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THE COLSTON BUN

‘And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.’ DEUTERONOMY 12.3

‘Black deaths do not have a good press, especially when they occur in the custody of our custodians. The media leads the public to believe that our guardians can do no wrong. Racism leads them to believe that blacks can do no right. The silence of the custodial system is compounded by the silences of racism.’ DEADLY SILENCE: BLACK DEATHS IN CUSTODY, Institute of Race Relations, London, 1991

 

Anger, one Sunday in June, overcame

decorum in that diverse city,

and – no doubt, inspired by the toppling

of other graven tyrants – righteously

pulled down the effigy, with a thump of stone

and a hollow gong of metal, and tossed it

from the quay into the harbour waters.

***

The Royal African Company received

its charter from Charles II and James,

his brother, hence the US east coast seaports

Jamestown and Charleston. It was established

by the restored royals to provide them,

free of interference from the Commons,

with their own spending money. Board members

included the philosopher, John Locke.

The company’s profits came mostly

from enslaving West African men, women

and children, and transporting them across

the North Atlantic’s turbulence. More than

two hundred thousand were taken, and nearly

fifty thousand died on the journey,

the firm’s double entry bookkeeping shows.

 

One prominent member of the board

was Edward Colston, a Bristol merchant,

the city from whose harbour the slavers sailed,

and which, in due course, would make chocolates

and cigarettes. His philanthropy

inveigled the streets like a bad conscience,

almost a rebuke of victimhood:

his name on a hospital, a school,

a bun flavoured with dried currants and allspice

topped with sugar, given to the poor yearly

and still made for sale by local bakeries –

and himself looking thoughtful in bronze

with a periwig and a walking stick.

 

Apologists who claim he was merely

of his time, an accidental racist,

and collateral ethical damage,

like Henry Wills and Elizabeth Fry,

should remember John Locke, his damascene

moment unrecorded, who threw his shares

into the fire. ‘Slavery is so vile and

miserable an estate of man …that ’tis

hardly to be conceived’. That June Sunday

civic anger overcame decorum.

 

 

Note: The above is a revised version of the piece originally published on 25.6.20. The revisions are the result of e discussions with a regular reader, Elise Oliver – please see Comments.

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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4 Responses
  • Keith Johnson
    June 26, 2020

    What a magnificent sequence of poems, David – thank you so much!

  • Elise Oliver
    June 29, 2020

    Genuine question, David: if the RAC was a monopoly responsible for the transportation of 80,000 slaves and for 20,000 deaths, who or what was responsible for transporting the remaining estimated 12million+ slaves (or ‘parcels’, as they were known for insurance purposes) and 2million deaths between 16C & 19C, if one excludes the French, Dutch and Portuguese, who were relatively minor culprits? Email me if you’d prefer – I suspect there’s a long answer. It is difficult to comprehend that great fortunes were amassed among the RAC board members from such low numbers but, to quote Balzac, “Le secret des grandes fortunes, sans cause apparente, est un crime oublié”. Hopefully, no longer forgotten.

  • David Selzer
    June 30, 2020

    And a good question, Elise. The RAC’s West African monopoly included diamonds, gold and silver as well as people – and the monopoly ended in 1698.

    Between 1501 and 1866 the Portuguese transported an estimated 5 million people to Brazil mostly from what is now Angola.

    British slavers sailed primarily from Bristol, Liverpool, and London – but also from other ports, like Glasgow and Chester. Once the Portuguese had been sent south – Lagos was named for a city in the Algarve – the British (and the Americans) had people to enslave from the Gambia to Nigeria.

    The Triangular Trade was a masterpiece of capitalist enterprise – a charter for chancers, in effect. Goods bought in Britain from the burgeoning manufacturing industries were used to pay for slaves to be shipped to the Americas. Cotton and molasses were shipped from the Americas to Britain. The same ship could used for the three lengths of the triangle.

    And a splendid quotation. Thank you.

  • John Huddart
    July 10, 2020

    I was temporarily puzzled by the RAC and its involvement, and nearly changed my breakdown service – but a re-reading confirmed the crassness of my error.

    The commentary on the slave trade triangle that you supplied, which was in every history curriculum when I was a boy, is illuminating – and highlights what has to be the inevitable conclusion – that the industrial revolution was founded on cotton, and the wealth created by its production is the cornerstone to our current prosperity as an industrial nation.

    There is no way to remove this from our national DNA.

    Likewise that slavery was practised by most societies, and still is by many. Now does not seem to be the time to discuss the UK’s founding role in its abolition, and no doubt this came from the growing revulsion from men like Locke.

    And can I add my belated congratulations on such a remarkable collection of poems this month.

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