3 June 2021

From Wulfstan to Colston: Book launch and panel discussion

Published a few days before the fall of Edward Colston’s statue in June 2020, From Wulftsan to Colston traces a thousand-year history of the involvement of Bristol’s merchants in enslavement.

The book spans from Anglo-Saxon times through the era of exploration and colonisation to the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans and the plantation system of the Americas. During this period, Bristol’s merchant elite seized economic and political power, making Edward Colston an icon of the Victorian period. This has since shaped the city’s present-day historical memory.

Throughout the millennium, determined opposition to slavery ranged from revolts and revolutions by enslaved people to struggles for abolition in Britain. Bristol’s first abolitionist, Saint Wulfstan in the eleventh century, was followed by religious and political activists who led popular and successful campaigns.

This online event will feature three presentations followed by a panel discussion chaired by Cleo Lake.

Event programme

‘A matter of speculation?’: Edward Colston and the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans – Roger Ball
This talk addresses the lack of clarity in Edward Colston’s involvement in the ‘vile trade’ by examining his leading role in the Royal African Company and reveals some recent research into his later participation in Spanish enslavement of African men, women and children.

‘To Keep his Memory Green’: The reinvention of Edward Colston in the late 19th Century – Spencer Jordan
In the second half of the nineteenth century the image of Edward Colston underwent a dramatic transformation. From a rather marginal figure, he was suddenly reshaped into something that was quite new for Bristol – a totemic figurehead for the city’s growing population. This talk not only looks at why this happened at this time but also the deeper forces at play across the city’s political and economic landscape.

‘Mr Douglass comes to town…’ – Mark Steeds
In the mid-nineteenth century Bristol’s abolitionists took great interest in the plight of the enslaved in the United States. Some of the greatest American abolitionists visited the ‘Metropolis of the West’ and were hosted by the city’s abolitionists. This talk will examine the impact of these visits and explore the sometimes emotional responses of ‘ordinary’ Bristolians to the plight of the nearly three million enslaved people.

Panel members

Dr Roger Ball A founding member of Bristol Radical History Group, he has published on several subjects including urban riots, labour history, workhouses and more recently slavery and abolition. He is currently a research fellow at UWE studying the 1831 reform riots.

Dr Spencer Jordan examined the ‘myth’ of Edward Colston as part of his doctoral research into Bristol’s nineteenth-century elite. His book chapter ‘The Myth of Edward Colston: Bristol Docks, the Merchant Elite and the Legitimisation of Authority 1860-1880’ was published in 2013. He teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham.

Mark Steeds is a former draughtsman and current publican, especially interested in Bristol’s maritime and literary history. A long-time member of Bristol Radical History Group, in 2007 he wrote the group’s first pamphlet entitled Cry Freedom, Cry Seven Stars (about ‘the pub that changed the world’), co-authored Pirates and Privateers out of Bristol in 2010 and in 2020 From Wulfstan to Colston.

Cleo Lake is a former Lord Mayor of Bristol and Countering Colston activist. She has established her political reputation as a strong social justice activist and campaigner, particularly regarding anti-austerity and issues affecting African heritage communities. Cleo was elected as a Councillor for Cotham (2016-2021) serving as Deputy Green Group Leader within that term and an MEP Candidate.

About the book
Mark Steeds and Roger Ball, From Wulfstan to Colston: Severing the sinews of slavery in Bristol (Bristol: Bristol Radical History Group, 2020). Available to purchase from the Bristol Museums online bookshop

How to take part

This free, online talk will be held over Zoom. Please book your place below. Details of how to join the session will be in your registration email. Please check your spam folder if the email does not arrive. Bookings close at 2pm on Thursday 3 June.

Although this talk is free, we would be grateful if you could consider making a donation.

Please visit the Zoom website for guidance on joining webinar. Please allow extra time before the talk begins to make sure everything is working correctly. It’s up to you whether you turn on your video but all guests will be muted once the talk begins. You are welcome to ask questions in the chat box throughout the talk.

Image: Courtesy of J. Backhouse