When the statue of Edward Colston was toppled last year, the world’s media arrived in Bristol to ask lots of questions.
And one of the most often-asked questions from the journalists from Paris, New York, London and Sydney was just why the city had still been giving pride of place to the statue of a man directly linked to the deaths of almost 20,000 enslaved people.
The history of Bristol’s commemoration of Edward Colston, in streets, schools, churches, concert halls, pubs and on plinths is a long a and complex one.
The statue, erected in 1895 – some 174 years after his death – was the high point of the Victorian ‘Cult of Colston’, which included grand banquets, a public holiday, parades and church services across the city.
But the resistance to this ‘Cult of Colston’ did not start and end on June 7, 2020, or even with the formation of the campaign group Countering Colston in 2016. In fact, as this timeline produced by the leading experts on Edward Colston, Mark Steeds and Roger Ball, shows, the questioning of, objections to and challenges to Edward Colston and his celebrations and commemorations in the city date back 100 years.
“While the church, the city’s leaders and those rich elites in power were keen to celebrate Colston and were telling generations of Bristolians the false history that he was this great philanthropist, there were people who did their research and began to question this,” said Mark Steeds.
“Challenging Bristol’s cult of Colston is nothing new. It started way back 100 years ago with a local vicar, and continued with milestones that meant the Colston question kept rising and falling in waves. All the time though, the church, the Society of Merchant Venturers and the people who ran Bristol kept defending him, and trying to quash any criticism,” he added.
“We’ve done extensive research on how Colston was challenged,” said Roger Ball.
“What’s interesting is that even in the 1920s and 1930s, the leading clergy of the day regularly felt the need to defend Colston in the annual Colston Day services, at Bristol Cathedral, but we’re not sure what would have prompted that – whether there was criticism in newspaper letters pages or some kind of demonstration or protest that was quietly not reported at the time. We see the defence in reports of the sermons, but not why they felt the need to do that at that time,” he added.
After the war, there was something of a lull in Bristol talking about Colston, until the early 1970s, when more history was researched and more popular and accessible history books were written telling Bristolians what they had never been told at school – that Colston was a major player in the development of the transatlantic slave trade.
The celebrations marking 500 years of Bristol explorers discovering continental North America, and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, either side of the Millennium, brought more debate, protest and controversy.
So here is an almost complete list of all the times, dating back to the 1920, that Bristol challenged the cult of Colston.
Rev HJ Wilkins published a comprehensive history of Edward Colston, highlighting his leading role in the transatlantic slave trade and his political and religious bigotry.
For the first first time, his involvement in running the Royal Africa Company & his links to Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers are published, along with his selective philanthropy which barred any child whose parents were not Church of England or Tory supporters, from receiving any help.
July 7, 1922
Rev Wilkins wrote to the Western Daily Press and called for an end to Colston Day. “Party political considerations gave Edward Colston his pre-eminence’. He proposed a general celebration of benefactors in a ‘Commemoration Day for Bristol’, not just one about Edward Colston.
Rev Wilkins published a supplement to his history of Colston with new research exposing his role as a money-lender to other slave trading merchants. He criticised the ‘unhistorical and ill-proportioned position Bristol has given to Edward Colston’.
Nov 3, 1925
The Western Daily Press newspaper backed Rev Wilkins in an editorial. The paper argued that Colston Day excluded other Bristolians ‘deserving of being remembered’, and suggested that the day ‘shall be still more radically altered so that instead of being devoted to singing the praises of one illustrious citizen, it shall be used for paying tribute to many who have found a place in local history’.
Nov 14, 1927
The Dean of Bristol acknowledged Colston’s slave trading past for the first time in a sermon in Bristol Cathedral on Colston Day, and downplayed it. He ‘laid special emphasis upon the necessity of placing Colston’s connection with the slave-trade and money-lending against the historical background of his day’.
Nov 13, 1930
Another member of the clergy refuted claims about Colston and slavery in his Colston Day sermon in Bristol Cathedral. Rev GWL Wynne said: “Everyone who could, made money from the slave-trade in those days, and anyone who did not was regarded as a freak”.
The Guide to Bristol was published in the year of the centenary of the implementation of the Slave Emancipation Act, and dropped all reference to Edward Colston.
Nov 13, 1936
The Western Daily Press again referred to Colston’s involvement in the slave trade and his political bigotry, in a report on Colston Day in Bristol. Reporter Eric Buxton said Colston was ‘human as the rest of us’, but did concede: “Experience suggests where a public man has a black mark on his public character, it is hushed up and passed over in silence when he is being praised – not brought up and exposed for what it is worth’. A debate follows about Colston in the letters page.
