Edward Colston

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Edward Colston
Edward Colston.jpg
Born2 November 1636 (1636-11-02)
Bristol, England
Died11 October 1721 (1721-10-12)
Mortlake, England
Political partyTory

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 still survive.[1] A significant part of his wealth was acquired through the trade and exploitation of slaves.[2][3][4][5][6]

Early life[edit]

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.[7]


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 along the West coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1662.[7] 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.[8] 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), together with City of London merchants, 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" (though he later changed his stance on the slave trade), and the diarist Samuel Pepys.[9][10]

During the time of Colston's involvement with the Royal African company (1680 to 1692), it is estimated that the company transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on their journey to the Caribbean and the Americas.[11] Ship's crew mortality rates were often similar and sometimes greater than the mortality rates amongst the slaves.[12] The slaves were sold to planters for cheap labour on their tobacco and, increasingly, sugar plantations who considered Africans would be more suited to the conditions than their own countrymen, as the climate resembled the climate of their homeland in West Africa. Enslaved Africans were also much less expensive to maintain than indentured servants or paid wage labourers from Britain.[13]

Colston's 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.[7]

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.[14] 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.[14]

Altruism and politics[edit]

Cromwell House, Mortlake, where Colston died in 1721

He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day.[1]

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.[7]

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.[15]


He died on 11 October 1721 at his home, (old) Cromwell House (demolished 1857), in Mortlake. In his will he wished to be buried simply without pomp, but this instruction was ignored. [16] 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.[17]

Modern reappraisal[edit]

Statue of Edward Colston in The Centre, Bristol

A statue, designed by John Cassidy, was erected in the centre of Bristol in 1895 to commemorate Colston's great philanthropy.[18] In 1998, however, "someone scrawled on its base the name of one of the professions in which he made his fortune: SLAVE TRADER." [19] 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 his activities as a major slave trader emerged,[20] 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".[21] 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".[22]

Some have called for his statue to be taken down. In a poll in the local newspaper, the Bristol Post, in 2014 56 per cent of the 1,100 respondents said it should stay while 44 per cent wanted it to go.[23] 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!".[24] 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 took place.[25][26][27] Planning permission for the second plaque was granted in November 2018 and the following wording for the plaque was decided, after much reasoned debate between stakeholders and the members of the public who had proposed alternative wording.

Edward Colston (1636–1721), MP for Bristol (1710–1713), was one of this city’s greatest benefactors. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.

A significant proportion of Colston's wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.


The bronze plaque was cast with this wording and was to be added to the statue in early 2019. Yet, at the last moment, Bristol's Mayor at the time, Marvin Rees, stepped in to veto the wording, accusing the Society of Merchant Venturers of being behind the rewording, although many members of the public had contributed to this as part of a Council-led project.[28][29][30][31] The Mayor proposed that the wording, which he thought was not harsh enough, would be looked at again as part of "wider work on improving our cultural offer around the transatlantic slave trade".[28][32]

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.[7][33]

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.[34] Following the decision, petitions to retain the name of Colston reached almost 10,000 signatures, though the charity confirmed that the name change would go ahead nevertheless.[35]

In November 2017, after decades of debates, Colston's Girls' School announced that it was not going to drop the name of Colston because it was of "no benefit" to the school to do so.[36] In February 2019, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School announced that it would be renaming Colston House as Johnson House, after the American mathematician Katherine Johnson.[37]


  1. ^ a b "Edward Colston, the Dolphin Society and 268 years of letter-writing…History / Background". The Dolphin Society. 16 May 2015. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  2. ^ Hayton, David; Cruickshanks, Eveline; Handley, Stuart (April 2006). "Colston, Edward II". Biography of MP Edward Colston. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  3. ^ Morgan, Kenneth (1999). "Colston, Edward (1636-1721)". Biography of Edward Colston. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  4. ^ Pocock, Nigel; Cook, Victoria (5 November 2009). "The Business of Enslavement". BBC – History – British History in depth. BBC. Retrieved 14 August 2010.
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  9. ^ "Britain's involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade". The British Library. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  10. ^ Matthew., Parker (2011). The sugar barons : family, corruption, empire, and war in the West Indies. New York: Walker & Co. p. 126. ISBN 9780802717443. OCLC 682894539.
  11. ^ "Voyages Database". www.slavevoyages.org. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  12. ^ Curtin, Philip D. (1969). The Atlantic slave trade: a census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 282–286. ISBN 0299054004. OCLC 46413.
  13. ^ "Slavery in the Caribbean - International Slavery Museum, Liverpool museums". www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  14. ^ a b Morgan, Kenneth (1999). Edward Colston and Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association. p. 3.
  15. ^ Hughson, David (1808). "Circuit of London". London; Being An Accurate History And Description of the British Metropolis And Its Neighbourhood, To Thirty Miles Extent, From An Actual Perambulation. V. Holborn Hill, London: J Stratford. p. 386.
  16. ^ Edward Colston Will, National archives Wills Online
  17. ^ Historic England. "Church of All Saints (1282313)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 16 March 2003.
  18. ^ "Edward Colston". PMSA National Recording Project. Archived from the original on 9 January 2010. Retrieved 9 May 2007.
  19. ^ Hochschild, Adam (2006). Bury the Chains. New York City: Mariner Books. p. 15.
  20. ^ Wilkins, H. J. (1920). Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] A chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith.
  21. ^ Wilkins, H.J. (1920). Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] A chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith. p. 93.
  22. ^ Morgan, Kenneth (1999). Edward Colston and Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association. p. 18.
  23. ^ "Bristol: Calls for statue of Edward Colston to be torn down". The Independent. 22 June 2014. Retrieved 16 November 2016.
  24. ^ "Bristol mayor: City's celebration of Edward Colston is". Bristol Post. 30 August 2013. Archived from the original on 4 September 2013. Retrieved 16 November 2016.
  25. ^ Cork, Tristan (22 July 2018). "The second plaque planned for Colston statue linking him to 20,000 deaths". bristolpost. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  26. ^ Cork, Tristan (23 July 2018). "Theft of second Colston plaque 'may be justified' says councillor". bristolpost. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  27. ^ Cork, Tristan (23 August 2018). "Row breaks out over wording of Edward Colston statue plaque". bristolpost. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  28. ^ a b Cork, Tristan (25 March 2019). "Second Colston statue plaque not axed but mayor orders re-write". bristolpost. Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  29. ^ Hill, Julian (3 October 2018). "Most objectors to Colston plaque are just normal Bristolians". Bristol Post (published 3 October 2018): 11.
  30. ^ Hill, Julian (23 October 2018). "Time to bring Bristol together on Colston and slavery issues". Bristol Post (published 23 October 2018): 11.
  31. ^ Hill, Julian (9 April 2019). "Trying to put the record straight on second Colston plaque". Bristol Post (published 9 April 2019): 12.
  32. ^ Horton, Helena (25 March 2019). "Edward Colston plaque listing his links to slavery scrapped after mayor says wording isn't harsh enough". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
  33. ^ Davidson, Alan (1999). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-19-211579-9.
  34. ^ "Bristol's Colston Hall to drop name of slave trader after protests". The Guardian. 26 April 2017.
  35. ^ Ballinger, Alex (12 May 2017). "Petitions to stop Colston Hall name change reach 9k signatures". bristolpost. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  36. ^ Yong, Michael (2 November 2017). "One of Bristol's oldest schools is not changing its name". bristolpost. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  37. ^ Ballinger, Alex (11 February 2019). "Edward Colston: Bristol school to remove slave trader's name from house". BBC News. Retrieved 11 February 2019.