Edward Colston’s Statue Part 1 – Erected by the Citizens of Bristol
On the 7th of June, 2020 protestors at a Black Lives Matter march in the city of Bristol pulled down a statue of a man called Edward Colston. Immediately several people texted me to ask me if I’d heard about it, and when I checked the news and saw the footage, I cheered. Then I ran into the study and told my partner, and he cheered too.
We cheered again when they dumped it in the harbour.
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous texts, which are sometimes dangerous because of what they omit. I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and this week’s subject is preeeetty topical. It’s about a man, a statue, and the plaque that went with it. Firstly, though, apologies for the delay in the episode. I’m splitting my time between researching this, making masks for people, and sort of preparing for a probably international move, away from the city that is the setting of this episode.
Bristol is my adopted city. I’ve lived here for… well, pretty much since 2006 when I first went to University here. It was weird seeing the news of what had happened in Bristol get broadcast globally – to see it trending on twitter, and see my American friends cheer for something my little city had done.
The overwhelming response to the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston was supportive. And people wanted to know why the statue was still up in the first place. What happened in Bristol was the result of a growing move to pull down statues of slave traders, slave owners, and genocidiers all around the world (good riddance, Leopold II, you genocidal jerk), and to generally reassess whether memorials to certain people really belong in our public spaces, and what belongs in a museum, where it can be properly contextualised, and what just… doesn’t really belong anywhere anymore.
Whilst the attention from outside Bristol has largely been favourable, the pulling down of the statue was the culmination of decades of controversy in Bristol about, not just the statue, but the way the whole city memorialises Edward Colston, what we learn and teach about him, and what we don’t. And that is part of a larger attempt to acknowledge black history within the city.
And of course, this means we need historical context, starting with who exactly Edward Colston was.
Edward Colston was born on the 2nd of November in Temple Street, Bristol, in 1636. In 1642 the First Civil War broke out (it wasn’t actually the first civil war, but it’s what it’s known as). For a many complex reasons, including religion, wars, defeats, money, and kinda’ being inept, the then king, Charles I, wasn’t really getting along great with parliament.
Charles I became king in 1625. He didn’t exactly inherit a calm situation when his father died – there was work to be done in terms of pulling the country together, getting parliament on his side, and dealing with religious worries, and Charles I botched it magnificently. He was bad at communicating, got caught up in expensive wars that weren’t popular, and did some dodgy tax stuff, got into a mess with Scotland (surprise!), rebellions in Ireland, and generally made parliament quite worried that at some point soon he was going to just start to try and govern without them. He also allowed the duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, way too big a role in decision making than others would have liked, well… at least, he did until 1628, when the duke was assassinated in Portsmouth as he prepared for another military expedition. Point is: there’s some tensions going on between Charles and parliament. Which led, ultimately, in 1642, to the First Civil War.
Various cities and areas start to declare their allegiances, siding with the royalists or the parliamentarians. Bristol ideally wanted to keep out of it. Individuals within the city might have had loyalties one way or another, but the Common Council of the city did not sway to declare for either side, and primarily seemed to be interested with strengthening its own defences rather than committing to a cause (McGrath 1981: 5). At least, until some parliamentary forces managed to get into the city in December of 1642. Today, Bristol is a very small city in the grand scheme of things, but at the time, it was the second largest city, and also had a decent presence in the armaments industry (Wanklyn & Jones 2004: 72). And, of course, it was very important as a hub of trade. On the 26th of July of 1643, royalists took the city from the parliamentarians.
Edward Colston’s father, William Colston, was one of those individuals within the city who did have a loyalty – he was a staunch supporter of Charles, and he was also a prominent figure within Bristol. He was one of twelve aldermen for the city and, in August of 1643, two months after the royalists had taken the city, he was made sheriff of Bristol (Thomas & Griffiths 1852: 8).
We don’t need to know anything more about the first civil war beyond the fact that the royalists lost. On the 11th September 1645, Bristol surrendered to the parliamentarians. When that happened, William Colston was stripped of his titles of alderman and sheriff.
For some reason, one can only assume wholly unrelated to anything I just mentioned, the Colston family moved to London around this time.
