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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Colston, Bristol and The Slave Trade

Well. Bristol hit the national headlines yesterday. During the BLM demonstration in the city, the statue of Edward Colston, slaver and benefactor, was toppled and dragged to the harbourside. There it was tipped into the water. Some observed that Colston, or at least his statue, was thrown 'overboard' just like Africans were tipped into the water from the slave ships in the crossing of The Atlantic.

As a child of the late 1940s and '50s brought up in Bristol I often passed the statue, which had been erected in 1895, some 174 years after Colston's death. The reason being that Colston was a great benefactor to his native city. Indeed, the name of Colston is found in many places across the city. Most notable are Bristol's Concert Hall, The Colston Hall, and Colston School. However, it is not true to say that all white Bristolians were ignorant of the city's role in the slave trade, or that of Colston either. Both at school and in visits to the museum I was aware of this history at an early age. Over the last twenty or so years this grim legacy has failed to be dealt with properly in the city, unlike the case, for example, of Liverpool. Bristol and Bristolians have been slow to do anything about reminders of this legacy across their city. Yesterday marked a turning point in that history.

No longer can Bristol dodge the issue. Facing up to the reality of the past is always important, but it is particularly so when part of the current generation of Bristolians feel marked forever by that history.

No one condones the violence/vandalism of yesterday but all should recognise its community legality. The Corporation should long ago have taken action to remove the statue to one of its museums where it could have been displayed in the context of (1) Colston the Slaver (3) Bristol the leading slave port in the early 18th century (2) Colston the benefactor (4) the imperialism of the 1890s, when the statue was erected (when in truth many, like Kipling, thought Britain's Empire was beginning to fail) (5) the direct action of 21st century Bristolians, white as well as black. Bristol's history is Britain's history in microcosm.

So who was Edward Colston? He was born in 1636 in Bristol, but left in his childhood for the nearby village of Winterbourne as the city was caught up in The Civil War. He spent the rest of his life in London where his family moved to, and never lived in Bristol as an adult. His interest in Bristol came through the slave trade, when in 1682 he made a loan to the Corporation, became a member of the influential slave traders of The Bristol Merchant Venturers and a burgess of the city.

In 1698 the Merchant Venturers of Bristol broke the Royal African Company's monopoly of the British slave trade. Colston had been Deputy Governor of the company in 1689-90, really what we would call the CEO, and a member from 1680 to 1692. During that time the company is estimated to have transported around 84,000 Africans to the Americas, of whom 19,000 died en route.

In addition to having a major stake in the transportation of slaves, Colston also was a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery. Sugar of course being a product harvested in the Caribbean by slaves. Colston continued to trade in normal goods as well,. He became a very rich man, and a huge benefactor of his native city but that generosity has been forever tarnished by the source of his wealth. Attempts to calculate the percentage of that wealth derived from slaves and sugar has proved impossible to determine.

Although dying in London at the age of 84 his body was brought back to Bristol and buried with great pomp in All Saints Church. Today Colston Day is still celebrated by the schools he founded and by The Merchant Venturers Company.

Bristol's connexion with slaving goes far back in history to Saxon and Norman times, until in 1102 such trade was banned. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, the only senior prelate to keep his diocese after The Norman Conquest of 1066, was an early abolitionist, and roused Bristolians against the practice within their own city. Slave trade then ceased until the late 16th century and the transportation of Africans to the Americas.

Once the Royal Africa Company's monopoly on the trade was broken by Bristol in 1698, Bristol became by 1730 the country's leading slave port. The first slave ship to leave Bristol following the break with the London dominated company in 1698 was the 'Beginning'. It may even have been owned by Bristol Corporation. Everyone with any sort of spare income seemed to have a financial interest in the trade. A widow from Leigh upon Mendip, Jane Bridges, left her interest of £130 in that ship to her grandson. In 1750 Bristol ships transported 8,000 Africans. The trade ended in 1807 and slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834.

The story is truly horrendous and it is certainly time, if not more than time, that this episode in the city's history be fully dealt with.

Few slaves actually came to Bristol, and the story I learnt as a child is no longer accepted as true; That is that the part of Bristol called 'Blackboy' relates to a slave market. In fact it is called this from a pub of that name which is a reference to Charles II, who because of his olive complexion or black hair acquired this as a nickname.

Some slaves did come to the city as personal servants of ex slaver captains or as servants to the aristocracy. One such was Scipio Africanus who is buried in Henbury cemetary, another was Pero Jones, after whom a new bridge has been named in the city centre docks.

Although the city's two MPs spoke against the bill to outlaw the trade in The House of Commons, there were some notable Bristolians who spoke out against the trade. Foremost amongst them is a hero of mine, the adult educator Hannah More from Fishponds in Bristol. I lived my childhood yards from the school where a father was Head and she was brought up. Another who spoke against the trade was the Dean of Bristol, Rev Josiah Tucker. Many anti-slavers spoke in the city, including John Wesley and William Coleridge. Perhaps the most unusual abolitionist was the poorly educated poet, Ann Yearsley, from a lowly social background. Born in Bristol in 1763. Hannah More helped get her poems published including, 'A Poem on the Inhumanity of The Slave Trade' (1788). Ann, indeed Hannah too, are little known to modern day Bristolians and they should be remembered as lights shining in the darkness.

I guess many of you, knowing that I am a Bristolian,want to ask if any of my family were involved. As far as I know the answer is they weren't. The 'posher' members of my extended family arrived in Bristol far later, in the nineteenth century, the Peckett family from Lancashire and the Marles from Devon. Of the Tyler and Beavis family I don't know. My family seem only to have made it in the 19th century, the Beavis family could be different as they were professional people in the city, doctors, dentists etc. and therefore possible investors. I just hope none of them were, but if they were then I can condemn, whilst recognising that they acted within the cultural mores of the time, however twisted those mores were.

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4 comentarios

09 jun 2020

William Tyler, whether jurist or historian, seems intent on shocking his readers, but may have overdone it this time. He must know that two wrongs do not make a right - one tort cannot correct another. Throwing a valuable statue in the river does not erase slavery.But to apply the word "community legality" to the actions of an uncontrolled lynch mob is an unforgivable insult to the community - whichever he means. Claiming to be a historian Mr Tyler should know that slavery existed from time immemorial and all our ancestors lived with it, even if not all profited, Ancestors of his students at JW3 are no exception. Would Mr Tyler call it community legality if his pupils would rush…

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08 jun 2020

Thank you William.

I turned to your blog to try to get a balanced perspective on this, knowing that as a Bristolian you would know more about the history and have something to say.

Sadly part of the "protest movement" is obviously being used by some to cause damage and chaos, whist following other agendas.

As you say, the issue should have been dealt with more sensitively before. The debate needs to be had and the whole picture seen. Perhaps now the statue can be repaired and put into a museum where the issues can be discussed in a proper and balanced setting.

I will try to find some of the writings that you have mentioned.

Nigel WNS

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08 jun 2020

PS. Anne Stott's book is, Hannah More: The First Victorian, Oxford University Press, 2004. Horribly expensive, like most academic books new, but there are some reasonable second hand versions available online. Peter

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08 jun 2020

I was hoping that you would post on this, given your background. Do you know Anne Stott"s biography of Hannah More? Anne is a fine historian of this period and is also one of us - an adult education tutor. She is hanging on, teaching for the London Borough of Bromley (my birthplace). One other factor in the affair is the elevation of Colston as part of the late Victorian invention of tradition. This blog post is interesting though from a particular perspective I don't have the expertise to judge.

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