Edward Colston was born in Bristol in 1636, into a wealthy family of merchants who were involved with the Bristol Merchant Adventurers Society.
As a young man he moved to London, where he may have been educated at the Hospital of Christ. As an adult, he followed his family into the business, initially marketing products such as cloth, oil, wine, and fruit in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and North Africa.
In his mid-40s, Colston became prominently involved in Britain’s only official slavery company at the time, the Royal African Company (RAC). Colston served the company for a dozen years (1680-1692) as a leading investor, manager, and lieutenant governor. During this time, 84,500 enslaved Africans were transported on RAC ships, with 23% dying before reaching the coast (19,300). This included women and children up to six years old: each enslaved person was marked with the company’s initials on their chest.
To maximize profits, the hulls of the ships were divided into holds with little headroom, so that they could transport as many enslaved people as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, and scurvy killed nearly 20,000 enslaved Africans during the crossings. Their bodies were thrown overboard. 12,209 of the captives were children 10 years of age or younger. 1 in 4 children died on the way. Archival research conducted by the Rev. Wilkins in the 1920s showed that Colston actively served on all of the major RAC management committees. He left the company just before its gradual financial decline.
Contrary to popular belief, this was not the end of Colston’s involvement in slavery. As a deputy in his 70s, Colston petitioned Parliament for the expansion of the “slave trade,” and in later years Colston became a commissioner and major investor in the South Seas Company (SSC). It is estimated that he was involved in the SSC from around 1714-1720. During this time, the SSC transported 15,931 Africans, with nearly 1 in 5 dying on the way (about 2,980).
How about your philanthropy?
Colston gave an exceptionally large amount of money to charities both locally and nationally. After having donated a lot during his life, at his death he bequeathed around £ 71,000 to charity, a huge sum at the time, and almost as much as the £ 100,000 he left for his family. Colston was a devout High Anglican and a realist, and was particularly concerned with the rise of religious dissent, like the Quakers. He directed much of his wealth to promoting a specific style of religious education and opposing dissenting religions, including the extensive donation to Bristol churches, founded charities, donated money to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital School, and founded a school. religious for 100 children. After his death, a series of “Colston Societies” emerged to continue giving charity in what they saw as the Colston tradition.
We do not deny that Colston gave an exceptional amount to charity. However, Colston’s charity has historically been held without criticism. This does not fit in with the ideal of remembering the story “in the round.” Presenting Colston as a philanthropist is deeply disrespectful to the tens of thousands of people whose slavery he helped finance and organize.