Edward Colston was born in Church Street, Bristol in 1636 and was the son of a rich merchant. He was a successful businessman, serving as a Conservative MP for Bristol for one parliament in 1710.

He never married and after his death he left money that was used to found schools and other charitable legacies in Bristol, so now there are at least a dozen streets named after him; three schools; the Colston Hall and a ceremonial bun!

But that wealth was mostly amassed from his role in the Royal African Company, which was at the heart of the slave trade. From 1698 ships sailed from Bristol for the West African coast loaded with cotton, brass, copper, gin or muskets. In Africa these goods were bartered for slaves who were then packed on to ships for the “Middle Passage” to the West Indies or America.

Many of the African people loaded on to the ships died or were murdered at sea. The survivors were sold to plantation owners and the ships returned to Bristol with cargoes of sugar or tobacco – Colston and his businesses made a profit out of every leg of the journey.

Colston died in 1721 but the slave trade went on until 1807, when it was abolished thanks to campaigners in Bristol. It is estimated that around 500,000 people were carried on Bristol ships and enslaved. West Indian and Black American culture stemmed from the ancestors of these people.

Colston was only one of many involved in the slave trade but he has become a well-known figure because around 175 years after his death the Victorian civic leaders in Bristol held him up as a great example to the city. Many myths around him date from that time – as does the statue now in the city docks, which was erected in 1895.

By then money left by Colston was being used for many projects and November 13 was chosen as “Colston Day” as a celebration of all things to do with Bristol. There is no doubt that the romanticised stories put forward by the Victorians have led to Colston having a higher profile than he deserved, many Bristol people being given a false impression of his philanthropy and a masking of his role as a slave trader.

He did not, for instance, have anything to do with the Colston Hall – that name was simply chosen because the concert hall was in Colston Street. The Hall announced in 2017 that it will be renamed when it reopens.

For many years there have been campaigns for the statue to be torn down. Bristol had a statue to a slave trader in its centre while those who campaigned in the city to end slavery including John Wesley, Hannah More, Rev Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce are less celebrated!

Mike Davies
Author: Mike Davies