Tag Archives Royal African Company

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.

 

 

 

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