Edward Colston

Edward Colston
Jonathan Richardson - Portrait of Edward Colston.jpg
Member of Parliament for Bristol
In office
Personal details
Born(1636-11-02)2 November 1636
Bristol, England
Died11 October 1721(1721-10-11) (aged 84)
Mortlake, Surrey, England
Political partyTory

Edward Colston (2 November 1636 – 11 October 1721) was an English merchant, philanthropist and Tory Member of Parliament who was involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

Colston followed his father in the family business becoming a sea merchant, initially trading in wine, fruits and textiles, mainly in Spain, Portugal and other European ports. By 1680, he became involved in the slave trade as a member of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on the English trade in African slaves. He was deputy governor of the company in 1689–90.

Colston's name was widely commemorated in Bristol landmarks, and a statue of him was erected in 1895. With growing awareness in the late 20th century of his involvement in Britain's slave trade, there were protests and petitions for name changes, culminating in June 2020, when the statue was toppled and pushed into Bristol Harbour during protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Colston Hall, which was named after him, was renamed Bristol Beacon.

Early life

Colston was born on 2 November 1636 in Temple Street, Bristol, and baptised in the Temple Church, Bristol.[1] His parents were William Colston (1608–1681), a prosperous Royalist merchant who was High Sheriff of Bristol in 1643, and his wife Sarah Batten (d.1701), daughter of Edward Batten; he was the eldest of at least 11 and possibly as many as 15 children. The Colston family had lived in the city since the late 13th century.[2] Colston 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.[3] The English Civil War shaped Colston's lifelong support for order and stability in the form of monarchy and High Anglicanism.[4]


In 1654, Colston was apprenticed to the Mercers Company for eight years, and in 1673 he was enrolled into it.[3] By 1672, he had become a merchant in London.[2] Like his father, Colston exported in textiles from London while importing oils, wine and sherry from Spain and Portugal. He also traded silk with Virginia and was a regular trader of Newfoundland cod to Naples.[1] He had built up a successful business trading with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa.[3]

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.[3] Colston was deputy governor of the company from 1689 to 1690.[2] His association with the company ended in 1692.[2] This company had been established up by King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later King James II), who was the governor of the company, together with City of London merchants, and it had many investors, including philosopher and physician John Locke (who later changed his stance on the slave trade) and the diarist Samuel Pepys.[5][6]

During Colston's involvement with the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, it is estimated that the company transported over 84,000 African men, women and children to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, of whom as many as 19,000 may have died on the journey.[7] The slaves were sold for labour on tobacco, and, increasingly, sugar plantations, whose planters considered Africans would be more suited to the conditions than British workers, as the climate resembled the climate of their homeland in West Africa. Enslaved Africans were much less expensive to maintain than indentured servants or paid wage labourers from Britain.[8]

Colston's parents had resettled in Bristol. In 1682, he made a loan to the Bristol Corporation and the following year, became a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers.[9]

Although a Tory High Churchman and often in conflict with the Whig corporation of Bristol, Colston transferred a large segment of his original shareholding to William III at the beginning of 1689, securing the new regime's favour for the African Co. The value of Colston's shares increased and being without heirs he began to donate large sums to charities. He withdrew from the African Co. in 1692, but continued trading in slaves privately. He retired in 1708. Colston was MP for Bristol (1710-13).[10]


Cromwell House, Mortlake, where Colston died in 1721

Colston died on 11 October 1721, aged 84, at his home, (old) Cromwell House (demolished 1857), in Mortlake, south west London. His will stated that he wished to be buried simply without pomp, but this instruction was ignored.[11] His body was carried to Bristol and was buried at All Saints' Church. His monument was designed by James Gibbs with an effigy carved by John Michael Rysbrack.[12]

Colston never married, and settled a "considerable fortune in land" on his nephew Edward Colston (MP for Wells), when Edward married in 1704.[13]