The record on Edward’s early life is patchy, and after the family moved to London he next crops up again in the historical record in 1654, when he was apprenticed to Humfray Aldington, of the Mercers’ Company of London (Morgan 1999: 2). After this, again, things get patchy. After the outcome of the second civil war (because of course there were more), Charles I’s head ends up being separated from his body in 1549. This lead to England having Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector” until his death in 1658, when his son succeeded him because this was totally not a monarchy. His son lasted in that position for under a year, things kinda’ fell apart, and in 1660 England decided to try the monarchy thing again.
We don’t know what Edward Colston was doing for any of this time. We know his dad returned to Bristol after the restoration of the monarchy, and resumed his life there, but we don’t know what was happening with Edward until he re-emerges in 1673, when he’s enrolled in the Mercer’s Company (Morgan 1992: 2). So presumable in that time he was doing merchanting stuff.
And he continues to do merchanting stuff, exporting textiles and other things, and importing wine and other things (Morgan 1999: 2). We know that during the 1670s his family started to get involved with the Royal African Company, which, with a name like that, you know is going to be super ethical and not at all involved in the slave trade. Or it’s going to be the biggest business in the ‘transporting enslaved people in Africa to plantations in the Americas’ (Morgan 1999: 3). One or the other. On the 26th of March, 1680, Edward decided to get in on the action, too (Morgan 1999: 3).
Now, those who like to try and salvage Colston’s reputation might point out that we don’t know how much money exactly he made from his dealings with the Royal African Company (though it was still thousands of pounds in dividends alone ([Ball 2017]) and suggest that the bulk of his fortune came from the commodities trading he was still doing in Europe with the textiles and wine and stuff (Morgan 1999: 3). To which, I would point out: that’s nice, but, uh, the quantity of money earned from engaging in selling and transporting literal human beings into slavery does not make the action more or less immoral.
The man was a slave-trader, working for a company that specialised in trading enslaved people. And he served on the Court of Assistants for that company three times, and he was deputy governor of the company in 1689-1690. A time at which the company had a monopoly on the slave trade (Morgan 1999: 3). Only two positions within the company ranked higher than deputy governor – the governor and the sub-governor – and by the time Colston became the deputy governor the position of governor was essentially an honourary position (Ball 2017). To even become an assistant within the company – a role which, despite its name, is most comparable to being a company executive – Edward Colston needed to have at least £400 of shares in the company (Ball 2017). In fact, when he became a member of the company in 1680, he purchased £500 worth of shares (Ball 2017). By 1685 he had £1,600 worth of shares, putting him in a small group of people who had that much stock in the company. Over nearly a decade, Colston managed to get his fingers in nearly all the pies within the company, serving on many of the important committees within the company (Ball 2017). As deputy governor Colston was charged with leading negotiations between the company and the Spanish over a contract to supply enslaved Africans to Spain’s colonies (Ball 2017). We don’t actually know what the outcome of these negotiations was, but that’s a thing Colston was happy to do – land contracts to buy more enslaved people to sell to the Spanish.
During Colston’s time with the company, around 84,500 enslaved African people were transported from Africa to slavery in the colonies. Men, women, and children as young as six were taken. Around 12,200 of those enslaved people were children aged 10 and under. They were branded on the chest with the initials of the Royal African Company (Ball 2018).
23% - around 19,300 people, died before they ever reached shore. 1 in 4 children taken as slaves died on those ships. The bodies of those who died were simply thrown overboard. The ships were designed to cram in as many enslaved people as possible, with no care for the conditions, or the deaths they would cause. I’ll post pictures of the layout of one of these ships so you can exactly what conditions Colston and his buddies thought were okay to make other human beings endure after stealing their freedom and literally branding them with their company logo (Countering Colston: ‘Who was Colston?’).
Edward Colston has blood on his hands. There is no getting around these facts. He was involved in discussions about what goods the company needed to acquire in order to purchase enslaved people, what to pay the captains of the ships transporting them, and the conditions enslaved people were kept in (Morgan 1999: 3), and other things that were very much to do with successfully running a company that played the largest role at the time in ripping people from their families, homes, and countries, and transporting them in inhumane conditions that would kill many of them, to spend the rest of their lives in slavery and hard labour working on plantations, where they could also be murdered, beaten, raped, and abused in a multitude of other ways. I Do. Not. Care. How much he personally made from doing this. His crime was not how much money he made from it, but the fact that he did this at all.
