Edward Colston, mega-rich philanthropist around the year 1700, is the nearest thing Bristol has to a patron saint. The largest stained glass window in the cathedral there is dedicated to him. Go and do thou likewise, it commands.
There’s no doubt Bristol owes Colston. He funded almshouses and schools here; made countless donations to churches and charities, some of which work wonders to this day. And many signs of Victorian civic gratitude to him litter the place. There are half a dozen Colston roads and three Colston schools, for instance — including one which churns out more England rugby players than Eton creates prime ministers. Colston is — or was — so venerated that local schoolchildren are occasionally taken on field trips to see a clump of his hair and his nails, which are preserved like medieval relics at the Merchants’ Hall. Beside a brass statue of Colston — on Colston Avenue — is a plaque proclaiming him to be ‘one of the most virtuous and wise sons’ of the city.
But there’s now a great fuss being made about this paragon. When I last saw the statue, Colston’s hands and face had been splattered with whitewash. Students have been pacing about with banners, calling for it to be pulled down.
This is Bristol’s own version of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which clamoured for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University’s Oriel College, on the grounds that he was racist. Rhodes Must Fall plagued Oxford for years; Rhodes quite rightly remains upright.
I went to Bristol recently, thinking that Colston probably shouldn’t fall, and that this story was just another example of juvenile activism. To my surprise, though, I’m now not quite sure that the protestors against Colston don’t have a point.
Roger Ball, a member of the Countering Colston group, is an aircraft engineer and a sort of hobbyist historian. In almost resigned tones, he explained to me why ‘Colston is not someone we should be celebrating.’
Colston made some of his fortune in the Royal African Company in the late 17th century. At the time, it had a complete monopoly over the slave trade from west Africa, transporting about 85,000 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, including 12,000 children as young as six. All of them were branded — hot irons on flesh — with the initials ‘RAC’. Roger Ball says just under a quarter, 19,300, including 2,500 children, died during the crossings, in filthy conditions. Colston was eventually the deputy governor of the company that oversaw this horrendous business. It’s absurd, argues Ball, to pretend he was some sort of moral hero to be honoured.
The Countering Colston group are as thoughtful and measured as Rhodes Must Fall are hysterical and vituperative. They don’t wish to wipe his name from the city. But Joanna Burch-Brown, a philosophy lecturer at Bristol University, tells me they think ‘the cathedral and other churches should stop hosting ceremonies presenting him as a symbol of the good Samaritan’.
David Olusoga, a black Bristolian, broadcaster and historian, puts it starkly: ‘For hundreds of years now — literally — an annual ceremony has been held in Bristol to remember fondly the life and the philanthropy of a mass murderer. Imagine if that were a tradition maintained in the Deep South.’
It’s a persuasive argument. I don’t think the statue needs to go, but would it hurt to add another plaque, explaining that, although Colston was a great philanthropist at home, he was also complicit in death and suffering abroad? Should the cathedral’s window really insist: ‘Go and do thou likewise?’ Perhaps, instead of visiting his relics, the schoolchildren of Bristol should be told the full story of his complicated life. People can be heroes and villains. It’s a useful lesson.
‘To deplore slavers and racists, you have to remember them,’ said Lionel Shriver in the pages of this magazine. Yet in Bristol, for more than a century, Edward Colston has been misremembered.
Will Heaven and Tom Slater from Spiked discuss Colston's legacy on the Spectator Podcast.