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Who Was Edward Colston?
Edward Colston was born 2 November in 1636, and died in 1721. Colston grew up in Bristol, but moved to London during the English Civil War, and never lived in Bristol as an adult. Colston was born into a prosperous Bristol merchant’s family and, although he lived in London for many years, was always closely associated with the city of Bristol. By 1672, he had his own business in London, trading in cloth, wine, sugar and slaves. A significant proportion of Colson’s wealth came directly or indirectly from the slave trade.
In 1680, he became an official of the Royal African Company (RAC), which at that time, held the monopoly in Britain on slave trading. During his career, London was the main centre of slave trading in Britain, but in the 1730 and 1740, Bristol took London’s place. Liverpool became dominant in the second half of the century.
It is estimated that during Colston’s involvement with the RAC, it transported over 100,000 African men, women and children, who were branded with the company’s initials on their chest.
Over 19,000 of them died on their journey to the Caribbean, and the rest of the Americas due to unhygienic conditions on the ships. Designed to maximise profit, and hold as many enslaved people as possible, the boats were hotbeds for dysentery, dehydration and scurvy.
Those who survived the treacherous journey, were sold to planters for cheap labour on tobacco and sugar plantations. There have been questions about Colston, and his profile in Bristol since the 1920, but they remained largely ignored until 1999, when Prof Madge Dresser, at the University of West England, spoke about Colston and his involvement in the slave trade. The next morning, “Slave Trader” was scrawled across his statue.
Edward Colston And How He Got Involved in Slave Trade:
Edward Colston played a key role in running the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, and America during the late 16 hundred. In 1680, he became a member of the Royal African Company (RAC), which at the time had a monopoly on the England, and West African slave trade. By 1689, he had risen to become the firm’s deputy governor. During his time at the company, it is believed to have transported over 100,000 African men women and children as slaves.
Slaves bought in West Africa were branded with the company initials RAC, then herded on to ships and plunged into a nightmarish voyage. Closely shackled together, hundreds of enslaved people lay in their own filth; disease, suicide and murder claimed between 10 and 20 per cent of them, during the six to eight week voyage to the Americas.
Human suffering on this scale made Colston rich, and a grateful Bristol honoured his benevolence; naming dozens of buildings, institutions, charities, schools, sports clubs, pubs, societies and roads after him.
Between 1698 and 1807, more than 2,000 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages. The city owes much of its fame, and wealth from the slave trade. Slavery ended in the British Empire, after the Slavery Abolition Act came into play in 1833.
Edward Colston charity is commemorated during processions and church services. School children have paid homage to him at services. His statue stands in the city centre, inscribed as a “memorial of one of the most virtuous, and wise sons of the city”.
For hundreds of years, Edward Colston has been unquestionably venerated.
Mr Chambers said, “We are still seeing the effects of slavery in this city, there is still money from slavery in this city, and so we can’t ignore it.”
Edward Colston and the Royal African Company (RAC):
The RAC was established under a new Royal charter with a considerable range of powers and privileges, as Scott explains:
“Under the charter of 1672, the usual privileges of incorporation are granted as well as, “the whole entire and only trade”, from Sallee to the Cape of Good Hope, and the adjacent islands. The company had the right of acquiring lands within these limits (provided such lands were not owned by any Christian prince), “to have and to hold for 1,000 years, subject to the payment of two elephants’ teeth,” when any member of the royal family landed in Africa. Powers were also given to the company to make peace, and war with any non-Christian nation. Amongst other miscellaneous privileges, the right of Mine Royal was conveyed to the company on condition that, the Crown might claim two-thirds of the gold won, on paying two-thirds of the expenses, the company retaining the remaining third.”
The charter also defined the right to buy, and sell enslaved Africans, gave locations on the West African coast for their purchase, and included projections for where the trade might be expanded. It concludes by claiming an economic justification for this trade in humans:
The Slaves they purchased are sent, for a Supply of Servants, to all His Majestie American Plantations which cannot subsist without them.
