Edward Colston and Bristol’s Connection to the Slave Trade
Edward Colston, A hero or a villain? As England comes to terms with some 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 as to how to properly deal with these figures from the past is the legacy and public remembrances of Edward Colston.
Who is 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 because multiple streets bear his name, including Colston Road and Colston Avenue, a well visible fifteen story building is named Colston tower, with large letters displaying the name above the building’s top floor and a bronze statue of Edward Colston stands on a well-traveled street within the city.
These public remembrances of Edward Colston beg the question, who is the man and 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)
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.
How should his Legacy be portrayed?
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. 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 African to the new world for a life of hard labor? Plus, there is also the question of the purpose of the monuments. As of right now, they stand to only glorify his generosity. If they are reframed in order to encompass all of his actions can they serve as another form of public education as to Bristol’s past and tied to Slavery?
These are all questions being faced in Bristol today and other controversial sites all across England and 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 about the past or are they to offensive to serve any type of public utility?