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May 2nd, 2017

Why Bristol Is Bristling

I’ve mentioned before that I have a soft spot for Bristol, where I had my first job as a journalist. It’s been much in the news of late, because of a row over the 17th-century philanthropist and entrepreneur Edward Colston, who is honoured by an imposing statue in the city centre. The problem is that in addition to all his charitable works, Colston was heavily involved in the slave trade. Slaves and sherry are reputed to be the two commodities on which the wealth of Bristol was founded.

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             Edward Colston

Today everyone without exception knows that slavery is utterly evil. But that has not always been the case. If you read St Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, you’ll see it’s an appeal to an early Christian slave owner to take back a runaway slave whom St Paul had persuaded to return to his master. In the British empire it was only in the late 18th century that people began to appreciate how appalling the slave trade actually was. In the case of Spain, this happened much earlier: in the 16th century Friar Bartolomé de las Casas OP, originally a slave owner himself, was hated by many colonists in South America because of  his powerful denunciations of the trade.

The pressure for the removal of Colston’s statue, and the renaming of other Institutions in the city including the Colston Hall, comes mainly but not exclusively from PC agitators of the kind who  demanded (unsuccessfully so far) that the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes should be taken down from the front of Oriel College in Oxford.  There are two main questions that immediately arise in such cases: how far back in history should one go; and should this cleansing apply to misdeeds condemned as such by most right-thinking people at the time they were committed, or should it apply as well to actions that we would condemn today?  There is no reason to think that Colston was living with a bad conscience: hard-headed businessman as he was (like many wealthy Bristolians), he doesn’t appear to have been hard-hearted as well, though he can’t have had much imagination. It’s doubtful if he ever gave a thought to the possibility that the slave trade should be condemned.

My first editor Eric Price increased the circulation of the Western Daily Press from 12,000 to around 80,000 in less than 10 years, at a time of general contraction in the newspaper industry.  I wonder what he would have thought of this dispute.  I suspect he would have written a series of angry editorials on the theme “Hands Off Edward Colston, Bristol’s Greatest Benefactor!”, thereby increasing the paper’s circulation by another 1,000 or so.

My own view is that anachronistic campaigns such as those against the likes of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes have rightly been denounced  as “virtue signalling”, by people with too much time on their hands. “Look at me, I’m such a caring person!”

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