Edward Colston, 2 Nov 1636 – 11 Oct 1721. Edward was born on 2 November 1636 in Church Street, Bristol, the youngest of at least 15 children. His parents were William Colston, a prosperous merchant who was High Sheriff of Bristol in 1643, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Edward Batten. He was brought up in Bristol until the time of the English Civil War, when he probably lived for a while on his father’s estate in Winterbourne, just north of the city. The family then moved to London where Edward was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital school.
He was an apprentice at the Mercers Company for eight years and by 1672 was shipping goods from London. He built up a lucrative business, trading cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa.
In 1680, Colston would became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the west coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1662. Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became Deputy Governor, the Company’s most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692 though. This company had been set up by King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, together with City of London merchants, and it had many notable investors, including John Locke, English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and known as a “Father of Liberalism”, and the diarist Samuel Pepys.
During the time of Colston’s involvement with the Royal African company (1680 to 1692), it is estimated that the company transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on their journey to the Caribbean and the Americas. The slaves were sold to planters for cheap labour on their sugar & tobacco plantations who considered Africans would be more suited to the conditions than their own countrymen, as the climate resembled the climate of their homeland in West Africa.
Colston’s parents had resettled in Bristol and in 1682 he made a loan to the Bristol Corporation, the following year becoming a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers and a burgess of the City. In 1684 he inherited his brother’s mercantile business in Small Street, and was a partner in a sugar refinery in St Peter’s Churchyard, shipping sugar produced by slaves from St Kitts. However, Colston was never resident in Bristol as an adult, carrying on his London business from Mortlake in Surrey until he retired in 1708.
The proportion of his wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture unless further evidence is unearthed. As well as this income, he made money from his trade in the normal commodities mentioned above, interest from money lending, and, most likely, from other careful financial dealings.
He supported and endowed schools, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day.
In Bristol, he founded almshouses in King Street and on St Michael’s Hill, endowed Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school and helped found Colston’s Hospital, a boarding school which opened in 1710 leaving an endowment to be managed by the Society of Merchant Venturers for its upkeep. He gave money to schools in Temple (one of which went on to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School) and other parts of Bristol, and to several churches and the cathedral. He was a strong Tory and high-churchman, and was returned as Member of Parliament for Bristol in 1710 for just one parliament.
He died, at the age of 84, on 11 October 1721 at his home, Cromwell House (demolished 1857), in Mortlake. In his will he wished to be buried simply without pomp, but this instruction was ignored. His body was carried back to Bristol and was buried at All Saints’ Church. His monument was designed by James Gibbs with an effigy carved by John Michael Rysbrack.
Modern reappraisal – 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. The statue of Edward Colston formerly in The Centre, Bristol, toppled on 7th June 2020, by protesters during the worldwide protests against racism organised by the group Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA.