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Edward Colston: a man for who black lives didn’t matter at all

PETER FROST is delighted that Colston’s statue no longer stands in Bristol

IF BLACK lives really do matter then Edward Colston, a man who sold 84,000 young black children, women and men into slavery and also murdered another 18,000 men, women and children doing it doesn’t deserve to have a statue commemorating his evil life and trade in the city of Bristol.

I was delighted not just to see his statue pulled down but also thrown in the harbour that engineer William Jessop built for Bristol in 1802 using the money the slave trade had brought to the city. They threw the statue into the harbour by Pero’s Bridge — the only place in Bristol named after a slave.

If anybody wasn’t sure of the demolition team’s motives they had only to take note of the fact they pressed their knees on the neck of the statue rather as Minneapolis police did killing George Floyd.

So who was Edward Colston, 1636 — 1721? Colston wasn’t just another slave trader. As well as being a Tory MP Colston was, in his time, the leading slave trader in Bristol, Britain’s most important slave trading port.

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company which held the monopoly on trading along the west coast of Africa. He would soon rise to become head of what was the world’s leading company in the obscene trade in human flesh. Living flesh that would be branded with the initials of his company. Colston slaves had RAC burnt into their foreheads.

The company robbed the Africans of gold, silver and ivory and if that wasn’t enough they established the notorious three-way trade. Slaves were captured in Africa and taken, in British ships, many from Bristol, to the Caribbean and the southern states of the US.

There the slaves were set to work growing sugar, tobacco, cotton and other crops. These crops were shipped back to the factories and works of Britain. Processed products like guns, gunpowder, brandy and cotton fabrics. were taken back to Africa and sold. The evil circle was complete.

Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the Royal African Company, which had been established by the Royal Family. He became deputy governor, the company’s most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690.

He became immensely rich and spent some of his huge fortune on appeasing his conscience by some philanthropic actions. He set up and helped finance schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. And like many other slave dealers he claimed full credit by having the churches, streets, schools and many other institutions named after him.

You may wonder why? We need to remember that at this time the Christian Church was totally involved in the obscenity of the slave trade at many levels. Perhaps Colston — himself a high churchman — thought he could buy a place in heaven with a few crumbs from his lucrative slave trading.

Good living ensured he would live a lot longer than most of his slaves. He died, at the age of 84, in 1721.

In recent decades, with increasing recognition of Colston’s role in the slave trade, there has been growing criticism of the commemoration of Colston in Bristol.

In February 2019, the St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School bravely announced that it would be renaming Colston House as Johnson House, after the black US female mathematician Katherine Johnson who worked on space travel for Nasa.

The Colston statue that was toppled last weekend was erected in 1895 — 174 years after his death. The statue was controversial by the end of the 20th century. In 1998, someone scrawled “slave trader” on its base.

Many have called for the statue to be taken down. In a 2014 poll 44 per cent of Bristol people wanted it to go. In 2013 Bristol’s first elected mayor, George Ferguson, stated: “Celebrations for Colston are perverse, not something I shall be taking part in!”

Some suggested keeping the statue but revising the wording of the dedication on the plinth. This has gone back and forth and gone nowhere over many, many years.

Now arguments about the wording are over. On June 7 2020, the statue was toppled and thrown into the historically blood-stained waters of Bristol Harbour by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tory ministers like Home Secretary Priti Patel declared the act “utterly disgraceful.” Piers Morgan — a man I don’t often quote in these pages — raged: “For Priti Patel to be outraged, outraged, this week of all weeks, outraged, most I’ve heard her outraged, about that statue being put into the water in a week when there have been global protests about the death of a black man at the hands of a racist policeman. That’s what outrages you? Priti Patel? Really?”

There is still much to be done in Bristol where buildings and streets still carry the hated name of Edward Colston. Much to be done in Britain too, where we should never forget that our capitalist society is built on the foundations of the slave trade.

And much to do across the globe, not least in the US, where the growing campaign that Black Lives Matter refuses to be silenced.

Slave trader Colston’s effigy has gone, the Minneapolis police department has gone, there is still much to do but these are two giant steps on the route to proving black lives really do matter.

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