And being such an esteemed member of the RAC helped Colston’s career in other ways – the company was quite happy to grant its contracts to its own members, so being invested in the company provided Colston with the opportunity to expand his own business interests (Ball 2017). Interests which were still linked with the slave-trade. Here’s a description of some of Colston’s business dealings from historian Roger Ball:
Analysis of his trading activities prior to joining the RAC in the 1670s shows that he was moving cargoes of specific textiles required for trading in West Africa, such as perpetuanas, serges, bays and other English woollens. These were often in great demand in particular slave trading areas of the West African coast and could be a key commodity in securing significant purchases of enslaved Africans. From the perspective of profiteering, the selling of commodities such as these to the RAC was not of minor financial importance. For example, the value of perpetuanas purchased by the RAC in the twelve years of Edward Colston’s involvement was in excess of £60,000. As the ‘conventional price’ of an enslaved person on the West African coast was about £3, sales of this single commodity can be equated to the ‘purchase’ of 20,000 human beings. (Ball 2017).
Edward Colston has blood. On. His. Hands.
Let’s jump back a bit to just keep track of what else was going on in Edward’s life other than making money off enslaving people. Edward’s father died in 1681, and one of his brothers, Thomas, died around December 1683. Edward wasn’t living in Bristol at the time, but his parents, and at least this brother, were. So he visited both when his father died, and when Thomas was dying. That second time, he was elected as a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers (Morgan 1999: 3). The Society of Merchant Venturers was formed in 1552, emerging from the earlier Guild of Merchants, which basically gave them a monopoly on trading in the port of Bristol. Put a pin their name, ‘cause they’re gonna crop up again.
Anyway. Both his dad and his brother left him property and business interests in Bristol, and he was also, for a time, a partner in a sugar refinery in the city. Heaven knows where the sugar came from. Certainly not from plantations reliant on enslaved African people whose human rights were crushed by white men eager to turn a profit. Why would you even think that?
Colston himself only lived in his beloved the city for a few years during the 1680s, and then moved to Mortlake, in Surrey (Morgan 1999: 4). Yes, that Mortlake. John Dee’s Mortlake. He lived at Mortlake for the rest of his life. So for a man who’s name is stamped everywhere in the city of Bristol, he spent very little of his life living there. He carried on his business interests and trading activities, appears to have been active in the parish at Mortlake, and never married. He retired in 1708 at the age of 72 (Morgan 1999: 4). Two years later, age 74, he was elected as Tory MP for Bristol, and served for three years, until 1710. He did not seek re-election (Morgan 1999: 12).
He also got involved in another slave-trading company: The South Seas Company, acting as a ‘commissioner taking subscriptions’ (Morton 1999: 4). During the years of his involvement with the South Seas Company, it transported tens of thousands of enslaved Africans to South America (Cork 2017). Because why get involved in one slave-trade company when you can get involved in two?
He died on the 11th of October in 1721.
Y’all, this guy had a Boring. Life. A nice, cosy, boring life where he had lots of money, had servants, and had one of his sisters looking after him, and, after she died, a niece of his looking after him (Morgan 1999: 4).
So why did Bristol make such a big deal about him?
Well… money, of course.
Apart from making money off, and helping run, a company that dealt primarily in enslaving people and shipping them across an ocean, in his middle age he decided to do a lot of… donating to charitable causes, stuff. He donated to churches, schools for orphans and the poor, subsidising more places for children at existing schools, built schools, and alms houses. He worked alongside the Society of the Merchant Venturers in much of this (Morgan 1999: 6-11). So… he undeniably did have a positive impact on lots of people, just as he undeniably had a hand in the slave trade. But his charity wasn’t free of attached strings.
Obviously, he gave to causes he supported, and helping kids get an education is a really good thing. Helping the poor is a good thing. But the limits of his charity were strongly circumscribed by how important religion was to him. And by that, I mean, how important following the correct religion was to him.
Here’s Kenneth Morgan, who wrote the most recent biography I could find of Colston, talking about one of the alms houses his founded:
He set down firm rules for the operation of the almshouse, and these provide insight into his personality and values; they illustrate his strict adherence to rules that reflected his piety as a committed member of the Church of England and his careful application to business affairs. Thus in a letter to the Society of Merchant Venturers, dated 5 th of December 1695, he noted the need for some men to fill the almshouse but insisted that ‘none be admitted that are drunkards, nor of a vicious life or turbulent spirit – lest the quiet and order the inhabitants at present live in, be thereby interrupted’. (Morgan 1999: 7)
To put it bluntly, he had to consider you worthy of his help. And that meant being of the right religion and the right denomination. Religion, by which I mean, his religion, was super important to him.
