As hundreds of Bristolians queued across the city to buy Banksy t-shirts commemorating the toppling of Colston’s from his plinth, a small group gathered outside the headquarters of the society that allowed him to stay up there for so long.
When the statue was dredged from the water 18 months ago, it brought from the depths a hidden history of the institution that played a leading role in Bristol’s slave trading past, and once boasted Edward Colston as a member: the Society of Merchant Venturers.
The Society is headquartered in Merchant’s House, on the leafy Promenade between Clifton Village and the Durdham Downs. It was here that today (Saturday, December 11) local campaign group Glad Colston’s Gone gathered for a small demonstration.
Speaking for Glad Colston’s Gone, Christine Townsend said that the demo was intended to highlight the role of the Society in creating, promoting and defending Colston, a role which Glad Colston’s Gone argue has been ‘buried’ since the toppling last year.
Townsend went on to say: ‘It’s a private members club, invite only, and yet these are individuals that are in every area of not only our democratic institutions – unelected people – but they’re in the civic area of our local institutions as well.
‘They’re involved in the university, they’re involved in charity sector [sic], they’re involved in the arts and the culture.
‘They have a silent hand – or not so silent now, because they’re being exposed – and influences over Bristol and huge amounts of money.’
After Colston’s death, the Society continued to run and oversee many of the schools that Colston established with the fortune he amassed from selling human life.
The involvement of the Society in Bristol’s schools made the news last year when John Whitehead, principal of Colston’s Girls’ School (now Montpelier High School), publicly criticised the Society and questioned whether it is fit to run schools at all.
Other schools have similarly renamed themselves to end their association with the slave trader. Just last week Colston’s Girls’ School announced that it will seek a new name.
Glad Colston’s Gone want the Society to be disbanded. In this, they share common cause with Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, who in the Bristol Cable’s “Bristol Unpacked” podcast earlier this year called for an end to the Society saying that there is ‘no place for unaccountable power in a modern city.’
Asked whether she thought the toppling had led to social change, Townsend said: ‘It’s certainly speeded up how institutions and individuals are thinking about their response to the Black Lives Matter movements, and what happened in America, and also what the pandemic has exposed.’
But she added that ‘we still have a long way to go and we got to keep that momentum up.’
Both Marvin Rees and the poet Lawrence Hoo have expressed scepticism about the impact of the toppling, with Hoo calling the continued focus on Colston a ‘distraction’ from more meaningful change to tackle racism and inequality in Bristol.
Whether that is true or not, the toppling and wider Colston saga has made more people aware of the Society of Merchant Venturers than ever before.
Unelected and unaccountable, their shadowy role in influencing decisions in our city is sure to come under increased scrutiny from now on.