Nov 13, 1937
Canon Fitzgerald defended Edward Colston in his Colston Day sermon at Bristol Cathedral. “If he did make much of his money by the slave-trade it was unfair to blame him for not being in advance of his time”.
Marguerite Steen wrote a novel The Sun is My Undoing, which focused on a slave-trading family in Bristol. Caribbean politician and historian Eric Williams said it was superior to academic histories of British slavery.
Oct 30, 1961
A letter to the Bristol Evening Post letters page, ahead of Colston Day, pointed out Edward Colston’s involvement in the slave trade and his religious and political bigotry.
Prof Charles MacInnes, from the University of Bristol, responded to criticism of Colston Day by publishing a pamphlet criticising those who pointed out Colston’s history. He refers to what he described as ‘the macabre self-satisfaction which some Bristolians appear to derive from the recollection of the presumed moral depravity of their forbears’.
Author Keith Brace wrote a historical guide to Bristol, and when mentioning Colston’s statue, points out his involvement in the slave-trade, religious bigotry and selective philanthropy.
The civic leaders of Bristol celebrate the city’s 600th anniversary of its Royal Charter as a city and county, with no mention of slavery. Derek Robinson responds with a book called ‘A Shocking History of Bristol’, which exposed Edward Colston as a leading financier of the slave-trade, and pointed out the continued celebration of Colston in annual rituals.
Journalist and author David Foot published a book called Famous Bristolians. In the section on Edward Colston, his involvement in slavery and the fact that history had been obscured by his supporters and the Church of England, is mentioned.
June 6, 1980
Bristol University history professor Patrick McGrath gave the annual Southey Lecture and tackled Colston. “He only gave his money away so he would be remembered,” he said. “I object to him being worshipped just because he gave his money away. That doesn’t make him a good man.” Prof McGrath sparked a furore in the local media, with supporters of Colston accusing him of ‘a hatchet job and a character assassination’.
Aug 6, 1981
Bristol Evening Post historian David Foot criticised Colston. “Whatever the doting contemporary history book writers might imply, his generosity should not obscure the shadier facts of his character. He grew rich and fat on the slave trade, conveniently ignoring it, or even condoning it like many leading churchmen of his day.”
The Arnolfini staged an exhibition entitled ‘Trophies of Empire’. Former Colston’s Girls’ School student Carole Drake’s work of art used an image of Colston’s statue ‘to expose the denial of Colston’s trading in the lives of African peoples, a fact never openly discussed’.
Sep 9, 1995
The first mass protest against the commemoration of Colston and Bristol’s denial of slavery. An exclusive party to celebrate the launch of the replica of Cabot’s ship the Matthew was held, but was disrupted by hundreds of protesters outside. The protesters said the event represented Bristol’s wealthy elite celebrating their own version of maritime history, while ignoring the mass suffering caused by colonialism, and trans-Atlantic slavery. Almost 50 protesters were arrested by police.
Bristol hosted its biggest celebration of its maritime history, The Festival of The Sea, an international event that is still the biggest maritime festival ever hosted in Britain. An ‘Anti-Festival of the Sea’ is held to counter it, with multi-cultural arts groups pointing out that the Festival of the Sea had barely any mention at all of the transatlantic slave trade. Counter events were held, and Massive Attack, then one of the biggest bands in the world, asserted their boycott of the Colston Hall.
To mark the European Year Against Racism, a small plaque was unveiled on the wall of the Bristol Industrial Museum – now the M-Shed – recognising Bristol’s involvement in the trans-atlantic slave trade. To date it is the only publicly visible acknowledgement.
The statue of Edward Colston was graffitied with the words ‘F*** off slave trader’ painted on. It would be graffitied repeatedly for the next 22 years. The incident was reported by The Times in London, who wrote: “Leaders of the black community in Bristol yesterday condemned Colston…as one of the worst offenders in the history of slavery, and said the statue should be taken down”.
Feb 2, 1998
The Colston debate was raised in the council chamber. City Councillor Ray Sefia likened the statue to one of Adolf Hitler, and called for its removal. “We shouldn’t have one to Colston, who was one of the worst offenders in the slave trade that did so much distruction.”
The director of the Bristol Race Equality Council, Peter Courtier, called for a second plaque to be put on the statue, explaining to people Colston’s role in the slave trade.