Again, to quote from Morgan:
In a subsequent letter of 6 october 1696, Colston informed the Merchant Venturers of his almshouse rules. Common prayer was to be taken twice daily and attended by all the almsmen and almswomen. Absentees had to pay a fine of sixpence. Four of the almsfolk were to be from Temple parish. Only those who were freemen of Bristol or had been born in the city, or the sons and daughters of such people, or those who had lived in the city for twenty years, were eligible to live in the almshouse. They were each to receive three shillings a week for their maintenance. Colston also paid attention to the auditing of the accounts. The almshouses soon provided a comfortable abode for a select few who complied with the philanthropist’s rules. Celia Fiennes, on a visit to Bristol in 1698, commented that the St Michael’s Hill almshouse was ‘more like a gentleman’s house’ intended for ‘decayed tradesmen and wives who have lived well.’ (Morgan 1999: 7).
There were 12 pence in a shilling, so missing one of the fourteen prayers per week cost you 1/6th of the money you had for that week. Which means that if you missed more than 6 of them, you’re now in debt. And you had to have been born in the city, or have lived there for twenty years. Been there for 18 years? Tough. Nu-uh. Not for you. Want to attend school but you’re not Anglican? Screw you. And, as is suggested by Ceclia Fiennes’ comments, it wasn’t exactly the most poor and needy who benefited from this particular almshouse. Which, incidentally, is a building still standing today, and which I have walked past thousands of times. It’s right next to the University of Bristol, on one of the city’s characteristically stupidly steep hills.
I don’t want to go into great detail about all the charitable contributions he made, because… it’s not exactly interesting material, but it’s absolutely the case that thousands of people in Bristol did benefit from his charity, but his restrictions absolutely ruled lots of people out of getting any help. And hey, you can say it’s up to him what he does with his money, and if he wants to stick restrictions on his charity, he’s fully entitled to do so. On the other hand: A) eat the rich. B) we can still judge him for whom he chose to exclude from his charity.
Morgan suggests that promoting the role of the Church of England was a notable part of shaping his charitable endeavours. ‘Colston’s Hospital’, a school for 100 boys that he founded and opened alongside the Society of Merchant Venturers, only accepted healthy Anglican boys (Morgan 1999: 9). He kept an eye on the state of the school, complaining to the Merchant Venturers when he felt the standard of education, food, and, of course, religion, fell short. He demanded that they make sure that religion was being taught by the book, and that whoever the boys did apprenticeships with were also the correct flavour of Christianity (Morgan 1999: 10).
He used his money to push his religious ideas in other ways, too. In 1710 Colston launched a series of ‘Lenten lectures’. And I’m just gonna quote from Morgan’s summary of them here:
Under Colston's instructions, fourteen sermons were to be preached every Wednesday and Friday in Lent in the parish churches of St Werburgh and St Peter on specified subjects, including the excellence of the Church of England, the errors of the Roman church, the Lenten fast, public and private absolution and repentance, and the dangers of 'enthusiasm.' (Morgan 1999: 12)
He also instigated a yearly sermon at Bristol Cathedral on his birthday (Morgan 1999: 12). Very humble of him.
A few years after his death, a not unimpressive tomb was erected for him in the All Saints’ Church. There was an effigy of him on it, designed by James Gibbs – yeah, that James Gibbs who we briefly met last episode. He of the ‘Gibbsian sarcophagi’. On the tomb was written:
‘To the memory of Edward Colston, Esq., who was born in the City of Bristol, and was one of the representatives in Parliament for the said City, in the reign of Queen Anne. His extreme Charity is well known to many parts of this kingdom, but more particularly to this City, where his benefactions have exceeded all others, a list of which is on his monument as followeth. He lived 84 years, 11 months, and 9 days, and then departed this life 11th October 1721, at Mortlake, in Surrey, and lieth buried in a vault by his ancestors, in the first cross alley under the reading desk of this Church.
