Group named after slave trader Edward Colston disbanded after 275 years

Composition of photograph of Edward Colston's statue and the Colston society
Of the members who responded to the survey 59% voted to disband the society

A fundraising society named after slave trader Edward Colston has been disbanded by its own members after 275 years.

People who were part of the Colston Society in Bristol voted to break up the organisation completely rather than simply change its name following public outcry amid Black Lives Matter protests.

The society ran a survey in July and August after protesters toppled a statue of the slave trader at Bristol harbour which led to buildings, schools and organisations in the city re-examining their association with Colston. 

The survey asked its members to choose between continuing as they have under Colston’s name, continuing their work but choosing a different name or disbanding the society altogether. 

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A total of 105 out of 140 members responded, with 62 voting to disband and 49 voting to choose a different name. The organisation, which is a registered charity, was set up by wealthy merchants and slave traders after Colston’s death in 1721. 

The Colston Society then acted as an umbrella organisation for Anchor, Grateful and Dolphin which all facilitated philanthropy among Bristol’s most wealthy, many of who were also members of the Society of Merchant Ventures. 

The Society of Merchant Ventures mainly runs schools and nursing homes all over Bristol with members who are mostly millionaires and billionaires while the smaller societies would commemorate Colston at fundraising dinners and church services to distribute whatever money was raised. 

Photograph of the Colston society
Members of the Colston Society walk down the street in Bristol
Photograph of BLM protestors toppling Edward Colston's statue into the river
Black Lives Matter protestors toppled Edward Colston’s statue and there it in the river in June this year (Picture: Gettty Images)

During the past five years it has raised about £20,000 for charity a year with a total of £60,000 raised in 2018.

But groups as well as monuments associated with colonialism and the slave trade across the UK have faced renewed calls to be removed in the wake of BLM and anti-racism campaigns.

Trustee Nigel Sommerville confirmed the results of the survey to members informing them the society would disband on December 31 this year. 

He wrote: ‘There was an excellent response to the questionnaire sent out in late July, with 105 members (representing 76% of the total membership) replying.

‘Of these a clear majority indicated that they thought the Society should be wound up.

‘In accordance with the wishes of this majority, the Committee has resolved to wind the Society up with effect from 31 December 2020 and that the Society’s remaining funds should be given to Redcliffe Childrens Centre, to be used in the renovation of its outdoor activity area.’

Photograph of Edward Colston's statue
Edward Colston was part of the Royal African Company that sold over 80,000 people in slavery (Picture: SWNS)

He added: ‘A significant minority, 49 members, indicated in their responses to the questionnaire that they would wish to remain members of a renamed society, perhaps named The Redcliffe Society, to carry on raising money to support the disadvantaged of Redcliffe.

‘Those members who wish to support a continuation of the work the Society has done in Redcliffe are encouraged to contact Alastair McArthur who has agreed to work to establish such a new society.’

Campaign group Countering Colston, which was set up in 2015 to challenge what it said was the long-standing ‘cult of Colston’ in Bristol, said it was ‘glad’ the Colston Society was to disband.

Who was Edward Colston?

Colston was deputy governor of the Royal African Company a trading company that had a monopoly on the slave trade.

During his time there, as deputy governor and in other roles, the company saw over 80,000 black men, women and children from Africa sold into slavery into the US.

He was born in Bristol but moved to London to work as a merchant and eventually became a Tory member of parliament.

When he died in 1721 he bequeathed his wealth to charities spurring numerous streets, buildings, organisations, and more to commemorate him in different ways including using his name.

People raising issues with the blind commemmoration of a slave trader dates back to the 1920s but it came to head in 1999 when someone scrawled ‘slave trader’ on his statue, in 2015 when Countering Colston was founded and in 2020 when the statue was toppled during Black Lives Matter protests.

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Bristol – Metro