Edward Colston

2 November 1636 - 11 October 1721


The name Colston is synonymous with Bristol: Colston Avenue, Parade and Street; the Colston Schools; Colston Almshouses; Colston Hall; Colston Tower...Yet who was Edward Colston, whose statue can be seen on the Centre Promenade, resting pensively on a cane, dressed in a frock coat, on a plinth supported by dolphins?

Edward Colston is probably one of the most controversial figures in Bristol's history.

Life and Times

Born to William Colston, a Bristol-based merchant, and Sarah Batten, Edward was the eldest of eleven children. After the age of ten, there is some confusion regarding Colston's residence. Some sources suggest that he was educated in London, perhaps at Christ's Hospital School; others intimate that Colston spent time in Spain, where his father had trading links. It is certain, though, that Colston was resident in London from the age of eighteen, and would never live in the city of his birth again, despite retaining strong links with it for the rest of his life. Colston lived in Mortlake, in a house once occupied by Cromwell. He conducted the majority of his business from home until he retired from trade in 1708. After his death, Colston's body was taken from London to be buried in All Saints Church, Bristol.

Slavery and Colston's wealth

Colston seems to have capitalised on his father's contacts in Spain, for he concentrated his early career trading in Spain and the mediterranean. By 1680, Colston was a member of the Royal African Company, which held the English monopoly on trade with Africa, dealing in gold, ivory and humans. Colston invested in the RAC and served as a manager and its deputy governor. This is where Colston began to make serious money, enabling him to make the bequests and endowments for which he is now famed. This serious money came at the expense of human life.

The Royal African Company transported over 84,500 black Africans across the Atlantic, their chests branded with the RAC crest. Records show that 12,209 of these enslaved people were children aged 10 or under. Before the ships even reached shore, over 19,300 of them would die, and of the children that set sail, one-in-four would die at sea. Their bodies were tossed overboard.

This is how Colston made his fortune, much of which then found its way into organisations and institutions throughout Bristol. This is why, despite the horrific origins of Colston's wealth, his name can be found across the city.

Endowments and Bequests

In 1681, the year that his father died, Colston is listed as a governor and benefactor of Christ's Hospital School. This association continued until Colston's death. From 1682, beginning with a loan of £1,800 made to the Corporation of Bristol, Colston's charitable and philanthropic attentions were also directed towards the city of Bristol, its institutions and people. By 1683, Colston was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers and a burgess of the city. In 1684 Colston was appointed to a committee that was responsible for managing the affairs of Clifton, he inherited his brother's business that was based on Small Street, and he was a prominent Bristol employer, refining sugar that he shipped from St Kitts. In 1685 Colston made yet another loan to the Corporation of Bristol, this time a sum of £2,000.

In 1691, Colston endowed an almshouse on St Michael's Hill to provide for twenty four needy men and women. This set him back around £8,000, whilst he donated another £600 to establish the Sailors Almshouse on King Street, catering for six ex-seamen.

The first school provided for by Colston was established in 1696. Costing around £8,000, it was intended to educate and clothe forty boys. The school-house was rebuilt in 1702, before Colston went to endow another institution in 1710. Sited on St Augustine's Back, this school was to provide for 100 boys under the direction of the Society of Merchant Venturers. This school still exists today as Colston's Collegiate School and although it has now relocated and educates 900 boys and girls, the Merchant Venturers retain control of the Board of Governors. On Colston's Day — 13 November — children from Colston's Collegiate School and Colston's Girls' School throw bronze chrysanthemums at the foot of Colston's statue in the Centre.

At what cost did Colston's benevolence towards the poor and needy of London and Bristol come? The thousands of pounds that he donated publicly and privately to better those less fortunate than himself and to alleviate their suffering was funded by his involvement in the Triangular Trade: shipping goods from England to Africa, taking human cargo on the hideous middle passage, and converting those unfortunate souls into cash crops for the return voyage to England. It's a difficult legacy to which Bristol cannot quite reconcile itself.

Politics and Religion

Colston was a fervent Tory and a committed church-goer. Numerous churches and Bristol Cathedral were in receipt of his favours. It was a condition of the endowment of the first school that the boys were not to be tinged with even the slightest suggestion of Whig politics. When London lost the monopoly on African trade in 1698, Colston was almost certainly involved. Bristol benefited enormously from the lifting of the restrictions, being better disposed geographically to transatlantic trade. In 1710 Colston was elected to Parliament as member for Bristol. He resigned his seat in 1713, never having said a word in the House.

Colston's Legacy

In addition to the streets, buildings and institutions named after him, and the schools and almshouses that he founded, Colston's legacy lives on in various forms. Three benevolent societies were founded in Colston's memory. The first was the Dolphin Society, in 1749. Dolphins featured on Colston's coat-of-arms after a dolphin supposedly plugged a hole in a damaged, uninsured ship belonging to Colston, allowing it to return safely to port. Hence the dolphins on Colston's statue, and the dolphins on Colston's Collegiate School badge. The Grateful Society was founded in 1758, followed by the Anchor Society in 1769. These charities exist today to raise funds for impoverished and disabled people resident in the Bristol area.

Of course, Colston's dependence on the trade in human life for his fortune means that many people see his benevolence as dirty and tainted. His statue is frequently defaced, and bands such as Massive Attack have refused to play at the Colston Hall. Recently, there have been calls for the Colston Hall to be renamed, acknowledging the plight of transported Africans. Maybe, though, we need a reminder as to who he was and what he did, for humanity's sake?

Update—Sunday 7 June 2020

The people of Bristol pulled Colston's statue from its plinth today, dragged it to Bristol's floating harbour, and tossed it into the waters. Debate about the wording for a plaque to contextualise Colston's legacy, to highlight the intense suffering, the indignity, the outrage, he wrought upon an entire race of people from his involvement in the slave trade, has been bounced back and forth among Bristol councillors for at least two years. Angered, distressed, and frustrated by the intransigence surrounding such a simple gesture to bring at least some recognition of the source of Colston's wealth and his role in oppression, and as part of the Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the world, the people chose a better solution. You can read more about the dispute regarding the plaque's wording starting with the historian Kate Williams' Twitter thread.

It's the British-Nigerian historian David Olosuga's words regarding the statue that everyone should hear, though:

Statues aren't the mechanism for understanding history... Statues are about adoration, about saying this was a great man and he did great things. That is not true. He was a slave trader and a murderer.

Furthermore, in 2017 the Colston Hall announced that it would be undergoing an extensive renovation from 2018, reopening in autumn 2020 with a new, but as yet undecided name. Colston's Primary School has also renamed itself.

I've also added some more specific details regarding Colston's involvement in the slave trade to the body of the article. Sources include this (which has more detail on Colston's statue and the Colston Hall) and this.

Closing credits:

  • Aughton, P: (2000) Bristol: A People's History, Carnegie, Lancaster.
  • http://edward-colston.biography.ms/ (14 July 2005)
  • http://3.1911encyclopedia.org/C/CO/COLSTON.htm (14 July 2005)
  • http://dolphin-society.org.uk/aims.html (14 July 2005)
  • ascorbic's Mother
  • Bristol Industrial Museum

For arieh, because that day, I said that I would.

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