When someone is ripped down from a pedestal they have occupied for 125 years and dumped in the murky waters of the port that contributed to their fortune, it does make you curious?
So who was Edward Colston (1636-1720) the man who was consigned to the vasty deep over the weekend by a group of his sternest critics?
To put it mildly, he was well connected. He made his fortune with a company headed up by the brother of King Charles II who would, himself, go on to become the much unloved King James II. But not for long (the King bit, that is—the lack of love was more permanent). James was better known among his regularly disappointed Irish supporters as ‘Séamus an chaca’ (translated: ‘Jimmy the shit – or more accurately ‘Seámus who shits himself’). However, just to demonstrate that ‘business is business’ and outweighed any putative political loyalties, Colston sold his shares in the company to Séamus’s usurper, William of Orange, better known to his enthusiastic latter-day Irish supporters as King Billy.
The company in question was the cuddly RAC – not to be confused with the Royal Automobile Club. ‘RAC’ stood for Royal African Company, and for the practice of abducting men, women and children from Africa, transporting them to North America, and selling on the ones who survived the journey. (Let’s not characterise it as ‘those fortunate enough to survive the journey’ in this instance). The Royal African Company was in the same fine old English tradition as that much-beloved corporate entity the East India Company, fondly remembered in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as a ruthless and covetous mob of professional plunderers and murderers. Interestingly the word ‘loot’, also in the news last week, is derived from Hindi. It was used by those who spoke the language to describe the experience of being governed by the East India company, and was brought from the ‘sub-continent’ to England along with all the gold, silver, jewels and spices that underwrote so many aristocratic fortunes across the Irish Sea (and quite a few in our own sainted land as well).
The RAC guarded its ‘property’ jealously, so much so that it took to branding that property prior to its luxury cruise across the Atlantic. This exercise in copyrighting did not involve merely painting a ‘swoosh’ on the bottom right hand corner of a torso. Instead a red hot branding iron was used on the skin of these newly acquired items of property. Even though Mr. Colston obviously can’t swim, when you discover how he accrued his fortune it seems a shame that the protesters contrived to dump his statue somewhere from which it can potentially be recovered and restored to its original pedestal.
After selling out to King Billy, Edward Colston took some time out to smell the roses – hopefully the fragrance was sufficient to mask the stench of burning flesh. He also began a glorious exercise in whitewashing by changing the wording on his business cards from ‘slave trader’ to ‘do-gooder’. Colston endowed everything in sight, becoming an early eighteenth century equivalent of arch-capitalist Andrew Carnegie, who forced libraries on towns and cities whether they wanted them or not. No school or hospital in his native Bristol was safe from Colston’s generosity, as long as it was named after him.
One other thing – the statue now the source of some very interesting selfies, mostly by people whom Colston would have been happy to enslave, was (the base still is) located on ‘Colston Avenue’. The Bristol city fathers and mothers might want to think about changing the name. Maybe take a leaf from the book of the Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, who, last week, renamed a street near the Trumpist White House as ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. Not sure what you do with Colston Hall, Colston Tower or Colston Street though.
However, if we in Ireland applaud the actions of the Bristol anti-Colstonites, do we need to be consistent? What about the most prominent journalistic apologist for the Confederacy during the US Civil War, our very own John Mitchel—firmly ensconced in the Deep South after his Young Ireland escapades, his transportation to Australia, and his daring escape. Mitchel, subject of much hagiographical coverage—some of it auto-hagiographical—once claimed that the Irish peasantry were worse off than black slaves in the southern states. While mid-19th century Irish tenant farmers, cottiers and farm labourers were hardly comfortable (a million of them died of starvation and disease between 1845-50 and another million were forced to emigrate) at least their landlords couldn’t whip them and sell their children down the river. Despite his steadfast defence of the institution of slavery—which helped earn him a sojourn in a post-war Union jail (he opted not to describe the experience in Jail Journal II) there’s a fine statue of Mitchel in his native Newry in County Down.
Lest I be accused of an exercise in ‘backwards history’ and it be suggested that Mitchel was merely expressing commonly held beliefs amongst the Irish of his generation, one of the many men with whom he fell out, Daniel O’Connell, steadfastly refused to even visit the USA while the practice of slavery continued, and was revered by American abolitionists (men like Frederick Douglass) for the stance he took on the issue.
Granted John Mitchel does not occupy a position of prominence on the Newry skyline for his advocacy of slavery—it was Jail Journal, his polemical The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) and his many services to Irish nationalism that earned him a shot at the pedestal. But then that didn’t save Colston, who wasn’t exactly beautifying the city of Bristol because of his service to the slave trade.
I’m not advocating that the statue of John Mitchel be torn down and tossed in the Clanrye River. But we’re good at health warnings in Ireland, so maybe one or two of Mitchel’s less salubrious quotes might be added to a blue plaque to be placed prominently nearby – statements like … ‘We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction.’ Or this … ‘[I am] proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes.’
Getting back to Colston though, it has to be said it’s appropriate for someone who made a lot of money from transporting human beings against their will in seagoing (but not necessarily seaworthy) vessels that he should himself have recently been reburied at sea.