whom 6,000,000 died as captives” (Pipe, 2017) Although remove, this plaque used the statue as a way to further educate the public about the cities own history.
In light of recent protest and a better education of the cities, history is, how should the city of Bristol to deal with Colston’s public memorials? It is a fact that Colston is a major part of the cities history, and much good came from his generosity. Schools were built, the poor were fed, and local parishes received gifts. But how does one reconcile these actions against the act of transporting slaves from Africa to the new world for a life of hard labor?
The United Kingdom’s population has drastically transformed from what it was hundreds of years ago. Today, the United Kingdom possesses one of the most diverse populations in the world. It has welcomed people from all walks of life and has provided a place where they can succeed and practice their own cultures and beliefs. Therefore, the narrative in which British citizens remember, figures like Edward Colston, must take into account the point of view of all members of society. Today, British society consists of African, Indian and other ethnicities and in order to create a more cohesive and prosperous society, their perspectives must be taken into account. If the white population continuous to uphold Edward Colston’s legacy as a philanthropist without recognizing his involvement, in the slave trade then the narrative would be wrong, to begin with, and the truth would not be shared. History must not be forgotten in order for it to be prevented from happening again, but it should not also stay unchanged for generations to come. Like history, monuments must be discussed and understood from a contemporary perspective in order for it to stay relevant and serve its purpose of informing and educating the public in historical narratives.
These are all questions being faced in Bristol today and other controversial sites all across England and its former colonies. I challenge all of those reading to contemplate the correct way to handle sites that remember controversial figures. Do they offer the opportunity to educate us about the past or do they serve to divide society?
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