Then there’s a list of the benefactions. The final words on the monument are:
The great and pious Benefactor was known to have done many other excellent Charities, and what he did in secret is believed to be not inferior to what he did in public.’
Not as snappy as ‘et in Arcadia ego’ but I’m sure we could find some clues as to the whereabouts of Mary Magdalen’s remains if we tried. Photo of the monument on the twitters.
Anyway. After his death a whole bunch of societies sprang up over the next several decades in his honour. There was the Colston Society, founded in 1726, the Dolphin Society in 1749, the Grateful society in 1759, and the Anchor Society in 1769 (Morgan 1999: 16).
The Grateful Society was non-political, and set up to get alumni of his Colston Hospital school to give donations so that they continue charitable giving in Colston’s name. The others also engaged in charitable work, but also had a more political angle. The Dolphin Society was a political party for the Tories, and gave retirement annuities to ‘the aged and deserving poor’ (Morgan 1999: 16). Sounds very much like Colston. Can’t just be poor, gotta be deserving poor. The Colston Society was full of Tories, but still engaged in charitable activities, giving money to help with the education and the poor. The Anchor Society, on the other hand, was run by the Whigs – the other main political party at the time, though the society played more politically neutral (Morgan 1999: 17).
These societies didn’t exactly do their charity in the style of ‘do not let the right hand see what the left is doing’. They had to make a song and dance about it. Or, well. A parade. They all had their own ceremonies where they paraded through the city and handed out money as part of the show (Morgan 1999: 17). Morgan writes that:
These occasions reached their height in the late Victorian period. In the 1880s and the 1890s each of the four parades attracted between sixty and seventy of Bristol’s leading civil bourgeoisie. Apparently, these were mainly men born outside th city who capitalised on the mythology of Colston as a self-made entrepreneur to stress their links with Bristol’s mercantile past. This enabled them to be accepted as the legitimate heirs of such a history, as people who had continued the philanthropic endeavours epitomised by Colston’s bequests. (Morgan 1999: 17)
Now, I’m not suggesting this is intrinsically bad – that only purely altruistic charity is good charity. But these societies are responsible for the idealised version of Colston that has endured until very recently. These were people – mostly from outside Bristol – who had a vested interest in only focusing on the good thing he did, and papering over the bad, so they could use this legacy to cement their own positions of power within the city (Spencer 1994: 3-4). The version of Colston that you see reflected in the monuments of Bristol and names of places is largely a Victorian creation developed over the decades by these societies (Ball 2018).
The prestige of these societies helped the wealthy, elite merchants maintain their place as at the top of the hierarchies of power within the city, and helped other rich merchant types from outside Bristol to join them. And having these positions of authority allowed them to perpetuate their power. This included a group called the Old Corporation, and the Society of Merchant Venturers who:
…operated as appendages of elite authority, hermetically sealed from those outside the socio-economic grouping by a carefully effected system of self-election and appointment. (Spencer 1994: 3).
So basically, the rich scratched each other’s backs, and kept the riff-raff out.
These groups continued to glorify him long after the slave trade had been abolished in the British Empire. Long after Britain should have reckoned with its murderous and genocidal past. Instead of honestly acknowledging Colston’s role in the slave trade, and reassessing whether he should still be glorified, wealthy men had a vested interest in continuing to pass over Colston’s slave-trading activities in silence. A reassessment of Colston’s legacy never happened, because wealthy people wanted to continue to trade on his reputation to enhance their own.