Philanthropic works

Colston's Almshouses

Colston supported and endowed schools, houses for the poor, almshouses, hospitals and Anglican churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. His name features widely on Bristol buildings and landmarks.[7][14] Colston used his money and power to promote order in the form of High Anglicanism in the Church of England and oppose Anglican Latitudinarians, Roman Catholics, and dissenter Protestants.[15]

In Bristol, he founded almshouses in King Street and Colstons Almshouses 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.[3] 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.[3][16]

David Hughson, writing in 1808, described Colston as "the great benefactor of the city of Bristol, who, in his lifetime, expended more than 70,000L. [£] in charitable institutions",[17] equivalent to £5,499,471 in 2019.[18]

The Colston Society, which had operated for 275 years commemorating Colston, latterly as a charity, decided to disband in 2020.[19]


Engraving of Colston's monument in All Saints' Church, Bristol from Bristol Past and Present (1882)

Buildings in Bristol formerly named in memory of Colston included the Colston Tower and Colston Hall (now Beacon Tower and Bristol Beacon respectively). Colston Avenue and Colston Street are named after him, as is a regional bread bun, the Colston bun.[3][20] A statue of Colston is on the exterior of Bristol Guildhall, built 1843–46.[21] There is a 1870 stained-glass window of the Good Samaritan by Clayton and Bell dedicated to Colston's memory in the north transept of St Mary Redcliffe.[22] The largest window in Bristol Cathedral is also dedicated to Colston's memory; the Bishop of Bristol announced in June 2020 that the Anglican Diocese of Bristol will remove prominent references to Colston from the window.[23][24][25][26]

City-centre memorial statue

In 1895, 174 years after Colston's death, a statue designed by John Cassidy was erected in the centre of Bristol, to commemorate Colston's philanthropy.[27] Colston’s slave-trading activities were subsequently uncovered in a biography of his life and work written by H.J. Wilkins in 1920,[28] and since the 1990s, there were growing calls for the statue to be marked with a plaque stating that he was a slave trader, or taken down.[29]

Statue of Edward Colston by John Cassidy, formerly in The Centre, Bristol, erected in 1895, toppled in 2020

In July 2018, Bristol City Council, which was 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 from members of the public and a Bristol Conservative councillor and re-wording took place.[30] [31] This wording was edited by a former curator at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, creating a third proposal which was backed by other members of the public, though it was criticised by the academic behind the first two versions, who claimed it "sanitised" history, minimising Colston's role, omitting the number of child slaves, and focussing on West Africans as the original enslavers.[7] Nevertheless, a wording was subsequently agreed upon and the bronze plaque was cast.[32]

However, after the plaque was physically produced, its installation was vetoed in March 2019 by the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, who criticised the Society of Merchant Venturers for the rewording. A statement from the mayor's office called it "unacceptable", claimed that Rees had not been consulted, and promised to continue work on a second plaque.[32]

On 7 June 2020, the statue was toppled and pushed into Bristol Harbour by demonstrators during the George Floyd protests.[33][34] The statue was retrieved from the harbour four days later by Bristol City Council and taken to a secure location.[35] After the statue was toppled, the Merchant Venturers said that it had been "inappropriate" for them to have become involved in the rewording of the plaque in 2018, and that the removal of the statue was "right for Bristol".[36]

From 4 June 2021, the statue was put on display in its damaged condition by Bristol's M Shed museum,[37] which stated "this temporary display is the start of a conversation, not a complete exhibition".[38]

Modern reappraisal

Colston’s slave-trading activities were uncovered in a biography of his life and work written by H.J. Wilkins in 1920, though the author commented that "we cannot picture him justly except against his historical background".[39] Colston's involvement in the slave trade predated the abolition movement in Britain, and was during the time when "slavery was generally condoned in England—indeed, throughout Europe—by churchmen, intellectuals and the educated classes".[40]