The Colston Hall announced plans for a refurbishment and extension, but Massive Attack responded, repeating their boycott. “It should be renamed as a building and not continue to celebrate the name of someone who was involved in the slave trade,” said Rob del Naja, from the band.
March 22, 1999
Someone left a plate of raw liver on a blood-spattered table in front of the statue of Edward Colston, to symbolise how he ‘dined’ on slavery.
Kenneth Morgan published a biography of Edward Colston in pamphlet form, giving more information about how deeply Colston was involved in the slave trade.
Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery hosted an exhibition entitled: A Respectable Trade? Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery. Included in the exhibition was a painting called Sold Down the River, by Bristolian artist Tony Forbes. It featured a young black man in modern dress being bound in police tape and held in chains by the statue of Edward Colston, on a raft being towed by the Matthew, with its three sails adorned with the logos of the BBC, HTV and the Bristol Evening Post. On the side of the river, in Clifton, people party.
Bristol historian Madge Dresser published a new expose of Bristol’s slave trading past: Slavery Obscured – The Social History of the Slave Trade in Bristol.
The refurbishment of the Colston Hall again led to calls in the Bristol Evening Post for the hall to be renamed.
A new Pevsner City Guide to Bristol was published, written by Andrew Foyle. For the first time the Pevsner Guide acknowledged Bristol’s role in the slave trade, and that Edward Colston profited significantly from slavery. It also acknowledged that calls for the statue to be removed ‘as a recognition of Bristol’s shameful role in the slave trade’ have not been acted upon.
An art exhibition in St Thomas the Martyr Church in Bristol included a work by artist Hew Lock, of Colston’s statue hung with gold jewellery. The images were also exhibited in The Tate Britain in 2015.
May 10, 2006
A debate was hosted at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol entitled: Is it time to apologise for slavery? with direct references to the continued celebration of Edward Colston.
British civil rights leader Paul Stephenson renewed calls to rename the Colston Hall, prompting national media attention.
March 26, 2007
The 200th anniversary of the British Empire banning transatlantic slavery by British merchants was marked in Bristol with an Abolition 200 series of events. One of those was a televised debate at the Arnolfini, where people brought up that the Abolition 200 programme itself had not challenged the present day continued memorials and celebrations of Edward Colston.
As part of the Abolition 200 programme, artist Graeme Mortimer Evelyn won Arts Council funding to erect an art installation around the statue of Edward Colston, which would project a film about slavery, using images from West Africa, the Caribbean and Bristol. The films were made, the Arts Council gave funding, but Bristol City Council pulled the idea.
Sep & Oct 2007
Protests took place outside the Colston Hall, at the fact the concert venue named after Edward Colston was hosting Abolition 200 events. Performers at some of the events echoed that criticism.
A debate entitled ‘Who Was Edward Colston – Merchant, Philanthropist or Criminal?’ was hosted at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.
A debate entitled ‘Should the Colston Hall name be changed?’ was hosted by Africans in One at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.
Police stopped a protest by Art and Activism around the Colston Statue.
A new management body took over at the Colston Hall, called the Bristol Music Trust. The new team acknowledged Edward Colston’s links to the slave trade, and the fact that many Bristolians boycott the venue – both artists and concert-goers. The BMT said the venue could be renamed ‘if that’s what people want’. That prompted another debate in the letters page of the Bristol Evening Post, and in August 2011, the Bristol Music Trust said the name won’t be changed. Paul Stephenson described it as ‘another lost opportunity’.
August 31, 2013
Recently-elected mayor George Ferguson, who left the Society of Merchant Venturers to stand for mayor, said the annual celebrations of Edward Colston are ‘perverse’ and ‘not a celebration I shall join’.
The Bishop of Bristol, Mike Hill, gave the annual Colston Day sermon in Bristol Cathedral to hundreds of schoolchildren. He described the links between Edward Colston and the transatlantic slave trade as ‘speculation’. A recording of this sermon was published on YouTube, prompting a backlash.
Nov 7, 2015
Following the previous year’s Colston Day celebrations, a group of protesters gathered outside Bristol Cathedral, handing out leaflets to those attending the Colston’s Girls’ School Commem Day service.
Those protesters formed a new group, Countering Colston, and chiefly target the Colston Hall and the continued Colston Day celebrations, which involve several state-funded primary and secondary schools in Bristol.
Talks between Countering Colston, Colston’s Girls’ School and the Diocese of Bristol ended with the Dean of Bristol Cathedral agreeing that any sermons about Edward Colston must acknowledge the slave trade.
