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A new name for the Colston Hall?

It’s official. Bristol’s Colston Hall will be changing its name by 2020 as a result of a protest and petition aiming to sever the city’s links with 17th Century merchant Edward Colston.

Edward Colston, born in 1636 in Church Street, Bristol, rose to social prominence as a result of his work with the Royal African Company, in which he worked as Deputy Governor. From this position he oversaw the transport of slaves from East Africa to the Caribbean, during a time at which demand for slaves grew rapidly, transforming Colston into one of the wealthiest members of merchant society.

The move to see his name eradicated from the Colston Hall has been simmering in Bristol since the late 90s, but only recently, after local band Massive Attack refused to perform at the venue, and a petition gained over 2,700 signatures, did the campaign really gain momentum. The reasoning behind the movement is that by continuing to use the hall that shares his name, Bristol is glorifying a slave trader, thereby failing to create an inclusive, diverse space. The petition’s creator, local woman Katie Finnegan-Clarke, wrote: “We demand that our institutions reflect our communities and become accessible to all Bristolians.”

The charity in charge of the hall have stated that they felt it was time to get rid of the “toxic name”.

Yet despite recent protests calling for the renaming, many Bristol residents have reacted unfavourably towards the news. There have been numerous complaints featuring the old adage that “political correctness has gone mad”, and others feel that this is a naïve way to deal with Bristol’s past—for simply airbrushing it out will not make it go away. Others believe that a silent majority is being ignored. There are many in Bristol who view the hall and its name as an integral part of the city, and whilst they are aware of Colston’s past, they feel that to rename it would be a way of erasing history.

Senior members of the Bristol Music Trust, the charity in charge of the hall, have stated that they felt it was time to get rid of the “toxic name”. This comes as part of a larger movement, known as “Countering Colston”, which aims to rid the entire city of Colston’s name. Amongst other things, they aim to remove the statue of Colston in the city centre, and wish to see the Colston bun (a popular local pastry) banned. Katie Finnegan-Clarke, an alumna of Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol, has written to her alma mater asking them to change their name. The school has declined to comment, leading many question where to draw the line in cases such as this—in Bristol alone, two well-known schools, several streets, a variety of charities and one pastry all share the name Colston, and this doesn’t even begin to address the namesakes of other men who profited from the slave trade, such as Goldney Hill, Elton Road in Clevedon, and the Bathurst Basin. Are we to remove all evidence that these men existed?

Clearly the change has provoked anger from those sad to see prominent Bristol landmarks under threat, and now local historians have waded in, pointing out that Colston Hall was not in fact named to glorify Edward Colston. It was so named because of the street it was on: Colston Street. The hall was actually built 150 years after the death of Edward Colston, resulting in many accusing the Bristol Music Trust of “caving in” to the demands of the ill-informed.

Undoubtedly, Bristol must face up to its past. For a city built on slavery to defend slavers would be wrong. Yet there is a danger these solutions are far too simplistic. Campaigners aiming to change the name argue that Bristol is failing to acknowledge its slave trading past, but by changing the name, will we ever hope to heal the wounds of slavery? It would surely be better for younger generations of Bristolians to see and use landmarks like the Colston Hall and in doing so enter into a discussion about the evils of slavery and how Bristol has changed to become one of the most multicultural areas in the UK. Whilst glorifying slave traders cannot be seen as acceptable, simply covering up evidence of their existence through a hurried name change may do more damage—it could be better for Bristol to be open about its past whilst promoting diversity than hide the evidence behind a meaningless new name.

A petition from the University of Bristol has gathered over 600 signatures in an attempt to rename the Wills Memorial Building, because of its namesake’s links to the slave trade. The description of the petition reads “We… find it ironic that the building is often the setting for events hosting some of this century’s most progressive thinkers.” Although this is seen as a negative aspect of the Wills Building, it is exactly how we should treat our past. Let us take the remnants of slavery and turn them into beacons of progressivism, open debate, and inclusivity, showing the world how far Bristol has come.