Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The Long Shadow of Edward Colston

Theo Davies on the perpetuation of the "Colston myth", his enduring influence, and why he should not be celebrated.

TW: Racism

For those from outside of Bristol, the name ‘Edward Colston’ may have only recently become familiar; for those of us raised here, reverence of it has been encouraged from the get-go.

A telling example of this, in my own experience, is my primary school’s adoption of his name; unlike other schools in the area, many of which were founded through his ‘philanthropy’, this choice of name was a simple act of commemoration for a man granted a level of esteem by the city few can rival, barring, at most, Cabot and Brunel. Some students at my secondary school belonged to Colston House, and were thereby encouraged to wear and cheer his name; for those at schools ‘lucky’ enough to be founded at his benefaction, annual thanksgiving ceremonies took this anachronistic sycophancy one step further.

The continued use of the Colston name in schools, streets, and buildings belies the true influence he, and the slave trade, maintain in Bristol today. Colston belonged to the Society of Merchant Venturers, a guild of local businessmen who sought to use their financial means to gain political influence in the city. To this end, Colston gave away much of the money he had earned through the exploitation of Black slaves on the proviso that the recipient causes furthered his political and moral ideology[1]; a self-interested act, not one worthy of celebration regardless of the origins of his wealth.

That this side of the Colston story was never taught to us in school is no surprise, given the enduring power of the Merchant Venturers—they own large swathes of Bristol’s parkland, have permanent positions of power within schools and the University (originally founded by them), and hold a great deal of continued political influence. The now-infamous statue of Colston exemplifies this: recent attempts to alter the plaque on its base to recognise the role he played in the death and enslavement of hundreds of thousands, and the selectiveness of his philanthropy, were halted at their bidding. Until mere weeks ago, this centuries-old society had had no BAME members, and only a handful of years ago did they stop displaying a collection of Colston’s hair and nail clippings[2]. The beliefs of Edward Colston loom large over the Merchant Venturers, who in turn have much of the city in their grasp. To argue that the felling of the statue of Colston was reprehensible, or one that should have waited for some protracted legal process, is thus a failure in understanding regarding the extent of his institutionalisation in Bristol.

In recent days, I have been reflecting on the handling of my own education in this regard, given that my primary school was named for Colston, and my secondary school was founded on Merchant Venturers’ money. Indeed, had I attended the University, my entire education would have been spent in institutions committed, in some way, to the memory of Colston. Although we covered the transatlantic slave trade in history lessons, and race issues were discussed during Black History Month, both efforts were lacklustre; instead of being made to question the real legacy of the slave trade on the environment in which we were raised, or focusing on learning about slaves’ experiences for the sake of understanding, or on the impact of the city’s own civil rights movement, we were taught the best way to analyse slave narratives as sources for exams—and to remember the direction of each leg of the Atlantic triangle. It was treated as a distant notion, a set of historic facts, rather than a factor in our own upbringings. The schools were simply not ready for conversations about their own perpetuation of the Colston myth, or on many other aspects of the systemic racism prevalent in the society in which they exist.

While it is true that the more obvious remembrances of Colston are ever-so-slowly being removed (my primary school has changed name, as will the city’s main concert hall), these are insufficient to rectify the larger problem. Just as I am starting to come to terms with the role slavery has played in my life, the city must reflect on, and rectify, the continued influence of people and institutions built on the back of Black lives. We should not be appeased by symbolic nods to anti-racist movements; we should demand that the true leverage of racism be brought out of the shadows, and disempower those that refuse to change. Colston is far from sunk; Rhodes’ hold on Oxford is similarly far from fallen.

[1]Edward Colston and Bristol – Kenneth Morgan

[2] ‘Must Colston Fall?’ (The Spectator), ‘Bristol, the slave trade and a reckoning with the past’ (FT)

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles