On Friday 7 November a group of Bristolian activists leafleted people and children entering the Colston Schools Commemoration Day at Bristol Cathedral.
This protest came about because of a discussion at a Black History month event in St Pauls a few days before. The two leaflets below were handed out. The first for pupils and the second one for adults.
They have proved more controversial and provoked more of a reaction than the protestors could possibly have imagined:
WHY WE ARE PROTESTING OUTSIDE TODAY
We are Bristol residents concerned about the Colston founder day/charter day ceremonies about to take place in the city’s cathedral today and next week, following the public of words spoken by the Bishop in last year’s ceremony. In 2014 he stated that Edward Colston had: ‘lived a life of significance’ [and there] ‘may be still some speculation on some of the circumstances around his business roots right here’
It is not speculation but fact that the bulk of the money Colston gave away ‘for charitable purposes’, which built two of your schools, was generated off the backs of African slaves working in sugar plantations. Is this charity?
The memory of Africans (mere commodities under slavery) forcibly removed from their West African homelands, branded, their names taken from them, working under the sun, the slave driver lash at their backs, should be remembered, whenever the name Colston is mentioned.
Colston used his money to court influence and power in the city andParliament. He lends money to the Bristol City Corporation (city council) one year and becomes a member of the society of the Merchant Venturers the next…..
Ceremonies held in a cathedral, private or otherwise, presided over by the Bishop of Bristol, with hundreds of Bristol children in attendance, where the Bishop chooses to speculate over this fact and not give dignity to the memory of African ancestors who were dehumanised, are perverse.
We are using our presence to provide balance in education. Use the central library next door and the internet to find out the truth about:
Edward Colston and other Bristol slave traders
The Merchant Venturers
The slave and sugar trade in Bristol
Slave rebellions in America and the Caribbean
The movement for the abolition of slavery
Talk to your parents and teachers at school
COLSTON AND SLAVERY STILL OBSCURED?
At last year’s Merchant Venturers Charter Day service at the cathedral the Bishop of Bristol, stated that Edward Colston had:
‘lived a life of significance’ [and there] ‘may be still some speculation on some of the circumstances around his business roots right here’
The Bishop of Bristol’s clumsy attempt to rewrite history, effectively claiming that Colston’s involvement in the business of the slave trade was ‘speculation’ is unsurprising. A similar kind of air brushing occurred during a BBC televised debate in 2007 (the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade) when a spokesperson for the Merchant Venturers, claimed that his organisation had not traded in slave-produced commodities! This produced a mixture of laughter and howls of derision from the assembled historians in the studio audience.
This is nothing new. Colston’s extensive political and financial involvement in promoting slavery and the trade in human cargo has been obscured by the Merchant Venturers and their devotees for centuries. It took until the 1920s before his dealings in the ‘vile trade’ first began to be exposed. The problem for the Merchant Venturers and their ilk is simply this: if you set up one of your beneficent members as the ‘father of Bristol’, bang up statues1 and name streets and buildings after him; then the truth becomes politically inconvenient.
So what are the myths and what is the truth about Edward Colston?
Colston was held up in the Victorian period as an example of ‘a self-made man’. This was far from true. Privately educated Colston was born into a wealthy merchant family in Bristol who were already embedded in the Merchant Venturers by the time he was born in 1636.
In 1680 the profit-chasing Colston followed a number of his family into the Royal African Company (RAC), the premier slaving organisation in the British Empire. During the heyday of the RAC from 1672 to 1698 the organisation had a complete monopoly over the trade in human cargo from West Africa. Colston rose rapidly to the board of the company in this period becoming its deputy governor in 1689.
Between 1672 and 1689, Colston’s company transported around 100,000 enslaved Africans to plantations in the West Indies and America. This included women and children as young as six – each slave was branded with company’s initials, RAC, on their chest. To maximise profit, Colston’s ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy killed more than 20,000 slaves during the crossings. Their bodies were thrown overboard.
During this period Colston secretly accrued immense wealth which he then multiplied again by acting as a money lender. The bulk of this fortune, originally obtained from the exploitation of forced labour, became his passport to civic and political power in Bristol.
Colston is often portrayed as a Christ-like figure giving without prejudice to the ‘poor’ of Bristol. In fact he was a Christian fundamentalist who hated Catholics and non-conformists; in fact anyone who wasn’t part of the High Anglican church. For Colston, only the ‘right-kind’ of poor and orphans were due his charity and even then they had to be physically and ideologically disciplined into strict religious observance before they would be allowed to ‘kiss the benefactors hand’.
Colston was an old-school Tory loyalist who believed in the divine right of kings, despised Whigs and fought tooth and nail against ‘dangerous’ ideas such as ‘democracy’ and ‘enfranchisement’.
History is full of profiteers, gangsters and exploiters who toss ill-gotten wealth from the high table downwards in order to appease their own egos or to gain civic pride and status. Colston fits neatly into a long line of British slavers, colonial warlords and drug dealers that profited from the misery of colonisation and forced labour, whilst building respectable identities through philanthropy in the ‘mother country’.
The question is: For how much longer are school children expected to commemorate Colston in the city’s cathedral whilst conveniently disregarding the memory of enslaved Africans whose lives were brutalised and cheapened by the trade in human cargo? The Bishop of Bristol needs to inform school children of the truth, to restore humanity dignity to the memory of those whose lives were commodified. After all it is he that presides over these commemorations. The ball is in his court…….