Next month, as they have done for more than a century, the pupils of Colston’s Girls’ School will troop into Bristol cathedral for a special service in honour of the man who gave their school its name. There’s just a little snag: Edward Colston (1636-1721) will not be named, not even once, because of a heated controversy over his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It will be a commemoration service for… well, it’s not entirely clear.
A letter from the headmaster John Whitehead – curiously, signed by his PA – explains:
After consultation with students from all year groups we have decided to remove all reference to Edward Colston from the service and we will no longer be asking the students to wear a chrysanthemum in his memory.
The focus of the service will be on the values of CGS throughout its existence and a clear acknowledgement of the damage done by slavery in the past and the present
What’s interesting, I think, is the lack of responsibility here – as if this was not the headmaster’s decision. It was effectively left to the pupils, aged 11 to 18, to decide. The aim, the letter explained, is to make the service ‘more inclusive and relevant to the students’. At least the Harry Potter fans among them will understand the concept of he-who-must-not-be-named.
The truth is I have some sympathy with the Corbynista protesters who think that Edward Colston has been treated too kindly by Bristol, as I wrote in the Spectator earlier this year. Certainly, those protesters shouldn’t be vandalising Colston’s statue, or trying to have it torn down. But there has been a bit of historical whitewashing over the decades – notably during the late Victorian period, long after the slave trade had been abolished in the British Empire – which has left statues, roads, schools and buildings commemorating Colston littered about the city.
Those who claim ‘we can’t rewrite history’, or change this fact, are talking nonsense. That’s what good historians do: they examine and re-interpret existing evidence about historical events, refining our collective knowledge of them. So it does seem a bit weird to me to pretend, as the Bishop of Bristol did a few years ago, that there is ‘speculation’ about how Colston got so rich. We know that he made lots of his money from the Royal African Company, during a period when it transported tens of thousands of slaves across the Atlantic. And despite all of Colston’s good deeds at home – the donations to charity, schools and almshouses notably – it seems strange to treat him as the archetypal Good Samaritan without at least acknowledging that he was responsible for so much horror and so many deaths abroad (including those of an estimated 2,500 children).
The chronology is important here. The statues etc weren’t put up by Colston’s contemporaries, but by their Victorian descendants 150 years after his death, no doubt in attempt to distract from Bristol’s role as a slave-trading hub. Why can’t we correct that Victorian sleight of hand? Would we leave Shakespeare bowdlerised?
The answer, surely is to be grown-up and talk – including at this commemoration service – about Colston’s whole life as an example of Bristol’s complicated history. His good deeds and his bad deeds – though without falling into the trap of judging him by 21st century standards. It’s not as if Colston would have recognised the phrase ‘human rights abuse’. But that doesn’t make him a saint.