Countering Colston Statement on The Merchants Venturers – 29th June 2020

George Floyd’s brutal killing by law enforcement officers who ignored his repeated pleas ‘I can’t breathe’ has captured the public imagination around the world and brought to the fore the stifling of black lives, through structural inequalities and institutional racism. There has been an extraordinary level of empathy and outrage bringing out our young people out of lockdown, black and white marching together, supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement throughout this country and throughout the world.

Events observed in the media have highlighted who is most vulnerable, who is dying from coronavirus, and the fact that black and Asian people find themselves disproportionately the front-line workers and over-represented in death statistics. These black and Asian doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, shop workers, cleaners, and transport workers often  suffer from economic disadvantage, underlying health conditions/ health inequalities as well as racism.

In Bristol, the younger generation who marched on 7th June in support of BLM  identified the statue of Colston as a symbol of stifling oppression. It’s continued presence in our city centre as  an insult to the memory of African ancestors and their descendants. It ill affords them dignity nor is a unifier for a city divided by class and racial inequalities.  

After decades following ‘the proper channels’ including approaches to the Society of Merchant Venturers, who have repeated ignored requests from Countering Colston for meetings to talk about Colston memorialisation, the Colston statue was toppled during a Black Lives Matter march, rolled down the streets and dumped in the harbour by the younger generation of Bristolians.

We believe the people who removed the statue of Colston were enacting ‘the will of the people’. We fully support those brave individuals and thank them for taking action where campaigning via the ‘proper channels’ had been blocked. We also believe a prosecution would be a waste of public money. If a court case was brought, we would hope that the backstory of the Colston statue would be explored, including how Colston’s legacy is being maintained across Bristol.

The toppling of Colston is beginning to expose to all, at home and abroad, the whole Colston myth, the veneer behind the Colston facade, the Society of Merchant Venturers propping him up, supported by Bristol Cathedral and St Mary’s Redcliffe churches (who are now seeking to distance themselves), elected politicians of all colours and the University of Bristol. 

Edward Colston and his colleagues at The Society of Merchants Venturers were architects of UK’s slave trade, but the Merchants are not just a historical relic. They are an elite network who continue to run or be financially involved in a huge number of Bristol’s public services, schools and public spaces. 

If one scratches below the surface of this Society of Merchant Venturers charitable works, what emerges is a colonial history of mercantile exploitation of one’s fellow beings for personal gain, self interest, self preservation and patronage. With our current, supposedly democratic and public serving institutions asserting that through this patronage, opportunities are inevitably extended, this is only a few. This fails to understand and thus tackle the systemic structures of inequality that have persisted in Bristol over the centuries and up to the present day. This institutional deference serves to maintain the inequalities it proclaims to tackle. 

The 2017 Runnymede Trust report highlights the prevalence of inequalities in Bristol. Indeed, it is the worst city in the UK to grow up in disadvantaged and African heritage in terms of schooling outcomes and employment opportunities.

We believe The Merchant Venturers should be disbanded as it is inappropriate for an unelected, undemocratic body to be so heavily involved in Bristol’s public serving institutions. We do not believe that they have the expertise to serve our schools, children or young people well. The Society must be removed from local democratic decision making. The Merchants are highly unrepresentative, they bring a toxic, historic culture of racism and classism into our institutions. Now is the time to make real change happen in Bristol, now is the time to disband Colston’s elite business Guild. 

2 thoughts on “Countering Colston Statement on The Merchants Venturers – 29th June 2020

  1. I have lived in Bristol all my life and run a travel business located in the city centre. The Merchant Venturers influence is something that has always deeply troubled me. Secret clubs of this sort by their very nature seek to use money and access to power influence and affect decision making in a way that supports their agenda. As you state, they are unelected and unaccountable. Why should the Venturers have the ear of council and the mayor? What gives them this right? The simple answer is money and entrenched privilege.

    I would never say that they do no good in the city. But this is not the point. By their very existence they undermine efforts to promote opportunity and hold back the wider community. They help ensure that the powerful remain powerful and that it is their rules that you must play by in order to maximise your personal opportunity. If the Merchant Venturers do not wish something to happen in the city, they have the power to influence that. This is wrong. Similarly through access and closeness to the institutions of political power they are able to promote their agenda. It is insidious and undermines the democratic institutions of the city.

    The recent events in Bristol have been a learning opportunity for me. I didn’t really think about how the position and power of organisations like the Venturers is so deeply rooted in the wrongs of the past. I knew about it but I did not consider what that really means. Far from standing on shoulders of giants, they stand on the shoulders of slave traders, murderers and human rights abusers. It is impossible to ignore or escape this past and if we are to address the wrongs of history and the consequent issues that permeate through society today, we must disband such groups as the Merchant Venturers and establish new institutions built on foundations of democratic accountability and representation. Our city institutions should lift up and give voice to the powerless, not enhance and further entrench the position of the powerful.

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