Bristol's Colston Hall to drop name of slave trader after protests

Concert venue that hosted the Beatles, David Bowie and Bob Dylan will reopen with a new name following refurbishment

Civil rights campaigners, music lovers and artists have welcomed a decision by Bristol’s largest concert hall to ditch the “toxic” name of the slave trader Edward Colston after years of protests and boycotts.

The charity that runs Colston Hall will come up with a new name when the venue reopens in 2020 after a multimillion pound refurbishment but is also bracing itself for a backlash from critics who claim it is airbrushing history and pandering to a vocal minority.

Many concertgoers and artists, including the revered Bristol band Massive Attack, have refused to play at or visit the venue and there have been protests and petitions calling for the hall to drop the Colston name.

On Wednesday, the charity that runs the hall, Bristol Music Trust, announced the name would vanish after the venue is closed next year for its major revamp.

Louise Mitchell, the chief executive of the trust, described the Colston name as a “toxic brand”. She said: “For us it feels like the beginning of a new dawn. We are doing this now because it is the right thing to do.”

Mitchell said the trust would work with artists and the community on finding a new name. She said: “We really don’t feel an association with Edward Colston, however tenuous, is the way we want to [move] forward.”

She emphasised that the hall had little association with Colston. It was not funded by his money and he had been dead for 150 years by the time it opened.

Mitchell said: “I have members of staff whose families won’t come into the building because of the perceived connection with slavery. We can’t have that.” She added that the venue would talk to Massive Attack and hoped the band would play there once it was renamed.

Statue of Colston in Bristol.
Statue of Colston in Bristol. Photograph: Alamy

Some of the world’s biggest music and comedy stars have performed at Colston Hall, including the Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. But many Bristolians have refused to cross the threshold of the venue.

Marti Burgess, a black Bristol lawyer and a trustee of Bristol Music Trust, said she first went to Colston Hall with her mother to watch the funk band Cameo but has refused for years to set foot inside.

“Having a venue named after someone was a de facto CEO of an organisation that transported nearly 100,000 African people to a life of brutal hardship and enslavement simply can’t be right.”

Paul Stephenson, who led the Bristol bus boycott in protest at black and Asian people not being allowed to work for a bus company in the 1960s, welcomed the move. “I think it’s positive. It shows that Bristol is a city that welcomes everybody. This provides hope. But I fear there will be a backlash.”

Cleo Lake, councillor, artist, campaigner and member of the campaign group Countering Colston, said: “Today we turn a corner in Bristol and history is made. It has been the continuation of decades of movements aiming to decolonise the city and pay some respect to those whose lives were taken and exploited in the name of capitalism.”

The saga has echoes of the calls in Oxford for a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian imperialist who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa, to be removed and of the concerns some in Liverpool have over street names with links to slavery, including Penny Lane.

The move will increase the pressure on other Bristol institutions with connections to Colston, who was born in 1636 and died in 1721.

Katie Finnegan-Clarke, ex-Colston Girls’ school pupil, campaigner, trainer and a member of Countering Colston, said: “It’s only just the beginning. We will continue to target all buildings, statues, schools and public houses that continue to celebrate one of Britain’s most notorious slave traders by keeping him as their namesake. We will continue to fight for justice and respect for people of colour in our city.”

However, the former Bristol Conservative leader Richard Eddy, called the move “an abject betrayal of the history and people of Bristol and a complete surrender to the forces of historically illiterate political correctness” and called for a new boycott.

He said: “Instead of tackling the real victims of modern slavery in Bristol today, those who whinge about Edward Colston 400 years ago just want to airbrush history away and have no awareness of the huge debt we still owe to this great Bristolian.

“Even in the early 21st century, the inhabitants of our city still gain immeasurably from the housing, healthcare and schooling legacy of Colston.

“I am utterly fed up of pandering to the views of a tiny minority of non-Bristolians and outraged that the unelected directors of the Bristol Music Trust can make this controversial decision.

“However, this knee-jerk surrender will at least save me money. As a regular concertgoer to the Colston Hall, I do not intend to spend one penny on tickets there if it changes its name after 2020 and I hope other true Bristolians will do likewise.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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