What happened instead was a mythologizing of Colston. The parades by the various societies all happened at the same time of year, to commemorate Colston’s birthday, which became known as ‘Colston Day’. The parades, and the ensuing dinners in the evening became larger events, drawing important figures from all over the country (Ball 2018). Discussing the impact of the efforts of the various societies to preserve and enhance Colston’s reputation, Roger Ball states:
In this way, over several generations, the myths of the ‘cult’ that portrayed Colston as both ‘merchant prince’ and ‘moral saint’ penetrated the Bristol psyche and were fixed, to varying degree, in much of the populace. As part of this reinvention, strange proto-religious stories about Colston were propagated. It was said that when his body was disinterred in 1843, more than a hundred years after his death, it was miraculously preserved. Rumours abounded that samples of Colston’s hair and nails had been secretly conserved and were worshipped by the Society of Merchant Venturers in the Merchants Hall, like medieval religious relics. Others claimed that Colston’s philanthropy was due to a religious epiphany, a ‘road to Damascus’ moment that had turned his life towards giving rather than profiteering. With these implicit references to St Paul and Jesus along with his explicit representation as the ‘Good Samaritan’ created in Bristol churches, the reinvented Edward Colston covered most of the Christian bases. Added to this was the ‘miracle’ of a Dolphin supposedly saving one of Colston’s ships in a storm by plugging a hole in the hull with its body. (Ball 2018)
‘Moral Saint’ is a pretty accurate description, I think. That whole ‘miraculously preserved body’ thing very much draws on the idea of ‘incorruptibility’, a phenomenon acknowledge by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in which occasionally, the bodies of certainly holy and super virtuous figures don’t decay after death – or don’t decay as fast as they should. Which is super hilarious because Colston was Church of England, so he probably would not have approved of this. But ‘hey we dug this body up for some reason and it’s not as decayed as we expected’ is very much the default storyline in cases of incorruptibles. And in that light, the preservation of his nails and hair also look distinctly comparable to relics of saints. Which, again: very much a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thing.
And… guys. The hair and nails part? That’s actually true. I mean, I don’t know about the ‘worshipping it’ part – the Society of Merchant Venturers is pretty damn secretive – but the idea of them worshipping Colston is still a stretch. Unless there legit is a clue in his monument about Mary Magdalen and actually they decided Colston was the descendant of Jesus or something. Anyway. Roger Ball dug into this a bit, and here’s what he found:
In the early 2000s The Bristolian broadsheet published a story about the ‘hair and nails’ which was roundly dismissed by several commentators. However, in 2016 another source appeared, an extract from an essay in the Colston’s Girl’s School (CGS) newsletter by a pupil who had been on a school trip to Merchants Hall and had been “disgusted” on seeing the relics… In 2017 the author [Roger Ball] obtained a photograph of the hair and nails in a cabinet in Merchant’s Hall taken during a civic dinner. When questioned on Charter Day in 2017, representatives from the Society of Merchant Venturers at first denied the relics were held in Merchants Hall but later admitted they were, claiming that they “probably weren’t Colston’s”. (Ball 2018)
Not gonna lie, I did not see that coming when I started researching this topic. But there are two important observations, here. The first is about how secretive the Society of Merchant Venturers can still be to this day. Why are they even denying they have it in the first place? I mean, sure, it’s unusual, but so what? It’s not shameful or something. Secondly: this info about them actually having… someone’s hair and nails was in the footnotes of Roger Ball’s article. Always read the footnotes, guys. It’s where the best stuff is.
Okay. Enough about that. Let’s get back to the whole ‘philanthropy’ and ‘charitable giving’ thing for a second, though. See, when it came to the societies that were trading on Colston’s reputation, well… maybe they weren’t actually as beneficial as they presented themselves as being. I’m going to quote from Roger Ball again here:
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this whole Victorian charade is the fact that the much vaunted charitable efforts of the Colston Societies were largely superficial. For example, in 1884, the combined contribution of all the Colston related charities made up only 1.5 per cent of the total cost of relieving the poor that year. Not only was the amount collected fairly insignificant, despite all the fanfare, but it was also distributed in a badly organised and arbitrary manner. (Ball 2018)
Yeah, turns out that distributing money once a year as part of your big pat-yourself-on-the-back ceremony isn’t actually an effective method of helping people. Who knew? In 1885 a report was published on the situation of poor people in Bristol, and it directly criticised the societies for their highly inefficient methods of distributing charitable money (Ball 2018). So, like. It’s definitely legitimate to question whether they cared more about actual philanthropy, or of having the appearance of being philanthropists to enhance their own reputations and cement their superior position in society.
So that’s the historical context. Now it’s time to talk about that statue. Here’s the description of the statue, from the Historic England website:
A bronze statue on a pedestal of Portland stone. The statue shows Colston in middle age, dressed in C17 costume and leaning pensively on a stick. A rectangular moulded plinth with buttressed corners to a moulded pedestal; above this, consoles to an octagonal base supporting the statue. Inscribed on the south face of the base the words 'Edward Colston / Born 1636 / Died 1721'. To each corner of the pedestal, a bronze dolphin (dolphins feature on the Colston family crest), and on each face, a bronze plaque with Art Nouveau-style relief. On the south face, the words 'Erected by / citizens of Bristol / as a memorial / of one of the most / virtuous and wise sons of / their city / AD 1895' and 'John Cassidy fecit'. On the west face, Colston dispenses charity to poor children; on the north he is shown at the harbour; on the east is a scene with marine horses, mermaids, and anchors.