Since at least the 1990s, with increasing recognition of Colston's role in the slave trade, there has been growing criticism of his commemoration.[41] The Dolphin Society, which was formed to continue Colston's philanthropy, now refers to 'the evils of slavery' and recognises that 'black citizens in Bristol today can suffer disadvantage in terms of education, employment and housing for reasons that connect back to the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade'.[14]

The proportion of Colston's wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture. He also made money from trading in other commodities and interest from money lending.[1][42][43]

In April 2017, the charity that runs the venue known at the time as the Colston Hall, the Bristol Music Trust,[44] announced that it would drop the name of Colston when it reopened 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.[45] 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.[46] The hall was renamed as the Bristol Beacon in September 2020, after three years of consultation.[47]

In November 2017, Colston's Girls' School, which is funded by the Society of Merchant Venturers, announced that it would not drop the name of Colston because it was of "no benefit" to the school to do so.[48] In summer 2018, after consultation with pupils and parents, Colston Primary School renamed itself Cotham Gardens Primary School.[49] In February 2019, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School announced that it would rename its Colston 'school house', after the American mathematician Katherine Johnson.[50]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Morgan, Kenneth (1999). Edward Colston and Bristol (PDF). Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association. p. 3. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d Hanham, Andrew A. (April 2006). Hayton, David; Cruickshanks, Eveline; Handley, Stuart (eds.). "Colston, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr". The History of Parliament. Cambridge University Press / Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Morgan, Kenneth (September 2004). "Colston, Edward". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5996. Retrieved 14 August 2010. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Richards, Samuel J. (September 2020). "Historical Revision in Church: Re-examining the 'Saint' Edward Colston". Anglican and Episcopal History. 89 (3): 232, 242–243.
  5. ^ Mohamud, Abdul; Whitburn, Robin (21 June 2018). "Britain's involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade". The British Library. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b c Cork, Tristan (23 August 2018). "Row breaks out as Merchant Venturer accused of 'sanitising' Edward Colston's involvement in slave trade". Bristol Live. Reach plc. Archived from the original on 7 June 2020. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  8. ^ "Slavery in the Caribbean – International Slavery Museum, Liverpool museums". liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  9. ^ Latimer, John (1903). The history of the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol; with some account of the anterior Merchants' Guilds. Robarts - University of Toronto. Bristol, Arrowsmith.
  10. ^ Gardiner, Juliet (2000). The History Today Who's Who In British History. London: Collins & Brown Limited and Cima Books. p. 192. ISBN 1-85585-876-2.
  11. ^ Edward Colston Will, National archives Wills Online
  12. ^ Historic England. "Church of All Saints (1282313)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 16 March 2003.
  13. ^ "COLSTON, Edward I (aft.1672-1719), of Bristol | History of Parliament Online". www.historyofparliamentonline.org. Retrieved 22 June 2020.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Richards, Samuel J. (September 2020). "Historical Revision in Church: Re-examining the "Saint" Edward Colston". Anglican and Episcopal History. 89 (3): 243.
  16. ^ Richards, Samuel J. (September 2020). "Historical Revision in Church: Re-examining the 'Saint' Edward Colston". Anglican and Episcopal History. 89 (3): 225–254.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  19. ^ Cork, Tristan (13 September 2020). "Bristol's original Colston Society to disband after 275 years". Bristol Post. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  20. ^ Davidson, Alan (1999). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-19-211579-9.
  21. ^ Historic England. "Guildhall, City of Bristol (1282368)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  22. ^ Cobb, Peter G. (1994). "The Stained Glass of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol" (PDF). Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society. 112: 150.
