2 November 1636|
11 October 1721|
Edward Colston (2 November 1636 – 11 October 1721) was a Bristol-born English merchant, philanthropist, slave trader, and Member of Parliament. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere, and his name is commemorated in several Bristol landmarks, streets, three schools and the Colston bun. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day. A significant part of his wealth was acquired through the trade and exploitation of slaves.
Colston was born on 2 November 1636 in Church Street, Bristol, the youngest of at least 15 children. His parents were William Colston (died 1681), a prosperous merchant who was High Sheriff of Bristol in 1643, and his wife Sarah (died 1701), daughter of Edward Batten. He was brought up in Bristol until the time of the English Civil War, when he probably lived for a while on his father's estate in Winterbourne, just north of the city. The family then moved to London where Edward may have been a pupil at Christ's Hospital school.
He was apprenticed to the Mercers Company for eight years and by 1672 was shipping goods from London. He built up a lucrative business, trading cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa. In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading in gold, ivory and slaves from 1662. Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and was Deputy Governor, its most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692. This company had been set up by King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, (later King James II, who was the Governor of the company) and it had many notable investors, including John Locke, English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism".
His parents had resettled in Bristol and in 1682 he made a loan to the Corporation, the following year becoming a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers and a burgess of the City. In 1684 he inherited his brother's mercantile business in Small Street, and was a partner in a sugar refinery in St. Peter's Churchyard, shipping sugar produced by slaves from St. Kitts. But he was never resident in Bristol, carrying on his London business from Mortlake in Surrey until he retired in 1708.
The proportion of his wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture unless further evidence is unearthed. As well as this income, he made money from his trade in the normal commodities mentioned above, interest from money lending, and, most likely, from other careful financial dealings.
Altruism and politics
He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day.
In Bristol, he founded almshouses in King Street and on St Michael's Hill, endowed Queen Elizabeth's Hospital school and helped found Colston's Hospital, a boarding school which opened in 1710 leaving an endowment to be managed by the Society of Merchant Venturers for its upkeep. He gave money to schools in Temple (one of which went on to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School) and other parts of Bristol, and to several churches and the cathedral. He was a strong Tory and high-churchman, and was returned as Member of Parliament (MP) for Bristol in 1710 for just one parliament.
David Hughson writing in 1808 described Colston:
[Cromwell House was certainly the residence, in the last century, of] that excellent man Edward Colston, Esq. the great benefactor of the city of Bristol, who, in his lifetime, expended more than 10,000L. [£] in charitable institutions.
He died on 11 October 1721 at his home, (old) Cromwell House (demolished 1857), in Mortlake. His body was carried back to Bristol and was buried at All Saints' Church. His tomb was designed by James Gibbs. He died at the age of 84.
A statue, designed by John Cassidy, was erected in the centre of Bristol in 1895 to commemorate Colston's great philanthropy. In 1998, however, "someone scrawled on its base the name of one of the professions in which he made his fortune: SLAVE TRADER."  He is a divisive figure in Bristolian civil society, viewed by some as an inspirational figure for the city, due to his donations of money to schools and other causes, but, in more recent times as Colston's activities as a major slave trader emerged , many in Bristol and beyond, now regard him in a very negative light. However, H.J. Wilkins who uncovered his slave trading activities commented that "we cannot picture him justly except against his historical background". Colston's involvement in the slave trade predated the Abolition movement in Britain, and was during a time when "slavery was generally condoned in England - indeed, throughout Europe - by churchmen, intellectuals and the educated classes".
Some have called for his statue to be taken down. In a poll in the local newspaper, the Bristol Post, in 2014 just over half (56 per cent) of the 1,100 respondents said it should stay – 44 per cent wanted it to go. Others called for a memorial plaque honouring the victims of slavery to be fitted to his statue. Bristol's first elected mayor, George Ferguson, stated on Twitter in 2013 that "Celebrations for Colston are perverse, not something I shall be taking part in!". In July 2018, Bristol City Council, which is responsible for the statue, made a planning application to add a second plaque which would "add to the public knowledge about Colston", including his philanthropy and his involvement in slave trading, though the initial wording suggested came in for significant criticism and re-wording is taking place.
Colston's name permeates the city in such landmarks as Colston Tower, Colston Hall, Colston Avenue, Colston Street, Colston's Girls' School, Colston's School, Colston's Primary School and Temple Colston School (now part of St Mary Redcliffe & Temple School). He is also remembered, particularly by some schools, charities and the Society of Merchant Venturers, on Colston's Day on 13 November, his birthday, at a church service now at St Stephen's Church. A regional bread bun, the Colston bun, is named after him.
In April 2017, the charity that runs the Colston Hall, the Bristol Music Trust, announced that it will drop the name of Colston when it reopens after refurbishment in 2020. There had been protests and petitions calling for a name change and some concertgoers and artists had boycotted the venue because of the Colston name. Following the decision, petitions to retain the name of Colston reached almost 10,000 signatures, though the Bristol Music Trust, the charity that runs the hall, confirmed that the name change would go ahead despite this support for the current name.
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