Will Heaven

Must Colston fall?

Bristol’s struggle with the complicated legacy of a slaver

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.

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