From its founding in 1672, to 1688, the Governor of the RAC was James, Duke of York, latterly James II when he became king of England in 1685. Of all the royal connections with trading monopolies in the period, that between James and the RAC was the closest. James was the largest shareholder in the RAC, and also Lord High Admiral, a position through which, he could exercise direct punitive power over those who dared to challenge the monopoly of the RAC. In this period, although James did not attend any meetings of the RAC, he effectively operated as the Company’s ‘fixer’, and ‘enforcer’ at a national level.
He was backed up in the RAC by a cabal of royalist Tory politicians, and London aldermen who were shareholders, and managers in the company. Edward Colston fitted this particular profile perfectly, coming from prosperous ‘mere merchant’ family in Bristol, whose head had held high office in the city, and who were staunch Tory royalists with connections to the monarchy. After James fled abroad in 1688, as a result of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, the position of Governor of the RAC became effectively an honorary position. This was despite the incumbent William of Orange being elected to the role, and becoming a share-holder in the company.
Executive power in the RAC, actually lay in the positions of the sub-governor, deputy-governor, and the twenty-four assistants who were elected annually by the stock-holders. In the original RAC charter of 1672 it was stipulated that:
“Individuals had one vote for each £100 share, but to be elected Assistant, a shareholder had to hold £400 of shares. This regulation required those who wished to direct the company, to show some financial commitment to the company.
By 1714 the qualification for an assistant had risen to £2,000, and a minimum of £500 of stock commanded one vote, up to a maximum of five votes. Technically, the ruling body of the RAC was the General Court, which was made up of all the share-holders, and met once a year to elect the assistants. However, in practice, it was the weekly meeting of the full Court of Assistants, that actually held power in the company.
The quorum at this meeting was seven, of whom either the sub-governor or deputy-governor must be one. The Assistants also sat on various committees that managed specific aspects of the company’s affairs. There were four core bodies dealing with accounts, correspondence, purchase of goods and provision of shipping and preventing private trade.
Membership of these committees was capped at three years, after which a shareholder had to withdraw for a minimum of a year. An Assistant who was elected to be Deputy Governor, or Sub-Governor could serve another two years, at each level of the hierarchy.
However, these rules could be flouted, and some important figures in the RAC moved seamlessly between the Assistant, and Governor positions for many years. The word Assistant, is somewhat of a misnomer suggesting the role of operative or subordinate; in practice these men were company executives. The entire burden of decision-making in the huge organisation that was the RAC, was carried out by the Assistants, and their committees that met multiple times a week.
This day-to-day commitment to running the company’s business, tied its managers to living in London or its environs. The Assistants, twenty-four of the wealthiest investors, effectively ran the company, decided its policies and direction and, of course, resourced, organised and managed its substantial slave trading arm.
In March 1680, Edward Colston purchased a £500 share, and became member of the RAC. The RAC although, a relatively recently formed company, was nothing new to Colston or his family. Colston’s father William, a merchant and ship-owner, had major trading contracts with the company selling, more than £3,000 of textiles to the RAC in 1674 alone. He was also a significant investor in the 1670, holding £400 in shares in the RAC.
In the same period, his brother, Thomas, supplied goods to the RAC, specifically for the purchase of enslaved Africans. William Colston died in 1681, and it may have been his increasing age that spurred Edward to replace his father in the RAC. As we shall see, being a shareholder in the company, and particularly holding an elected position, was of great financial advantage for ship-owners, and particularly, mere merchants trading in the Mediterranean, and Levant regions. Edward Colston’s familia connections with the RAC, his political affiliations, and pedigree in the London trading fraternity set him in good stead for a rapid rise through the company’s hierarchy.
