An English City Grapples With The Slave-Trading Past Of Its Most Celebrated Figure

A statue of a merchant from the 17th century towers over the main square in Bristol, in southwest England. It's a tribute to Edward Colston, described on a small plaque as "one of the most virtuous and wise sons" of this city.

Around town, there are numerous reminders of Colston, Bristol's most famous philanthropist: Streets, schools, a concert hall and an office tower are all named after him. A big stained glass window in Bristol Cathedral is dedicated to him. Even a local delicacy bears his name — the Colston bun, a sort of fruit strudel.

But there's also a dark side to Colston, one that's been long known but less prominently acknowledged: He made his fortune trading African slaves.

"I remember finding out how he made his money. That turned my world upside down," says Katie Finnegan-Clarke, 30, who attended Colston's Girls' School, a prestigious private school. When she was 14, one of her parents' friends told her about Colston's role in the slave trade.

"Having partaken so actively in so many school assemblies to celebrate him, it just made me feel sick," she says. "It disturbs me."

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bristol's port sent thousands of ships to trade African slaves for tobacco, sugar and rum in the New World. Colston was a member and later head of the Royal African Company, which held a slave-trading monopoly in Britain. He also traded sugar and other commodities harvested or produced by slaves in the British West Indies. He bequeathed his wealth to charities in his hometown, founding homeless shelters known as almshouses and many schools.

Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter, and just as Confederate statues are taken down in some parts of the American South, Bristol is rethinking how it commemorates its biggest benefactor.

Trustees of the city's premier music venue, Colston Hall, announced last year that when the facility reopens in 2020 after renovations, it will do so under a new name, as yet unannounced.

"We just couldn't reopen a building with some public money in it that was under the banner of a slave trader," says spokeswoman Sarah Robertson. "There are sections of Bristol society who feel shame and embarrassment stepping into our building because of our name."

For years, the rock band Massive Attack, whose members come from Bristol, has refused to play at Colston Hall because of its name. That boycott grew two years ago with the creation of Countering Colston, a group of artists and activists lobbying for the removal of Colston's name from Bristol's institutions. The group was founded by Finnegan-Clarke and some of her former classmates.

While many activists have praised plans for the name change, there has also been criticism.

The BBC reported last year that opponents of the name change made comments on Facebook calling it "political correctness gone mad" and saying the "past should not be airbrushed out."

"We were accused of erasing history by changing the name," Robertson says. "People thought we were dredging up a past that people would rather not remember. They want to forget about Bristol's slave-trading past."

Curators at a Bristol museum, the M Shed, want to make sure that doesn't happen. The museum is located on a wharf in Bristol's harbor, where slave ships used to dock. Inside, there's a video of a spoken-word performance about racial stereotypes by Bristol's first poet laureate, Miles Chambers, who is black. There is also a huge map of the city from 1769, showing all the landmarks built with the profits of slavery.

"The idea is just to know that an awful lot of Bristol is built on the slave trade. From big houses, to the Bristol Old Vic — the oldest working theater in the country," explains curator Sue Giles.

Giles does not agree with the Countering Colston activists, who want Colston's name erased from the city. It's better to remember, she believes.

"If you keep changing everything, people forget," she says. "You don't know who Colston was, so there's no discussion of his role in the slave trade, about Bristol's role in the slave trade."

But for many black Bristolians — who are a small but growing part of the city's population — having to see Colston's name on streets and buildings across their city is painful. Most black people in Britain are of Afro-Caribbean descent. Some of their ancestors were African slaves brought to Jamaica and other British territories before Parliament outlawed slavery in 1833.

"We're not at that position yet where there's enough empathy with the journey that people who were enslaved have been through," says Cleo Lake, 38, an artist and activist whose father is from Jamaica. "I'm very angry at the fact that my taxes have gone towards lining the pockets of elite people, who still hold a lot of that wealth. I definitely believe in reparations."

Only in 2015 did Bristol taxpayers finish paying off the equivalent of $428 billion (in today's dollars) in loans the city took out in 1833 to compensate slave merchants for the loss of their trade, after slavery was outlawed.

Lake attended Colston's Girls' School and helped found the Countering Colston group. Her next target is the giant Colston statue towering over a city square, off Colston Avenue. She wants it removed.

Bristol "has given the statue of Colston a pride of place, and this doesn't sit right with me anymore," she says.

The city recently announced plans to install a new plaque on the statue, to explain Colston's links to the slave trade. But it says the statue will remain where it is.

After Colston Hall announced its plans for a name change, Colston's Primary School followed suit, saying it will change its name ahead of the start of the next school year in September.

But Colston's Girls School has refused to change its name.

Bristol's Old Vic Theater, founded 250 years ago by local slave merchants, has launched a "year of change" in its programming, to ensure black playwrights are represented in its repertoire, says chief executive Emma Stenning.

She sees a link between what's happening in Bristol and the United States.

"You see many cities and many communities asking themselves, 'What are the things we choose to commemorate? What's missing from the history that we are telling?'" Stenning says. "That is definitely in the air."

In St. Paul's, a traditionally Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, artist Michele Curtis is taking matters into her own hands. She's been painting murals on city walls to honor the black citizens of Bristol. She'd like to see the city rename some of its landmarks.

"All the streets are named after slave merchants. But you don't really see that for black people that have contributed," Curtis says. "Of course, it's just the name of a building. It's not really that important. But it would be a nice gesture."

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