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Protests against Edward Colston celebrations continued yesterday as official birthday event marked the end of a fortnight of celebrations and fundraising.

Words and photo: Jenny Stringer

As men in top hats and tails arrived they were greeted with shouts of ‘Shame!’

Anger surrounding the celebration of Edward Colston, Bristol’s most famous slave trader, continued yesterday (14th November) as campaigners gathered outside St Stephens Church to protest the annual service of ‘thanksgiving’ in Colston’s name.

As a group of mainly elderly white men in top hats and tails arrived they were greeted with shouts of ‘Shame!’ from the crowd who believe that to celebrate Colston is ‘obscene’ and an insult to the victims of slavery.

Edward Colston was a 17th century slave trader and Bristol MP.  In the mid-18th century, three charitable societies were established to ‘honour’ his memory (Grateful, Anchor and Dolphin), all connected to the Merchant Venturers, a secretive and powerful group of businessmen and politicians that Colston was also once a member of.  They continue to view Colston as a ‘generous philanthropist’ who deserves to be celebrated, and choose to dismiss his involvement in slavery as an unfortunate element to the story.

The presence of Edward Colston still lingers throughout Bristol; from statues and boats, memorials, street names and schools.  For over a decade there have been calls for Colston Hall to change its name and statues to be removed.

Yesterday, Colstons’ official birthday, culminated a fortnight of celebrations and fundraising, which has seen a number of protests and actions, including covering his city centre statue with posters stating ‘murderer’ and ‘kidnapper’.

The protest outside St Stephens Church has been organised now for the second year running by a group called ‘Countering Colston.’  One of their members, Kate Finnegan, is an ex-Colston Girls school pupil who remembers taking part in the Colston celebrations when she was at the school.  She spoke about a feeling of betrayal and disgust when she found out who Colston was.   Last year, the Daily Mail picked up local news reports, warning pupils to avoid protesters who might spot their uniform and approach them.  Inside the church yesterday, members of Colston Girls School choir were keen to talk to campaigners.

After the service, one of the Merchant Venturers, who wouldn’t give me his name, came out to explain to the campaigners that Colston ‘despite wrongdoings was a huge benefactor’ and his contribution should be celebrated as such.  The Reverend Daniel Tyndall, acknowledging Colston was ‘wrong,’ asked campaigners to use ‘their passion about history and Edward Colston’ to address current wrongs in today’s society.  As a campaigner pointed out – that’s key to their argument: in order to move on and learn from past ‘wrongs,’ they first need to be acknowledged.  The campaigners ask for the groups involved to stop celebrating him, and acknowledge the human ‘cargo’ that helped him make his name and wealth.,

Edward Colston’s view of who was deserving of his help was very narrow. However groups celebrating Colston are very keen to stress the charitable works they do as a means of looking to the future and moving away from the atrocities of the past. However, societies involved in the celebrations did not return calls to comment on the issue.

There are calls throughout Bristol to address the lack of memorial to the undeniable role slavery has in the city’s history.  There are currently three references; two plaques and Pero’s Bridge in the Habourside.  The architect Herman Morgan has proposed plans for another memorial at Severn Beach – TSTM (the Transatlantic Slave Trade Memorial).  Over six years in the planning now, the project has struggled to attract enough funding.  Morgan however confirmed the project is still live and in the New Year a campaign manager will be tasked with moving the project forward.

 

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Read more on: merchant venturers, protest, racism, slavery.

Comments

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  • danny says:

    If you ban ‘Colston’ where will it end? its part of British history whether we like it or not and its not possible just to remove it because it’s no longer acceptable. Do we stop referring to John Cabot and the Matthew as they would have had slaves on board (not to mention some of the native Bristol crew who would have been ‘pressed’ into service). Do we have to change the name of the floating harbour as it would have been the term used when they were slaves their?

    I’m not saying we should celebrate that part of our history, but it is part of our history and its part of Bristol makeup. No I’m not part of elite Merchant class, half my family came from Ireland during the famine and the other half were Gypsy’s who escaped from SE Germany in the 20’s.

  • Sim says:

    I don’t think we can go around removing and changing historical references unfortunately. They’re important reminders of our past and we shouldn’t try to erase what’s gone before, but instead learn from it and not use the name in future developments.

    However, what we should make sure is that that past doesn’t hold any real relevance in modern day society, and so far as I see it, these ‘celebrations’ give relevance to someone that really shouldn’t be relevant any more. It brings someone that should ultimately be left in Bristol’s past, back into Bristol’s current day.

  • Frances Brown says:

    Edward Colton was a heartless greedy man who didn’t have the.selflessness ability to share inhumane gotten wealth with a wife. All of what he gave to England was precurred by the horror of and entire race of people. The lost of their home, family, and culture as well as their lives when they were tossed in the ocean as shark food could only be celebrated by evil greedy deadly souls. One day all will be reckensiled.

  • Amanda Andrews says:

    We cannot change history but their should be no celebrations annual church services for such an evil man. Shame on that Reverend for brushing campaigners off, instead of the people attending the service.

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