It thus comes as no surprise that, less than a year after joining the RAC as a share-holder, Edward Colston was elected as an Assistant, serving on the Court, and on the committees for purchasing goods, and providing shipping. He was a regular attendee at the executive decision making bodies of the company, over the years 1681 to 1683, before apparently taking his statutory break from direct management, during the year 1684. From January 1685, he was present at the Court of Assistants, organising trade and dealing with disputes, and was re-elected as a full Assistant in January 1686, regularly attending the Court, and working in the committees for accounts and shipping.
From this point on, Colston’s already significant role in the management of the RAC, expanded and extended. By 1687, he was a member of three committees: shipping and new bodies dealing with inspection, and trade in the northern parts of West Africa. A year later, he had added a fourth, the committee for buying goods, to his increasing repertoire. With his fingers in almost all the pies of the management structure, it was inevitable that in January 1689, he took the oath of Deputy Governor of the RAC, with the remit to sit on all the committees of the company.
Edward Colston Gave Great Sums of Money to Bristol:
Bristol’s fame and wealth were built on the slave trade, and few slave traders were more infamous or wealthy than Edward Colston. The reluctance to face up to the dark history of Edward Colston, has led some commentators in Bristol to denigrate, or even ignore his involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is notable that where there has been a focus on this history, Colston is often portrayed as merely an investor, a beneficent share-holder, distant from both the organisations that ran the trade and its horrors. Other major public figures in Bristol, have mistakenly implied that the history of his involvement is mere speculation. These rosy perceptions have to be challenged, and this piece aims to correct this view on an evidential basis.
Edward Colston donated much of the wealth he made off human suffering, to charities in Bristol and across the country, bequeathing around £71,000 to charity at his death. He also gave extensively, to Bristol churches, donated to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School, and founded a religious school for 100 boys.
The Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire said: “Having statues of people who oppressed us, is not a good thing to be saying to black people in this city.”
Colston donated considerable sums in Bristol. He founded two almshouses and a school. He also lent money to the Bristol corporation, and was MP of the city for a short time. Colston died at his home in Mortlake, south west of London, but his body was taken back to Bristol for burial in All Saints Church.
Colston’s legacy and memory has been honoured in Bristol for centuries, and his name is seen on streets and buildings throughout the city. His statue stood on Colston Avenue, as does Colston Tower; Colston Hall is located on Colston Street; Colston’s Day is celebrated on 14 November, when Colston buns are eaten. A number of schools also bear his name.
Black Lives Matters Pulled Down Edward Colston Statue:
The involvement of Bristol merchants, such as Edward Colston, in the international slave trade has long cast a shadow over the city. In the city Edward Colston called home, his memory has been honoured for centuries. On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities, and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, memorials and buildings. His statue, which stands on Colston Avenue in the city centre, makes no mention of his notorious past. But this could be about to change. Bristol’s politicians and civic leaders, have had opportunities to remove the statue before.
“When you come to Bristol you go around the streets and, for anyone outside coming in, they must think ‘Who is this man?’, and ‘Why are so many buildings, roads and schools named after him?’,” says Ms Martin.
“I think it’s very disingenuous, very disrespecting of the memory of African ancestors, who contributed to the wealth of the city through enslaved labour. They suffered and there is not enough recognition in any way.
“Countering Colston, would like to see permanent public art works, as a memorial to the victims of the city’s human trafficking into enslavement.
“I would like all those institutions that played a role in this business of transatlantic inhumanity, to provide public exhibitions of their involvement, and a monument to those who suffered in their institution.”
In 2007, the 200th anniversary of parliament, voting to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, was commemorated, the statue could have been taken down then, alongside a public apology for Bristol’s role in the trade. Instead, the city named a major new shopping centre Cabot circus, after the 15th-century merchant, and coloniser John Cabot, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus.
Colston Girls, a private school, converted to academy status, but retained its name despite receiving public funds. There is also another private school that bears the name of the slave trader.
Between 1698 and 1807, just over 2,100 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages, with many of the earliest voyages funded by ordinary people, who provided cash or goods to be bartered for captured slaves.
