I have a Google alert set up for my last name. I seldom see alerts, either because there are not a lot of Colstons around, or because they are not doing anything newsworthy. The last big flurry of alerts led me to follow the football career of Marquis Colston (maybe a relative)?
Last year I started to see alerts for “Countering Colston.” It’s a nonprofit organization in England, dedicated to decolonizing the city of Bristol, and specifically campaigning against the celebration of Edward Colston (definitely a relative). My dad, who died when I was eight, told me stories about the amazing Edward Colston, and all the wonderful things he did to benefit the people of Bristol.
Edward Colston was born to a prosperous Bristol merchant family in 1636. He apprenticed in trade, eventually becoming a governing member of Royal African Company. I bet you can guess where this is going… Edward Colston was in the triangle trade, transporting manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to America, and commodities like sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Europe.
Colston was a philanthropist, endowing schools, churches and charities, some of which are still in operation today. His statue stands in the center of town. Schools, landmarks, and streets are named after him. There is even a Colston bun which is served on Colston day.
All that is starting to change. Bristol is taking another look at the role that the port city played in the slave trade. They no longer celebrate Colston’s birthday. Colston Primary School is now Cotham Gardens Primary, Colston Yard Pub is now Bristol Yard Pub, Next year Colston Hall, a major music venue will reopen with a new name, maybe that of a corporate sponsor. Colston Street, Colston Road, Colston Avenue, may all be renamed.
The statue remains a major issue for the city. Banksy is rumored to have painted blood drops on it, and in May a red ball and chain were attached to Colston’s leg. Last fall, to commemorate anti-slavery day, it was the focus of an unofficial art exhibit where 100 shrouded human figures were laid around it in the shape of a ship.
I thought about shutting down the “Countering Colston” alerts, but I decided to keep them as a reminder that context matters. It may be expedient to see historical figures as bad or good, but we need to consider history to understand them more fully.