Edward Colston by Jonathan Richardson the Elder

The facts and the fury

Feeling strongly about an issue is a dangerous justification for mob action

Artillery Row

Declared a murderer as his statue was thrown into the water, Edward Colston (1636-1721) was scarcely the evil personified that is now presented in a period in which the interface between history and myth is very active, while anew public history is constructed in what – mindless of the very many killed in the Chinese model – is referred to as a new cultural revolution. Television presenters confidently announced as fact that Colston’s statue was thrown into the very harbour from which his slaving ships set sail, and that it met a watery grave like the dead and dying slaves thrown from the ships from which he made the bulk of his fortune; but he directly owned no slaving ships and the bulk of his fortune did not derive from the slave trade.

In many respects with Colston, we have the problems of addressing issues for a period in which information is not as full as we would like; not that that prevents commentators.

A child born in Bristol, and fond of the city as a result, Colston left it during the Civil War and was essentially a London merchant. It is unclear how much of his fortune derived from the slave trade, in which he was involved from 1680 to 1692 due to his membership of the Royal African Company of which he was Deputy Governor from 1689 to 1690. He was also a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery. Much of his merchant activity was focused on trading with the Mediterranean and Iberia, lucrative trades from which he presumably derived most of his wealth, and Colston was involved with slavery for around one fifth of his long business career. For the last thirty years of his life he was not involved, although, crucially, it is not clear why. It was in that time that he endowed his charities, for education and poor relief, which makes him the greatest philanthropist in Bristol’s history.

The fate of the Royal African Company is separately interesting as a result of the impact of national politics on its fortunes during Colston’s life (see my book Slavery. A New Global History), and that possibly deserves more attention when he, who was later in his life an MP, is discussed. At the risk of being ahistorical, the relationship between his levelling-up philanthropy and discussion of contemporary social policy and politics is also interesting.

As far as the general point about memorialisation is concerned, it is surely better if matters are handled in a legal and temperate fashion. Feeling strongly about an issue as a justification for mob action could all too readily be used across a society that includes many who feel strongly about other aspects of belief and activity; and then we would be in a very dark place indeed, one possibly of sectarian violence, or of attacks on abortion clinics, or a whole range. I cannot help reflecting on the image of violence in Sir Thomas More, a play in the writing of which Shakespeare may have had a role:

And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Readers of this who support the Bristol rioters might shrug their shoulders and say the ends justify the means and that I am “privileged” by my whiteness, a charge thrown at me on Radio 4; but of course this passage referred to the ugly May Day 1517 riots in London, riots directed against foreign residents. And just before, as all too often, race is thrown to the fore, these foreigners were white, and the writer vividly refers to refugee foreigners “their babies at their backs.”

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