News / Edward Colston

Countering Colston group calls for Merchant Venturers to be disbanded

By martin booth, Monday Jun 29, 2020

A pressure group founded to ‘decolonise’ Bristol are calling for an end to the elite Bristol organisation in which Edward Colston himself was a member.

Members of Countering Colston have long called for public celebrations of Colston to be stopped.

With the toppling from its plinth of the statue, their attention has now turned to the Society of Merchant Venturers, an invite-only group of 66 men and ten women

In a remarkable about-turn in the week after the statue was unceremoniously thrown into the docks, the Merchant Venturers said it “is right for Bristol” that his statue has been removed from the city.

But it was only four years ago that the organisation kept Colston’s nails and hair on display in their headquarters, Merchants’ Hall in Clifton.

Membership of the Merchant Venturers “is drawn from individuals who have been successful in their chosen area of business and who are already actively involved in voluntary activity across the greater Bristol area” – photo: Society of Merchant Venturers

The Countering Colston statement said that 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.”

They added: “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.”

They are calling for the organisation to be disbanded is because “it is inappropriate for an unelected, undemocratic body to be so heavily involved in Bristol’s public serving institutions”.

The Dolphin School in Montpelier is named after the symbol of Edward Colston – photo: Broxap

The Merchant Venturers, through the Venturers Trust “provides strategic, specialist support and resources” to Bannerman Road Community Academy, Barton Hill Academy, Colston’s Girls’ School, The Dolphin School, Fairlawn Primary School, The Kingfisher School, Merchants’ Academy and Venturers’ Academy.

The society also supports the running of the independent Colston’s School in Stapleton, which on the day after Colston’s statue was removed said that it would “look again” at changing its name.

In total, these nine schools educate 4,000 children, with the Society of Merchant Venturers also working with St Monica Trust to support more than 5,000 older people, as well as making charitable grants, supporting social enterprise, administering a wide range of trusts and grants, and taking joint responsibility with Bristol City Council for the stewardship of the Downs.

The Countering Colston statement added: “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.”

Bristol24/7 has asked the Merchant Venturers to comment.

Merchants’ Hall, the Society of Merchant Venturers headquarters in Clifton, used to display Edward Colston’s fingernails and hair until 2016 – photo: Society of Merchant Venturers

Here is the Countering Colston statement in full:

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. Its 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 Redcliffe church (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.

Main photo by Martin Booth

Read more: Bristol’s city poet bids farewell to Eddie Colston

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