Who was Colston?

Edward Colston was born in Bristol in 1636, to a wealthy merchant family who were involved with Bristol’s Merchant Venturers Society. As a young boy he moved to London, where he may have been educated at Christ’s Hospital.

In 1680 Colston followed a number of his family into the Royal African Company (RAC), the dominant slaving organisation in the British Empire. From 1672 to 1698, the RAC had an official monopoly over the trade in human cargo from West Africa. Colston rose rapidly to the board of the company in this period, becoming its deputy governor in 1689.

Between 1672 and 1698, the RAC transported around 100,000 enslaved Africans to plantations in the West Indies and America. This included women and children as young as six – each enslaved person was branded with the company’s initials on their chest. To maximise profit, the ships hulls were divided into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many enslaved people as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy killed more than 20,000 enslaved Africans during the crossings. Their bodies were thrown overboard.

(Based on “Colston and slavery still obscured?” by Bristol Radical History Group)


Biographical sources

COLSTON, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr., published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002

Morgan, K. Edward Colston and Bristol (Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlet, 1999)

Wilkins, H.J., Edward Colston (1636-1721 A.D.) : a chronological account of his life and work, together with an account of the Colston societies and memorials in Bristol (Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1920) With a supplement published in 1925.

Statistics regarding the RAC’s slave trading voyages can be found here.