That Colston’s name has not disappeared with time, is testament to his membership of an influential, and selective group of Bristol businessmen.
Following a recent campaign, headed up by the historian, David Olusoga and Green Party councillor Cleo Lake, the music venue Colston Hall had announced it would be changing its name, following a refurbishment.
The drive to reconsider Bristol’s attitude to Colston has long been gathering momentum. For years, Massive Attack refused to play at hometown venue Colston Hall, which last year agreed to drop the slave trader’s name. Not before time, says Miles Chambers, the city’s poet laureate.
“Some people don’t get that black people still feel the full impact of slavery today.
“We can look at the descendants of the slaves, and economically they are still worse off; psychologically they are still worse off; mentally they still feel collectively as inferior; more African-Caribbean males are disproportionately in prison, and in the judicial system; they do worse at schools; economically are paid less, and are working less.
“The pattern continues, and even though many people say slavery is over, because of those legacies we still feel enslaved.
“A name change or statue move, is not going to rectify racism, or eradicate the slave mentality that still exists, but it will help to say to black people: ‘You are equal to us, you are British, you are valuable, and you mean as much to us as any other citizen.'”
On Sunday 7 June, 2020, historic scenes were witness in Bristol over the weekend, as Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a controversial statue of 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, and rolled the memorial into the Bristol Harbour. Demonstrators attached a rope to the grade II, listed statue on Colston Avenue, before pulling it to the ground as crowds cheered. They then jumped on it, and rolled it down the street to the harbour, before pushing it into the river Avon. The 18ft bronze statue, erected in 1895, has long been a focal point for anger at the city’s role in the slave trade, and the continued commemoration of those who were involved in it.
A petition to remove it had garnered more than 11,000 signatures. It said: “Whilst history shouldn’t be forgotten, these people who benefited from the enslavement of individuals do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who bring about positive change, and who fight for peace, equality and social unity.”
Colston’s company, transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa, to the Caribbean, and the Americas between 1672 and 1689, cramming them into ships to maximise profit.
The slaves, including women and children, were branded on their chests with the company’s initials, RAC. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy during the crossings, and their bodies were thrown overboard.
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire, joined calls for the statute to be taken down in 2018. She said the city “should not be honouring people who benefited from slavery”.
Action has been taken to erase his name from other parts of the city. Colston hall, Bristol’s largest concert hall, announced plans to change its name in 2017, and Bristol city council, determined in January 2018, that a second plaque should be placed on Colston’s statue, highlighting his role in the slave trade, but wrangling over the wording delayed it. A portrait of Colston was removed from the lord mayor’s office later the same year.
Opposition to the Colston statue grew at around the same time as the Rhodes, Must Fall campaign, which called for the statue of Cecil Rhodes, an ardent imperialist, to be removed from Oriel College, Oxford. The college refused to accede to the demands.
The toppling of the statue, follows the pulling down of several Confederate statues, during Black Lives Matter protests in the US.
Explaining the reason for the grade II listing, Historic England says: “The statue is of particular historical interest, the subject being Edward Colston, Bristol’s most famous philanthropist, now also noted for his involvement in the slave trade.”
Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican heritage, said he could not “pretend” to have any “real sense of loss for the statue”, and said the memorial was a “personal affront” to him.
When asked on BBC’s Today programme, why the statue had not been removed since he became mayor in 2016, he said it was something he would have liked to have seen, but was not a priority as austerity, the housing crisis, and soaring child hunger needed to be addressed.
“Secondly, I’m the first directly elected mayor of African heritage in Europe. If I just pitch up, and start tearing down all memorials to slavery, there would be another debate, and I would be on the receiving end,” he added.
The fall of Colston in 2020, will no doubt come to rank alongside the Bus Boycott of 1963, and the St Paul’s Uprising of 1980, in Bristol’s contribution to the anti-racist struggle. Any attempt by the police to pursue those involved for criminal damage, should be resisted by a mass campaign across the city.
Indeed, this is now a new beginning.