So it was erected in 1895. That’s 174 years after Edward Colston’s death. And just in case it’s not clear, John Cassidy was the sculptor.
But also, that description of the north face, of Colston ‘shown at the harbour’ isn’t quite accurate. What it actually depicts is the mythic incident in which Colston’s crew totally definitely found a dolphin plugging the hole in the side of his ship. Possibly created by someone who had never actually seen a dolphin. Though it’s at least consistent with the heraldric dolphins on Colston’ coat of arms, which, again, presumably designed by someone who had never seen an actual dolphin. I’ll post photos on the twitters of the various panels. Link in the shownotes.
So that’s what it looks like. And just to be clear, if this was really about honouring philanthropists, by the time this statue was erected, there were plenty of other candidates available, such as Richard Reynolds, an early nineteenth century Quaker, who donated more money to Bristol charities than Colston did (Bell 2018). There’s not statues to him, though. Hadn’t even heard of him before I started writing this episode. Coltson’s legacy was not about philanthropy, it was about merchant elites trying to enhance their own prestige and solidify their positions higher up within society.
Anyway. Let’s talk about the plaque that was just mentioned in the description of Colston’s statue. As just described, it says:
Erected by The citizens of Bristol As a memorial Of one of the most Virtuous and wise sons of Their city.
But what does ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol’ actually mean? Who proposed the statue? Who commissioned it? Was there some sort of public consultation about it? Who paid for it?
I’m sure you will be wholly unsurprised to learn that the people behind the erecting of the statue were those societies that had been trading on Colston’s reputation to enhance their own ever since his death.
The Western Daily Press issue of March 9th 1894 reported on the plans for a statue to be erected:
A preliminary meeting was held yesterday, in the Guildhall, in support of the movement for erecting statue of Bristol's great philanthropist, Edward Colston. It will recollected that at the Colston Fraternal Society dinner J. W. Arrowsmith as president the Anchor Society, made the suggestion that the Colston Commemoration Societies should unite in erecting such a statue, and few days later Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, in his capacity as president the Dolphin Society, expressed a hope that the suggestion would taken and carried through to a successful issue. We understand that the object yesterday's meeting was the formation a committee, representative of the Anchor, Dolphin, Grateful, Parent and other Colston commemoration societies, for purpose of raising the necessary funds.
Oh, look at that. It wasn’t ‘the citizens of Bristol’. It was a bunch of rich elites that ran all the societies dedicated to Colston. Fancy that. And it was one rich elite in particular: James Arrowsmith. He initially made the proposal in a speech in October 1893, and a fundraising committee was set up by the four societies to make it happen. Arrowsmith was the honorary secretary of the committee (Ball 2018).
Despite all that charity by the various societies in Colston’s name, and despite trading on his reputation for so long, the members of the societies were reluctant to cough up the money necessary for the statue. Their funding goal was £1000. They sent out a letter soliciting donations from the 1,550 men that made up the combined membership of the four societies, but when they announced the first subscription list, which detailed who had donated and where they were in their fundraising efforts, they’d only gathered £201. By June they’d managed to raise that to £407. (Ball 2018). So over three months they raised less than half of the money they needed. This was clearly far slower progress than they’d expected, and the committee decided to invite the public to contribute donations. By October, four months later, they’d raised barely any more money at all (Ball 2018).
Despite their efforts, by the first few months of 1985, they were still stuck around that £400 mark. Which was, y’know, concerning given that they’d planned to unveil the statue in November that year. Again, here’s Roger Ball’s summary of their money-raising endeavours:
In desperation Arrowsmith decided to turn to public events as fundraisers, particularly those held at the Rifle Drill Hall where he sat on the management body. In April 1895 profits from a series of promenade concerts at the Drill Hall were advertised as going to the statue and this was followed by an ‘Exhibition of Handicrafts’ which ran from August through to the end of the year, eventually raising £200 for the project.
So that meant that they were only a meagre £400 short of their funding goal. After 18 months (Ball 2018). Despite not having raised all the money, the unveiling of the statue went ahead on the 13th of November that year – on Colston Day (Ball 2018).
