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Bristol Debates its Legacy

Tim Green/Flickr

By John Martin

Much of the original funding for infrastructure and public buildings in the west-England port city of Bristol came from slave-trade profits. Now calls are growing to rename the many places bearing the name of the city’s well-known slave-trader and philanthropist.

Edward Colston (1636-1721) grew rich as an officer of the Royal African Company, which was established to trade slaves. He became an energetic philanthropist, endowing schools and almshouses. His visible legacy includes Colston Tower, Colston Hall, Colston Avenue, Colston Street, and three schools. There is a memorial to him in the city center and he is remembered in an annual service at St. Stephen’s Church.

There is even a candied bun bearing his name and still made from his original recipe. It became a local tradition to give Colston Buns to poor people, and they are still distributed to children on Colston Day (Nov. 13) by the Colston Society, a charity.

A campaign is gaining momentum to change the name of Colston Hall, a 2,050-seat concert hall on Colston Street, owned by Bristol City Council and managed by the Bristol Music Trust. In the 1960s it became one of England’s premier rock-music venues. Colton Hall is currently being refurbished and campaigners see its reopening in 2020 as an ideal opportunity to rename the building and acknowledge what they see as a more honest version of the city’s history. “Bristol’s Colston Hall is an affront to a multicultural city. Let’s rename it now,” declared a Guardian headline on Feb. 26.

Another Colston memorial is the largest stained-glass window in Bristol Cathedral. Already the local Countering Colston group has the window in its sights. The Very Rev. David Hoyle, dean, has said he is “prepared to have a conversation” about removing the window because of its links to slavery, but added it would cost “many thousands of pounds.”

“Whilst we still can be clear that slavery is completely wrong … the business of eradicating Colston’s memory from the city is tricky,” Hoyle said in an interview with Premier radio. He was involved in a trade that wasn’t considered evil at the time but we now know to be wicked. I think that’s a complicated conversation to have. If we are all going to be judged by the future, we are all going to be found guilty one way or another.”

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