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CGS AND ITS HISTORIC CONNECTION TO EDWARD COLSTON
Colston’s Girls’ School is directly descended from Colston’s Hospital, a school which opened in 1710 for ‘100 poor boys’, funded entirely by a large financial gift from Edward Colston (1636-1721). Colston entrusted the management of the school and the care of the substantial endowment to the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol and in 1873, the Endowed School Commissioners proposed that a portion of the endowment should be set aside for a day school for girls. Almost two decades later, in 1891, Colston’s Girls’ School opened for 300 pupils.
A lifelong bachelor, Edward Colston used his considerable wealth to support and initiate charitable causes throughout the country. In London, St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s hospitals received substantial sums; so too did Bethlem, a mental hospital; and several schools. In Bristol he founded an almshouse on St Michael’s Hill and he enabled the enlargement and rebuilding of another on King Street. As well as the founding of Colston’s Hospital school, now Colston’s School, he assisted Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school and endowed Temple School for ‘40 poor boys’. He also supported the repair and upkeep of Bristol Cathedral and seven further Bristol churches.
The extent of his philanthropy was immense and exceptional. In Bristol, in the eighteenth century, several societies were formed in his memory in order to encourage the ‘spirit of charity’ he was believed to exemplify. In the nineteenth century commemorative statues and stained-glass windows were erected.
This memorialisation continued until 1920, when the publication of Reverend H. J. Wilkins’ biography of Edward Colston first drew attention to his membership of the Royal African Company and argued that he should be judged by the standards of his own time.
Edward Colston’s father was a Bristol merchant who moved his family to London when Edward was nine years old. At the age of seventeen Edward was apprenticed to a London mercer and by the 1670s he was trading independently in cloth, exporting to Spain, the Canaries and Mediterranean countries and importing wine, oil and fruit. He was already a very wealthy man by 1680, when he became a member of the Royal African Company. He was to be deputy governor from 1689 until 1692, when his involvement ceased.
The Royal African Company had received its charter in 1673, giving it the monopoly of shipping slaves from the west coast of Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. In 1698, the monopoly ended and the trade was opened up to all British ports including Bristol and Liverpool. In the following century it is estimated that half a million enslaved Africans were transported in Bristol ships. The trade was finally abolished in 1807.
The long-lasting and continuing success of Colston’s charitable foundations and of the societies formed in his memory, together with the numerous streets, buildings, statues and windows that commemorate him, has led many of us to shift onto his shoulders the burden of our concern for Bristol’s historic involvement in the slave trade.
It has been suggested that Colston’s Girls’ School should change its name in order to remove the association with Edward Colston. We have considered this suggestion and we have listened carefully to views on both sides.
After much discussion, it has been agreed that it would not be appropriate to rename the school.
There is no doubt that Colston’s Girls’ School exists today as an outstanding school for girls, nationally known for its academic excellence and well respected for its inclusivity and diversity - because of the financial endowment given by Edward Colston, but we see no benefit in denying the school’s financial origin and obscuring history itself. To the contrary, by enabling our students to engage thoughtfully with our past, we continue to encourage them to ask questions about present-day moral values and to stand up for what they believe is right.
The history of the transatlantic slave trade is a recurring topic throughout the curriculum – with detailed study modules in Year 7, Year 8 and again in the Sixth Form – giving students the opportunity to explore the rise of the slave trade; to consider what life was like for slaves; to analyse the impact of the slave trade in the Caribbean, in Britain and across the world; to examine why the trade was not abolished sooner; and to question why slavery still exists today in a modern world. During these lessons we actively encourage debate and discussion which allows students to formulate their own opinions.
We will continue to work with our students to celebrate the diversity of our community and enable reflection upon our past, remembering the lives of enslaved persons, both past and present and others who have worked, and are working so hard, towards its elimination. For example, Colston’s Girls’ School provides financial support to Unseen, an inspirational charity that is striving to achieve a world without slavery in the 21st century.
Whilst we will not be changing the name of Colston’s Girls’ School we have chosen to make our annual Commemoration Service more inclusive and relevant to our students, celebrating the school as it is today and focussing on our core values: respect, responsibility, curiosity and resilience.
We take this opportunity to positively affirm our commitment to opposing injustices arising from the history and legacies of slavery. We remain committed to working with our students to recognise and address these. Whilst we cannot alter the past, we can enable reflection upon it and we can educate young people to have the confidence to make their own informed decisions and to develop a strong moral compass based on justice and integrity.
1st November 2017