The life of Edward Colston, the former favorite philanthropist of Bristol turned profiteering villain, has been written about a lot since he was dethroned from his plinth and hauled into the city’s harbour in early June of 2020. But beyond his associations with the slave trade, the surrounding politics and ideas of Colston’s time that allow us to see how such an amoral business became so profitable have escaped further examination. By looking into the seventeenth century of Edward Colston, can we say much has really changed?
Edward Colston was born on 2 November 1636 in the City of Bristol, England. At the time, Bristol was the second richest city in the country after London, largely owing to its large port and warehouses. Edwards’ father, William Colston, was a staunch Royalist and already a well-established member of the Bristol gentry as the Colston family had been since the 13th century, making their money in the import/export market of Bristol. By 1644, while the first Civil War of three was raging across England, the Colston Patriarch became the Master of Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers – a hugely influential group in the city that still exists today – as well as being the alderman and Sheriff for Bristol. However these last two positions of power could not be fully consolidated for as the war drew closer, the City of Bristol fell to Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces in September of 1645. The King’s own nephew, Prince Rupert, surrendered the City of Bristol and all supporters of the King were forced to flee to Royalist strongholds like London.
Most of us know about the English Civil War and that it played an important role in Britain becoming the “Great” nation it was to become. At school we’re taught that in 1649 the useless King Charles I was overthrown, and in a national first, beheaded by an angry Parliament made up of the layman who’d had enough of the Crown’s unfair taxation and the stifling Catholicism that came with Stuart rule. It was an important moment for the British Public, with more power being given to them through parliament, as power was stripped from the monarchs and a Common-wealth was established. Many historians maintain that the Civil War was a class war between the elite royalists and the common parliamentarians but a closer look shows that this black and white picture doesn’t give us all the tones, as is so often the case. Many of the land-owning aristocrats supported parliament and many downtrodden peasants chose to fight for the king. So what was it really all about?
To get a better perspective of the lead up to war, let us go back all the way towards the beginning of the century to 1618, ten years after the birth of Edward’s father. This was a time of the Royal Empire, when most of Britain’s global revenue flowed through the crown and any shares were held by invitation only. King James I, father of Charles I, had just issued a royal charter for trade in West Africa. The Dutch and Portuguese had been in West Africa for some time, the latter enslaving and shipping black Africans to plantations across the Atlantic. While some periphery traders were doing the same, the new British company consisting of merchants loyal to the crown mainly supplied weapons and textiles to the tribesmen of the continent in return for valuable minerals. Much of the gold used in minting Britain’s sovereign coins came from these trade routes, with their name coming from the Asante country of Guinea, now part of Ghana, where much of this gold was sourced. The ‘Guinea Companie’ as it became known held a monopoly on trade with West Africa for a number of years, but it fell short of it’s 31 year grant. By the early stages of the trade parliament already saw the company as a way for royalists to get rich at the expense of private merchants, who were heavily taxed for their involvement or excluded from the trade altogether.
After seeing the restlessness of parliament, in 1631 the rights to trade with West Africa were sold to the ‘Company of Merchants Trading with Guinea’. While looking different on paper, this new company was made up of many of the same faces and the same pockets that profited from the previous ‘Royal’ company – including the lead organiser and profiteer of The Guinea Companie, Nicholas Crispe – and was just a method of placating any ruffled parliamentarians. This new charter was again for 31 years and kept the direct trade routes and their profits in the hands of a select few. By this point, even some royalists were becoming tired of the rules and restrictions imposed by the crown, which took vast swathes of income from merchants trading with her colonies in the form of taxes. Some scheming merchants began devising ways in which the riches of Britain’s Colonies could be opened up to any interested merchants, not just those with royal connections.
While direct trade with West Africa remained more-or-less a members-only club for Englishmen, this period saw increased industry around the English trading ports like Bristol and Liverpool as industrialists strove to manufacture the goods used for trade with Africa. These burgeoning industries included bead-making and brasswork, which Bristol had a major role in producing. Brass bracelets called ‘manillas’ were produced in large quantities so that they could be shipped to West Africa where they were highly prized for their copper content and used as currency. Glass beads were produced and used in Europe solely for the purpose of being used as currency on the African continent. Edward Colston’s brother Thomas would later make his fortune in the bead-business but that was to come at a much darker time in the nation’s trading history. The trade in human lives was always on the periphery of any company’s dealings with West Africa but it was not until after the Civil War that it became the true focus of British mercantile interest. At this time the Dutch were the main transporters of West African slaves and this would continue until a succession of restrictive Navigation Acts ousted them as the chief mercantile power of Europe. For now, in the early half of the 17th century, the trade was largely in weapons, commodities and luxury goods. From this great increase in industry came a great increase in wealth for merchants and industrialists and they looked for new horizons in which to invest their new fortunes. For those with the capital, there was a growing interest in new “joint stock companies”, such as the Muscovy Company, which offered bonds with sometimes large returns; an ancestor of the modern corporation. Supposedly anyone could buy shares and in these companies one simply put money on the table and entrusted others to do the work, reaping the spoils of successful trade voyages without ownership of the ship or the goods. The crown too offered bonds, but the monarchy was increasingly viewed with suspicion as they repeatedly defaulted on debts-owed despite demanding high taxes from it’s subjects.
It was into this climate of increasingly free-market thinking and royal-distrust that Edward Colston was brought into this world. His father, having been a well-connected royalist, was involved with the first chartered companies to West Africa and continued to be involved after relocating to London in 1645. However the return of Charles II to England in 1660 after the death of Oliver Cromwell meant a return to pre-Civil War royalism for many, as the Convention Parliament established by Cromwell was dissolved and royal control of finance returned. Colston patriarch William was able to return to Bristol where he took up his old position as Alderman, however Edward chose to stay in London, forging merchant links with ports from Tangiers to Rotterdam despite the many violent wars raging through Europe at the time. He also maintained close ties with his birth-city of Bristol, using it’s port and warehouses to store and transport textiles, wines and oils around Europe. His own very profitable trade in Spanish cloths and sherries saw him making Iberian connections that would prove useful later in his life and potentially paved the way for Bristol’s famous Harvey family to create their own sherry empire a century later.
Yet the return of a king regent was not the only thing to happen in 1660. After the surge in interest in both West African trade and joint stock companies, 1660 saw the creation of the Company of Royal Adventurers of Trading to Africa. A precursor to the formidable Royal Africa Company (RAC), the Company of Royal Adventurers was founded after Prince Rupert – who had surrendered the City of Bristol to Cromwell in 1645 and still has a street in the city named after him – led a very successful mission to the Gambia, returning with both gold, ivory and slaves in the late 1650’s. After some time seeking out financiers among City of London merchants and other royals, the Prince then approached the newly reinstated Charles II with his proposition for a new company trading to the Gambia. Not wanting to waste an opportunity to procure more wealth for the state, in particular the virgin gold mines of West Africa, the newly reinstated Stuart royal family granted a charter for the trade of gold and ivory from the Capo Blanco to the Cape of Good Hope. By ‘63 the charter had been updated to include slaves, unwittingly setting the tone for the coming centuries.