2 November 1636|
11 October 1721|
Edward Colston (2 November 1636 – 11 October 1721) was a Bristol-born English philanthropist, merchant, slave trader, and Member of Parliament. Much of his wealth was acquired through the trade and exploitation of slaves. He endowed schools and almshouses and his name is commemorated in several Bristol landmarks, streets, three schools and the Colston bun.
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 with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa. In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in Britain on trading in gold, ivory and slaves from 1662. Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became its deputy governor, its most senior executive position, in 1689.
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.
Altruism and politics
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 commemorating Colston. 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 as having committed crimes against humanity. 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!".
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 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.
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- "Bristol's Colston Hall to drop name of slave trader after protests". The Guardian. 26 April 2017.