The story of Bristol’s Edward Colston (1636-21) has been dividing the city for decades and has now reached new levels with the decision to remove his name which has existed for well over a century from the city’s main music venue.
The Guardian paper notes the similarities between this dispute and that of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, but in Bristol, home to 2 universities, there is no sign of any academic input to the debate which should raise alarm bells. The campaign against Colston had been led by musicians Massive Attack, supported by many who refuse to enter the venue but disputed by many others.
There are a lot of issues here, the first of which is, as with Oxford, how to deal with behaviour in the past. We like to think we are living in a better world, that actions seen as acceptable are now condemned. Is it better to leave memorials as warnings against repeating them, as has happened with The Holocaust, or should we remove them, which removes the pain inflicted by the victims, but it also removes the reminders of what happened. Those who forget the past are at risk of repeating it.
Colston’s statue in the centre of Bristol presents him as a man of charity. It exhorts viewers to ‘go thou and do likewise’, to follow the steps of the Good Samaritan. He was from a wealthy local family who made large sums of money from trading and investments. He never married so spent little. He traded with Europe and Africa and on his death left large sums of money to the poor, to education and the elderly and infirm in Bristol and London. Yet it was not until 1860 that proposals were made to erect a statue to him.
Why the delay?
Bristolians are reputed to be hard nosed businesspeople, not great fans of monuments; their World War I memorial was I think the last in the country to be built. As with so many projects, there were lots of arguments and an unwillingness to spend money. So Colston did what lots of cajoling and arguing failed to achieve. His charities massively overshadow those of any other source.
There were also problems with Colston himself. He was a strict high Anglican, so fell out with the city authorities in his day, so he left the city. In old age he was elected mp but was already retired and living in Mortlake where he later died. His legacies were littered with conditions, including denying his assistance to the sons of Non Conformists,who comprised about half of the city. So, long before his image was annoying Bristolians on racial grounds, he was causing problems promoting his narrow view of Christianity. In life and death, he was a difficult character. It is even possible his huge benefactions to the city were a form of revenge for all the problems Bristol’s council caused him. And it worked. Who remembers any of them?
As to his involvement in the slave trade, he was a member of the Royal Africa Company and sat on committees several times, but he was already a wealthy man when he joined and it is unclear how much he made from the trade.
Bristol was a major slave port, but it was a filthy, dangerous and highly speculative trade, which the city began to withdraw from after its peak in the 1730s, i.e. long after Colston’s involvement. He retired in 1708 and lived quietly at Mortlake for the rest of his life in quiet near seclusion. Colston seems to have been a difficult man, but he lived through the horrors of the Civil War when his family withdrew from Bristol to London. He referred to Cromwell as ‘the usurper’.
My issue with this renaming of the hall is, why him? Why the hall?
Colston was far from alone in his involvement in the Bristol slave trade, yet it is his name alone that keeps getting demonised. Lots of people and organisations gained from his benefactions, including Colston School, where children of all races and creeds are still his beneficiaries.
Why is the school not being targeted for renaming?
And Colston’s Almshouses?
The royal family and the Anglican church also made money from slavery, so why are Bristolians not demanding the renaming of Queen Square (named after Anne) and the removal of the William III statue in the middle of it. The fact that this is on a high plinth shows how popular it was at the time of its erection.
Let’s continue: tear down all the statues to royalty, all the Victorian parks and gardens. In fact, let’s rename all the royal periods, such as Georgian, Regency and Victorian. Then we can start on the Anglican churches who received the bodies and wealth of many slave owners and investors.
Not far from the centre of the city where Colston’s statue and hall and street still – for now- exist, is Brunel’s Temple Meads Station. Much of Brunel’s investments came from compensation given to former slave owners, so perhaps Bristolians should boycott the railways.
Because the sad fact is that a lot of our history is based on exploitation. Not just of Africans, but of the poor in general. Money made in the colonies was often invested in estates that forced poor English people out of business and their homes via the enclosures acts. The treatment of slaves established precedents for the mistreatment of poor people in these islands. Before African slaves were sent to the Americas, political prisoners were dumped there. There are accounts of Quakers being kidnapped or ‘Barbadosed’ for their religious beliefs. They later became prominent abolitionists. When the North Americans revolted, petty criminals, often the criminalised poor, were shipped in chains to Australia.
So, instead of demanding the renaming of slave-related sites, I suggest they remain as warnings for the future. To encourage discussions on how people and issues are seldom black and white. And because it seems in modern Britain, the abuse of the poor of any colour is on the rise because some people have forgotten or never understood the sufferings of many of our ancestors in making our modern world.