Renaming the Colston Hall: An opportunity to rediscover the hidden history of Bristol

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Section: Blog
Projects: Edward Colston
Subjects: News, Slavery & Resistance
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The following statement by BRHG historians was published in the Bristol Post last week in response to Councillor Richard Eddy’s article the week before entitled: Prominent Tory: Renaming Bristol’s Colston Hall ‘panders to tiny minority’.

Almost a century ago in 1920 the Reverend H. J. Wilkins of Westbury-on Trym penned a biography of Edward Colston which began to expose the troubling history surrounding Bristol’s so-called ‘moral saint’ and ‘great philanthropist’. Wilkins was astounded at the over-representation of Colston in the city, the numerous annual celebrations, street names, statues and buildings that took his name. This ‘cult of Colston’ he argued was not only misplaced but obscured many other historical figures who had featured in the city’s history. He listed more than seventy Bristolians who should have been memorialised but had fallen into the shade because of the domination of the ‘Colston cult’. And he wondered how this could be so when the wealth of the so-called ‘philanthropist’ had come from the suffering of tens of thousands of enslaved West Africans.

Today the history of Edward Colston is still obscured; we continue to see media articles stating that Colston was merely ‘involved’ in the slave trade, an ‘investor’ and from the Bishop of Bristol in 2014 that ‘there was speculation about his business interests’. As historians who have studied Colston for several years we find it hard to believe that his major role in the British slave trade is still unclear. So let’s get the history straight.

In 1680 Edward Colston became a member of the Royal African Company (RAC). This was the premier slave trading organisation in the British Empire, having a complete monopoly over the transportation of human cargo from West Africa in the 17th Century. Colston rose rapidly to the board of the company in this period becoming its deputy governor in 1689. Colston was not just a major investor in the ‘vile trade’ but effectively ran it.

In the years that Colston helped manage and lead the Royal African Company (1680-1692) at least 85,000 enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic into a lifetime of forced labour in plantations in Jamaica, Barbados and the Leeward Islands. Nearly 20,000 Africans died on route in appalling conditions and many more in the first few years of their lives in the Caribbean. This included women and children as young as six. Each slave was branded with the company’s initials, RAC, on their chest.

It was from his leading position in the slave trade that Colston accrued his massive wealth, a proportion of which he later bequeathed to selected groups in the city that conformed to his religious and political bias. However, it is obscene to call Colston a philanthropist (a ‘lover of humanity’), given that he pursued political power and financial profit through the slave trade with such a callous disregard for human dignity and life. It is an insult to the memory of the victims of slavery and an embarrassment to the city that Colston should still be commemorated, celebrated or memorialised.

The idea that renaming the Colston Hall is somehow ‘rewriting’ or ‘erasing’ history just does not make sense. History is written in history books and it is from these sources that we learn about historical figures and events. From this written history decisions are made to celebrate, commemorate or memorialise certain people or events. The campaigners who want to change the name of the Colston Hall are not burning books, in fact the complete opposite. They are asking Bristolians: who do you want to celebrate? What do you want to call your public buildings? After all, the Colston Hall has been ‘our’ building for nearly a century and we need to make it a place which is welcoming to all in the 21st Century. This is also great opportunity for us to uncover those people and events which have been obscured by the ‘cult of Colston’, to celebrate some things we can all be proud of. Edward Colston should be consigned to the museums and history books where he belongs.

We guess the irony is lost on Richard Eddy when he claims that ‘Renaming the Colston Hall is pandering to a ‘tiny minority’’. It was actually a tiny minority of powerful merchants and politicians that put Colston on the pedestal that he sits on today. The majority of Bristolians never had a say in the naming of buildings, statues or streets. The tiny minority that the city should stop pandering to are the Society of Merchant Venturers who, since their Royal Charter of 1552, have been dictating who should or should not be memorialised – it’s for the people of Bristol to decide who is remembered and why – and there are plenty of great candidates. Or perhaps we could all get behind ‘The Bristol Music Hall’, a name that gives the hall back to the people.

Richard Eddy claimed in his article that Bristol had somehow ‘covered’ the issue of the transatlantic slave trade through a tiny ‘semi-permanent exhibition’ in MSHED, Pero’s bridge (where?) and a long-forgotten statement of regret in 2007. On the contrary, Bristol has yet to properly memorialise the hundreds of thousands of Africans who suffered and worked, creating wealth for the Bristol ‘elite’ who then went on to celebrate, ad nauseum, one of their own, Edward Colston. Renaming the Colston Hall will be an important first step on the path to a proper memorial to all those who suffered, died and were forced into labour by Bristol’s undemocratic and wealthy ‘elite’.

Roger Ball and Mark Steeds (Counter-Colston Historians) 4 Mar 2017


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