  23. ^ "A Statement on Colston Windows". Bristol Cathedral. 16 June 2020. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  24. ^ "A Statement on Colston Windows - Bristol Cathedral". bristol-cathedral.co.uk. Anglican Diocese of Bristol. Retrieved 31 October 2020.
  25. ^ Edmunds, Chantalle (2 October 2020). "Incoming Dean not convinced removing the Edward Colston stained-glass window in Bristol Cathedral is the right answer - Premier Christian News | Headlines, Breaking News, Comment & Analysis". Premier Christian News. Retrieved 31 October 2020.
  26. ^ Richards, Samuel J. (September 2020). "Historical Revision in Church: Re-examining the 'Saint' Edward Colston". Anglican and Episcopal History. 89 (3): 252–254.
  27. ^ "Edward Colston". PMSA National Recording Project. Archived from the original on 9 January 2010. Retrieved 9 May 2007.
  28. ^ Wilkins, H.J. (1920). Edward Colston (1636–1721 A.D.), a chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith. OCLC 629979568.
  29. ^ Wilkins, Emma (29 January 1998). "Graffiti attack revives Bristol slavery row". The Times. p. 11.
  30. ^ Cork, Tristan (22 July 2018). "The second plaque planned for Colston statue linking him to 20,000 deaths". BristolLive. Archived from the original on 22 July 2018. Retrieved 10 May 2021.
  31. ^ Cork, Tristan (23 July 2018). "Theft of second Colston plaque 'may be justified' says councillor". BristolLive. Archived from the original on 18 October 2018. Retrieved 13 May 2021.
  32. ^ a b Cork, Tristan (25 March 2019). "Second Colston statue plaque not axed and will still happen but mayor steps in to order a re-write". Bristol Live. Retrieved 8 June 2020.
  33. ^ Diver, Tony (7 June 2020). "Statue of slave trader Edward Colston pulled down and thrown into harbour by Bristol protesters". The Telegraph. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  34. ^ "Edward Colston statue: Protesters tear down slave trader monument". BBC News. 8 June 2020. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  35. ^ "Edward Colston statue pulled out of Bristol Harbour". BBC News. Bristol. 11 June 2020.
  36. ^ Booth, Martin (12 June 2020). "Merchant Venturers say 'It is right for Bristol' that Colston's statue was removed". Bristol24/7. Bristol24/7 CIC. Archived from the original on 29 June 2020. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  37. ^ Humphries, Will (4 June 2021). "Bristol's protracted debate over angle of Edward Colston statue". The Times.
  38. ^ "The Colston Statue: What next?". Bristol Museums. Archived from the original on 4 June 2021.
  39. ^ Wilkins, H.J. (1920). Edward Colston (1636–1721 A.D.), a chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith. p. 93. OCLC 629979568.
  40. ^ Morgan, Kenneth (1999). Edward Colston and Bristol (PDF). Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association. p. 18. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 June 2020.
  41. ^ Evans, Judith (9 August 2018). "Bristol, the slave trade and a reckoning with the past". Financial Times. Retrieved 3 July 2020.
  42. ^ Gorsky, Martin (1999). Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Royal Historical Society. p. 207.
  43. ^ Richards, Samuel J. (September 2020). "Historical Revision in Church: Re-examining the 'Saint" Edward Colston". Anglican and Episcopal History. 89 (3): 239–241.
  44. ^ "About us". Colston Hall. Bristol Music Society. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  45. ^ Morris, Steven (26 April 2017). "Bristol's Colston Hall to drop name of slave trader after protests". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  46. ^ Ballinger, Alex (12 May 2017). "Colston Hall 'will not be going back' on decision as petitions to keep name reach almost 10,000 signatures". Bristol Live. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  47. ^ "Colston Hall music venue to be renamed Bristol Beacon". BBC. Retrieved 23 September 2020.
  48. ^ Yong, Michael (2 November 2017). "Why Colston's Girls' School does not want to change its name". Bristol Live. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  49. ^ Yong, Michael (11 September 2018). "Colston's Primary School starts life as Cotham Gardens after dropping slave trader's name". Bristol Live. Retrieved 8 June 2020.
  50. ^ Ballinger, Alex (11 February 2019). "Edward Colston: Bristol school to remove slave trader's name from house". BBC News. Retrieved 11 February 2019.


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