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Colston ‘heavily involved’ in Britain’s most prolific slave trading company, David Olusoga tells statue-toppling trial

The historian gave expert evidence as a witness for the defence in the trial of the so-called Colston 4.


Edward Colston was “heavily involved” in the most prolific slave trading organisation in British history, celebrated historian David Olusoga has told a jury trying those accused of toppling a statue of the slaver.

Professor Olusoga, an award-winning broadcaster and author, provided expert evidence for the defence at the trial of the so-called Colston 4 at Bristol Crown Court on Thursday – day four of the landmark case.

While Colston was associated with the Royal African Company between 1680 and 1692, it shipped 84,000 Africans into slavery, including 12,000 children, Olusoga told the court. Some 19,000 of them died during their journeys to the colonies of the Caribbean and North America, he said.

The slave trader held executive and decision-making positions in the organisation, Olusoga told the jury, adding: “He is therefore directly complicit in those deaths and the enslavement of the survivors.”

The toppling of the bronze memorial to the 17th century merchant in Bristol on 7 June last year became one of the key moments in the wave of protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the US.

Defendants Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, said they had a lawful excuse to help pull down the Colston statue in the city during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. They claimed their actions were to protect citizens from further harm caused by its presence. They both deny a charge of criminal damage.

Toppling was an ‘act of love, not of violence’

During a cross examination of Willoughby on Thursday, prosecutor William Hughes QC suggested that pulling down the monument was a “violent” escalation of the peaceful protest in the city.

“This was not a violent act,” Willoughby replied. “I believe it was an act of love and solidarity with the people of Bristol.” The defendant recalled how he had repeatedly signed petitions for its removal, and that he was aware calls for it to be taken down had long been ignored by Bristol City Council.

Willoughby told the court: “Colston was a racist and a slave trader who murdered thousands and enslaved more… Imagine having a statue of Hitler in front of a holocaust survivor. It feels simultaneous if not worse. [Its presence] felt, in a sense, like a hate crime.”

Colston’s involvement in the slave trade

Colston’s association with Royal African Company, which Olusoga said held a monopoly over the slave trade for a large part of the 17th century, began in 1680 when he became a shareholder. 

From 1689 to 1690 he served as deputy governor, a position that equates to that of a chief executive officer in the modern day, Olusoga said. And his significant investments in the company are equivalent to millions of pounds.

Jurors heard of the violence and brutality enslaved Africans suffered at the hands of the company, including branding the initials RAC into their chests. This would be done to children as young as nine years old, Olusoga said.

The professor told the jury that between the 1660s and 1807 it is estimated up to 3.5 million Africans were carried by British ships, on which roughly half a million died. They were considered “wastage”, he said. 

Africans were seen as “unpeople”, Olusoga said. They were not protected by English law and could therefore be subject to heavy punishment and mutilation. But they could not be murdered, the professor said, because they were not considered to be human beings. “They could be destroyed, and that was carried out routinely”.

‘The Cult of Colston’

Olusoga told of Colston’s own attempts at “reputation laundering”, and said it was the work of a “cult” that celebrated his philanthropy that led to the erection of his statue in 1895 – 174 years after his death in 1721.

His “veneration” was established by various Bristol societies, all of them dominated by Bristol’s merchant elite, the professor said. The creators of the “cult of Colston”, according to Olusoga, were members of the Society of Merchant Venturers and private Bristol societies the Dolphin, Anchor, Grateful and Colston Societies.

A statue of him was proposed in 1893, but there was a two-year struggle to raise the £1,000 that was needed for the piece, Olusoga said. The idea that the monument was erected by the “people of Bristol” was misleading, he told the court, as evidence showed it was funded by a small “elite” group.

The Merchant Venturers

In the centuries following Colston’s death, the Society of Merchant Venturers played a role in the evolution of the so-called cult that accrued around him, Olusoga said. Although its members were aware Colston was a slave trader, he added, they helped represent him purely as philanthropist.

In recent years it has also attempted to defend the slaver’s reputation, the professor said. In 2018, the society was involved in trying to “minimise” the language used on a new plaque for his statue that campaigners had requested, intending to give context to the reality of Colston’s life and actions. 

The society pushed for the plaque to have a focus on the slaver’s philanthropy and eraser of an acknowledgement that Colston himself was a member of the Merchant Venturers, Olusoga said. 

The amended version of the plaque – intended to give context to the reality of Colston’s life and actions –  was deemed inappropriate by Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, and was never installed, the court heard. After the toppling of the statue, the society said in a statement that its involvement in determining the wording of the plaque was “inappropriate”.

‘Emotionally charged issue’ 

Professor Olusoga, giving evidence, described slavery as a “very emotionally charged issue” for people of Afro-Caribbean descent.

He told how the British government raised £20 million through bonds to compensate slave owners for their loss – the equivolent of about £17 billion in today’s money. Before the financial crisis in 2008, it held the record for the largest ever government bailout of an industry.

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The debt was not paid off until 2015 and, Olusoga said, the fact that members of the Windrush generation would have contributed to clearing this debt was still a matter of deep hurt to the community. “They would have been paying taxes… Paying towards debt that was used to compensate the owners of their own ancestors,” he said.

Olusoga’s evidence was not challenged by the prosecution.

Willoughby and Ponsford, along with Rhian Graham, 30, are accused of helping to topple the statue using ropes that were slung around it. The fourth defendant, Jake Skuse, 33, is accused of rolling the statue towards the harbour before it was pushed into the water. All four deny charges of criminal damage.

The trial continues.

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