Commentary: When BLM meets Slave-Owning Philanthropists

On 7th June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down from its plinth in Bristol during a Black Lives Matter protest. The 18ft-tall statue had previously stood - on Colston Avenue nonetheless - since 1895. It was erected in recognition and celebration of his philanthropy - directed mainly towards supporting schools, hospitals and the church. It ended up being thrown into Bristol Harbor to widespread cheers.


Colston statue in Bristol

From Slave Trader to Philanthropist

Despite his reputation as a philanthropist, the fortunes Colston used for his philanthropy had been largely accumulated through his work in the slave trade: Colston was a member (and at one point Deputy Governor) of the Royal African Company (RAC) which had a monopoly over the trade of African Slaves. During its peak, the RAC shipped around 5,000 slaves per year. These people were taken from their home countries, branded with 'RAC' on their chest, and transported across the sea to a life of enforced servitude on tobacco and sugar plantations. In the RAC's near 100-year history, it shipped more than 200,000 enslaved men, women and children to the Americas - more than any other organisation. Nearly a quarter of them died en route; their bodies were dumped into the sea.


How then, given his background with such an organisation, did Colston end up being recognised with a statue (amongst other landmarks in his namesake) including a plaque which labelled him as "one of the most virtuous and wise sons" of Bristol? The answer: philanthropy. Colston founded almshouses and hospitals, he endowed schools, and supported various churches and cathedrals. During the end of his life he became celebrated as a great benefactor of the city, giving away some £9 million in today's money.


A Question of Legacy

How then are we to remember the legacy of such an individual? Slave-trader or philanthropist? Murderer or benefactor? The answer, I would argue, is both. To neglect his role in the slave-trade is to neglect the thousands of lives he stole. But to neglect his role in philanthropy would similarly white-wash philanthropy's own reputation - there have been numerous philanthropists throughout history whose backgrounds range from questionable to downright immoral. Even the likes of Andrew Carnegie have been condemned as 'Robber Barons' for their unethical business practices. Remembering the dual role of these individuals is essential to bring to light and thus enable critique of the often problematic nature of philanthropy and its history.


The toppling of Colston's statue has been condemned by various political figures as 'erasing or rewriting history'. I would argue this is less about erasing history, and more about removing historical biases. For too long, the adoration of Colston embedded in the city through various landmarks in his namesake presented a one-sided view of his life and legacy - namely that as a generous benefactor. The actions taken by protesters have merely served to re-balance this narrative, also bringing to light his role and legacy in the slave-trade.


Similar Stories

The Colston case is not unique. The philanthropy landscape has long been littered with such examples of 'tainted' money. For instance, Sir John Cass was similarly an early director and share-holder of the RAC. The Sir John Cass Foundation has since supported a number of schools and educational institutions, including the reputable Cass Business School. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the toppling of the Colston statue, both the Foundation and the Business School have succumbed to public pressure and committed to changing their names.


But what good is a name change? Unless these organisations embody the spirit of Black Lives Matter, and commit to supporting full racial equality and justice, their name-changes will do little more than repair their own reputations by distancing themselves from their racist pasts.


Beyond Race: Tainted Money

These instances of where the Black Lives Matter meets slave-owning philanthropists have implications reaching far beyond race to other instances of 'tainted' or 'dirty' philanthropy. What about the Wellcome Trust holding shares in tobacco companies? Or the allegations against Bill Gates for monopolising the tech industry during his time with Microsoft? To what extent do recipients need to evaluate the origins of the support and contributions they receive?


In the 21st Century, philanthropy can no longer be a quick fix for organisations or individuals wanting to repair their reputation. Instead we must advance efforts for more sustainable and responsible organisational practices, rather than encouraging philanthropy after-the-fact to repair the damage already done.