Edward Colston (2 November 1636 – 11 October 1721) was an English merchant, Member of Parliament, and a great philanthropist, who supported and endowed numerous schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. His name is commemorated by several Bristol landmarks.
The source of his wealth is sometimes considered to be controversial as it was partly acquired through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, where large numbers of African slaves were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean.
However, systems of servitude and slavery were widespread in Africa even before historical records began, and still continue today in some African countries.
The demand for slaves created an entire series of African kingdoms (such as the Ashanti Empire) which existed in a state of perpetual warfare in order to generate the prisoners of war necessary for the lucrative export of slaves.
When the Arab slave trade (which started in the 7th century) and the trans-Atlantic slave trade (which started in the 16th century) began, many of the pre-existing local African slave systems began supplying captives for slave markets outside Africa - a practice which was viewed as an honourable business by the standards of the time.
Colston was apprenticed to the Mercers Company for eight years and by 1672 was shipping goods from London. He built up a lucrative business, trading cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Africa.
In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the West Coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1662.
Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became Deputy Governor, the Company's most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692.
This company had been set up by King Charles II and his brother James (later King James II, who was the Governor of the company), together with City of London merchants, and it had many notable investors, including John Locke, the English philosopher and physician, and the diarist Samuel Pepys.
Colston's parents had resettled in Bristol and in 1682 he made a loan to the Bristol Corporation, the following year becoming a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers and a burgess of the City.
In 1684 he inherited his brother's mercantile business in Small Street, and was a partner in a sugar refinery in St Peter's Churchyard, shipping sugar produced by slaves from St Kitts. However, Colston was never resident in Bristol as an adult, carrying on his London business from Mortlake in Surrey until he retired in 1708.
The proportion of his wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture unless further evidence is unearthed. As well as this income, he made money from his trade in the normal commodities mentioned above, interest from money lending, and, most likely, from other careful financial dealings.
Colston supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day.
In Bristol, he founded almshouses in King Street and Colston's Almshouses on St Michael's Hill, endowed Queen Elizabeth's Hospital school and helped found Colston's Hospital, a boarding school which opened in 1710 leaving an endowment to be managed by the Society of Merchant Venturers for its upkeep.
He gave money to schools in Temple (one of which went on to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School) and other parts of Bristol, and to several churches and the cathedral. He was a strong Tory and high-churchman, and was returned as Member of Parliament (MP) for Bristol in 1710 for just one parliament.
David Hughson writing in 1808 described Colston as "the great benefactor of the city of Bristol, who, in his lifetime, expended more than £10,000 in charitable institutions" (a sum which would be equivalent to several million pounds today.)
Despite attempts by 21st century 'social justice warriors' to besmirch his name, Edward Colston remains a great example of British philanthropy and as such is a significant part of our glorious British heritage.