In reports of the unveiling, hundreds if not thousands of Bristolians were said to have gathered to watch the unveiling of the statue. However, as Roger Ball points out, the annual ‘Colston Day’, which had kinda’ turning into something akin to a public holiday at this point, generally attracted large crowds anyway. So it’s pretty hard to tell how many more people – if any at all – attended because of the statue. And the general turn-out at Colston Day events itself wasn’t because everyone super loved Colston. Because it was basically a public holiday in Bristol, it was one of the few days in the year that working class people got a break and could enjoy themselves (Ball 2018).
They Mayor of Bristol gave a speech at the unveiling. And, again, I’m gonna quote Ball’s summary of the speech, which:
…concentrated on Bristol’s maritime history of mercantilism and Colston’s philanthropy. There was, of course, no direct mention of Colston’s leading role in the slave trade through his management positions and investments in the Royal African Company. The same had been true of the whole fund-raising campaign. However, the Mayor made one major indirect reference in his speech in stating that Colston’s “business was mainly with the West Indies”; essentially code for involvement in slavery and the slave trade. (Ball 2018)
What’s pretty damn sad is that… that’s more recognition of how Colston made his money than many people have made since whilst defending Colston and his statue.
But hey, at least the statue is up now, right? Now they’ve just gotta… y’know. Finish paying for it. Arrowsmith and his committee tried to fix that problem at the annual dinners of the societies that evening. The hundreds of wealthy diners attending the different meals of the various societies were all presented with envelopes suggesting they dig into their damn pockets and cough up some cash (Ball 2018). But like, more politely than that, obviously. This last-ditch effort raised a grand total of… £12 from the Anchor Society – Arrowsmith’s own society, and a whole £1 and 10 shillings from the Dolphin Society (Ball 2018).
Two weeks after the unveiling of the statue, and two years since they had started on this statue business, after multiple appeals to their own societies’ members, after appeals to the public and fundraising events, the committee in charge had still only raised £548 in total. By December they’d managed to wring another £100 out of those who had already donated. About a quarter of it came from the Society of Merchant Venturers (Ball 2018).
Eventually, a mysterious anonymous benefactor kindly donated the remaining 150 odd quid they needed. It was probably Arrowsmith himself (Ball 2018). The citizens of Bristol did not care about this statue. Roger Ball succinctly summarises the whole affair thusly:
…at the end of the day, the statue was the vanity project of one wealthy business owner who ended up grudgingly paying for his idea.
And that’s where we’re gonna end this episode. Next episode will be next week, and we’ll look at what exactly the actual people of Bristol have said and done – or tried to do – about the statue in the last half a century or so. But next time someone tries to tell you that that damn statue was about remembering history, you can tell them that, apart from the date it was installed and the name of the sculptor, ever damn word on that plaque is a lie.
In conclusion: Black lives matter. Eat the rich.
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Alternatively, check to see if your local town, city, state, whatever, has a bail fund to support protestors at Black Lives Matter protests, and/or do a bit of research to see if there are any monuments glorifying racists, slaveowners, slave traders or genocidiers in your local area, and then contact your local government representative and tell them it’s way past time to do something about it.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that would rather learn about the toppling of monuments than wonder why on earth they’re still there.
The voice in your ears has been: watching history be made, not destroyed.
— ‘Statue of Edward Colston’, Historic England.
— ‘Who was Edward Colston?’, Countering Colston.
Ball, R. (2017b) ‘The Royal African Company and Edward Colston (1680-92)’, Bristol Radical History Group.
— (2018) ‘Myths within myths… Edward Colston and that Statue’, Bristol Radical History Group.
Garrard, T. & Tovey, S. G. (1852) Edward Colston, the philanthropist, his life and times; including a Memoir of his father; the result of a laborious investigation into the archives of the city, J. Chilcott.
McGrath, P. (1981) Bristol and the Civil War, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets.
Morgan, K. (1999) Edward Colston and Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets.
Spencer, J. (1997) ‘The Trojan Horse - The Myth of Colston’ Jordan Spencer (1997) Bristol Historical Databases Project Vol. 5
Wanklyn, M. & Jones, F. (2004) A Military History of the English Civil War, 1642-1646, Longman.