After 150 years, Bristol’s prime music venue is to finally change its name and thereby cut its link to the infamous slave trader Edward Colston. The charity that runs Colston Hall – Bristol Music Trust – announced this week that it would think up a new name before the venue reopens in 2020.
Perhaps the trust was influenced by a decision made earlier this week in New Orleans. In the dead of night, that city removed four memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians. If a city on the banks of the Mississippi, which was once home to the largest slave market in America, can today recognise the toxicity of slavery, Bristol’s continuing memorialisation of a slave trader would appear even more difficult to defend.
However, the trustees will now be braced for a wave of red-faced vitriol, as there are those in the city who are angry at the decision. They will be accused of seeking to erase the city’s past. There’s even talk of a boycott.
If it had been named after a merchant from any other trade, the renaming would have been an uncontroversial affair
The perverse reality is that if Colston Hall had been named after a merchant from any other trade, the renaming would have been a mundane and uncontroversial affair. But the defence of Edward Colston has become a proxy battle: for a defence of a form of history in which uncomfortable facts can be airbrushed, and the views and histories of other peoples are dismissed as irrelevant, or as pandering to “political correctness”.
This is despite the fact that there have long been people in Bristol who believed the city needed to confront the truth about Colston. The first proper biography of the man, which explored his role in the slave trade, was written in the 1920s by HJ Wilkins, a local vicar and part-time historian – hardly an archetypal, PC culture warrior.
When campaigners first called for Colston’s actions to be acknowledged, the common response was to accuse them of “dredging up the past” and making Bristolians feel guilty about their forefathers. When that line of attack ran out of steam, the current “erasing history” trope was adopted. This argument in fact requires an Orwellian feat of double-think, because those accused of erasing history are the very people who have done the most to expand what we know about Colston.
Today he has higher name recognition than perhaps at any time since the 18th century. Colston was, in fact, never forgotten, and his name will always be associated with Bristol – affixed, as it is, to other buildings and institutions across the city. And the slaves he traded are the real victims of historical erasure. If you’re looking for a masterclass in the whitewashing of the past, here’s where to find it.
Ultimately, the naming of buildings is not a mechanism by which history is kept alive. It is a mechanism by which the rich and the powerful are honoured. Sadly, Colston Hall was named in honour of a dishonourable man.
There’s another fact that’s been forgotten. Colston Hall was not named during the slave trader’s lifetime. Although he was determined to be remembered, much of his memorialisation was the work of later generations of Bristol city fathers. Colston died in 1721. The hall was given its toxic name in 1867. The portrait of Colston, today hidden away in deep storage in a Bristol museum, was not painted until 1844. The statue of him that still stands in the centre of Bristol was erected in 1895. Colston was being honoured throughout the age in which Britain regarded itself as the “moral leader of the world” for having ended slavery. During that time, the good burghers of Bristol were happy to use Colston’s philanthropy to whitewash his and his city’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. It was they who kept the cult of Colston alive, and they who kindled a distorted history that celebrated his charity while utterly erasing slavery.
The memory of Colston has become the front line in a battle for Bristol’s historical soul. This week those lines shifted seismically. That anyone would propose a boycott of a music hall unless it is named after a slave trader shows just how warped his story has become.
The question facing Bristol now is this: is the city willing to fully confront the darkest chapter of its past, or are there those determined to enter into a fourth century of denial?