Nov 9, 2016
Protesters flypost the Colston Plinth, which is surrounded by roadworks, with ‘human trafficker’.
Protesters greeted pupils from Colston’s Girls’ School outside the Cathedral on ‘Commem’ Day, and at St Stephens’ Church, where the traditional march of the all the Society of Merchant Venturers’ Colston-based societies heads to for a commemoration service.
The Bristol Music Trust announced it was changing the name of the Colston Hall. Chief executive Louise Mitchell said the name had become ‘toxic’.
April 2017 – The face of the statue of Edward Colston was painted white.
May & June 2017
The Bristol Radical History Group published two research papers on Edward Colston, after detailed research into the extent of his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It calculates that for the 12 years of his involvement in the Royal Africa Company, at the start of a 40-year careers as a transatlantic slave trader, some 84,500 enslaved Africans were transported, of which 19,300 died on the voyage, including more than 2,000 dead children.
An unofficial plaque was placed on the plinth underneath Colston’s statue, describing Bristol as the ‘capital of the Atlantic slave trade’. It took two months for the city council to remove it, and it was soon put back up for a while.
John Whitehead, the principal of Colston’s Girls’ School, announced that, after consultation with the students, all references to Edward Colston would be removed from the annual Commem Day Service, including the requirement of pupils to wear a metal chrysanthemum in his memory. Mr Whitehead later revealed that, at around this time, the Society of Merchant Venturers stopped the school leadership team’s efforts to launch a consultation on changing the name of the school.
Oct 18, 2017
The police were called to St Mary Redcliffe Church to stop two Countering Colston activists from entering the annual Colston commemorative service which involves pupils from two local schools. The church is lit up purple to mark ‘Anti-Slavery Day’, but inside, the pupils are asked to commemorate the life of Edward Colston and the victims of slavery, and receive ‘Colston Buns’, a tradition dating back to Victorian times.
Nov 13, 2017
St Stephens Church stopped hosting the annual Colston Day celebrations, held by the Society of Merchant Venturers’ associated Colston societies. Protesters arrive to discover church leaders ‘want nothing more to do with Edward Colston’.
Colston’s Primary School decided to rename the school, following a three-month consultation with parents, pupils and staff.
Bristol City Council announced it was working with historians and pupils from Colston’s Primary School to place a ‘corrective’ second plaque on the Colston statue.
May 6, 2018
A yarn bomber attached a red ball and chain to the Colston Statue.
New Lord Mayor of Bristol Cleo Lake removed the portrait of Edward Colston from the Lord Mayor’s Office at City Hall.
Oct 12, 2018
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire called for the removal of the statue of Edward Colston.
Oct 14, 2018
A third pamphlet from the Bristol Radical History Group described in detail how the statue of Edward Colston was paid for by a few rich businessmen 175 years after his death, after a fundraising campaign failed.
Oct 18, 2018
An art installation of wrapped concrete figures was placed in front of the Colston Statue to appear to look like people packed onto the deck of a slave ship, highlighting the parallels between the transatlantic slave trade and modern slavery.
St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School announced all their four houses would be renamed, including Colston House.
The headteacher of Colston’s Girls’ School covered up the half-size statue of Edward Colston, which stood in the main reception area, for parents’ day.
After more than a year of working on the second plaque for the statue of Edward Colston, the project was abandoned after the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees stepped in to stop it, even after it had been made. Those involved in the project said the Society of Merchant Venturers’ historian had become involved and sanitised the wording of the plaque to remove anything critical of Edward Colston, something which Mr Rees said was ‘unacceptable’.
Mayor Marvin Rees told students at the University of the West of England that he should be ‘kept away’ from the debate about Edward Colston, because as the first elected black mayor in Europe, the issue was ‘too loaded’ for him.
The first programme in David Olusoga’s BBC history series A House Through Time was broadcast, telling the story of a slave trader’s house in Redcliffe, built in the early 18th century.
June 5, 2020
Bristol Radical History Group published From Wulfstan to Colston, detailing Bristol’s involvement in slavery from the 11th century to the 19th century.
June 6, 2020
As a planned Black Lives Matter demonstration was organised to protest against the death of George Floyd, a two-year-old online petition to Bristol City Council calling for the statue of Edward Colston to be taken down gained almost 8,000 signatures in a week.
June 7, 2020
Ten thousand people marched through Bristol as part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down.