The Edward Colston nameplates, statue, tower, music hall, plaques, stained glass windows, societies & dominoes may be toppling, but one myth remains – that Colston gave all his wealth to charity. That myth continues to be perpetuated by some of his few living supporters as pretty much the only reason why he wasn’t such a nasty, slave-trading, money-making, exploiting, bigoted Tory MP after all. And it’s bollox.
In an article on the BBCBristol page yesterday headed – Edward Colston: Bristol tower renamed by ‘end of the year’ – their unnamed journalist ends with this lie:
On his death in 1721, Colston bequeathed his wealth to charities in the city. As a result, many of the city’s street names and landmarks bear his name.
Or to put it another way – all the wealth/assets in his Will went to Bristol charities? Not even close to the truth! Now we’re not suggesting the BBC journalist deliberately lied, they were probably just ignorant of the truth. This short slice of history might help them out. We wonder if the Bristol History Commission will publish the truth one day too?
In fact total amount left to Bristol charities in his Will appears to be as low as 2.5%. In the book (BRHG 2020), Appendix 3, pages 300/1, is a clear breakdown of Colston’s Charitable Donations throughout his life, and in his Will. The totals include (based on 1721 figures):
Total amount left to Bristol in Will: £2,440
Total amount left to London in Will: £3,000
Total amount donated in Will: £13,145 (so circa £7,700 donated elsewhere around England)
Total amount donated during lifetime: £83,800
Which begs the big question of course: What was the full wealth left in his Will to be distributed? The answer is that there was believed to be circa £100,000 in the Will….of which just over £2,400 or 2.5% went to Bristol.
Well worth a read in is the chapter ‘The Cult of Colston‘, pages 238-254, which discuss at length details of his legacies. It includes this quote:
Arguably the greatest Bristol philanthropist of all was Quaker industrialist Richard Reynolds, who died in 1816: he gave away in excess of £200,000 in his lifetime, and is not remembered at all in his native city. (AltBristol note – we’d never even heard of him!).
Of course those figures may seem small to many rich people today, although not to us! So one of the many historians involved in researching the book kindly gave us some comparison figures:
According to our reading of the Will (dated 1720) and other sources – he left £2,440 to Bristol (equivalent to £5.8 million by GDP per capita conversion in 2019), out of a total of £13,145 in donations upon his death (equiv to £31.5 million). It is estimated he left the vast majority of his fortune around £100,000 (equiv to £240 million) to his relatives.
Don’t believe it? You can read here a full transcription of Colston’s Will – good luck! It’s over 14,000 words long and written in fairly olde English. Unsurprisingly, the Society of Merchant Venturers gets a lot of mentions!
So what about – ‘The Colston ‘corrective’ plaque that never was fitted…’ you may ask? Well even the corrective plaque (see image) was a part of the struggle to perpetuate the myth of Colston. What you see in that image was was the final outcome of a project to ‘correct’ the publicly acknowledged info about Colston, to be fitted on the plinth of his now non-existent statue. The wording there is what was left of the original draft wording, after it had been sanitised by his supporters at the Society of Merchant Venturers (they actually apologised for that…after Colston was chucked in the harbour!). The corrective plaque with the wording in the image was actually binned at the very last minute on the orders of Mayor Rees, after his advisers, well, advised him, that if that went up he’d be supporting a lie. Bad PR! But that plaque was actually made – wonder what Bristol Council have done with it eh…paid for by our money? Read the whole sordid story of the corrective plaque here.
We’ll leave you with the original wording of the corrective plaque in June 2018, you can play spot the difference (footnotes in the text do work for further reading):
From 1680-1692, Bristol-born merchant, Edward Colston was a high official of the Royal African Company which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698. Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. He also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. Much of his fortune was made from slavery and as Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ’right’ to trade in enslaved Africans.
Local people who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.
(image credits – all images courtesy of the BRHG website. Thanks).