Concert hall changes name to erase slave-owning past

Concert hall changes name to erase slave-owning past


norman lebrecht

April 26, 2017

Colston Hall in Bristol has decided to change its name in order to end the association with its original owner, a trader in slaves and sugar. Edward Colston founded a boys’ school on the site in 1708. It was rebuilt as a concert hall in 1867 and hosted many famous virtuosos in the first half of the 20th century.

Today, the Bristol Music Trust that runs Colston Hall, announced that the name will change when the hall reopens after major refurbishment in 2020.

They are looking to sell naming rights to a major donor.


The Trust says: ‘We are in no way trying to erase recognition of Bristol’s role in the slave trade, and we recognise the importance of remembering the part this city played in those events as a way of shaping our city for the better moving forward. We want to embrace our position at the centre of this naming discussion to work beyond the building and help lead conversations across Bristol about diversity and inclusivity.

However, as the South West’s flagship concert venue, we also see changing the name as part of our wider redevelopment plans as an opportunity to make a clear statement that Edward Colston does not represent the values of Bristol Music Trust.’


  • Barky Obomber says:

    None of these purely symbolic gestures. Properly, the trust members should jump off the roof of the depicted building to assuage the guilt of their ancestors, having pre-appointed an all-black body to replace them.

  • Alexander Davidson says:

    While I understand the feelings that some people have about this venue, I fear that it is dangerous to begin to rename things that have been named after historical persons whose behaviour was appropriate to their own times but is unacceptable in our own.

    For example, ten regius professorships at Oxford and Cambridge are thus named in recognition of their establishment by Henry VIII. There are also King Henry VIII schools in Coventry and Abergavenny. Henry VIII now seems to us to have been a monstrous character. Indeed, having one, let alone two, of one’s six wives beheaded was extraordinary behaviour even by the standards of his own time. As many as 72,000 people may have been put to death under Henry VIII, including Protestant martyrs from the earlier part of his reign and Catholic martyrs from the later part of his reign. Yet there seems to be no movement towards removing the king’s name from his schools, nor removing the description ‘regius’ from his professorships. Is Henry VIII’s memory not offensive to women, to Protestants, and to Catholics?

    Or take George Selwyn, doubtless an admirable man by the standards of his own age, whose chief accomplishment was establishing the Anglican Church in New Zealand and beginning the conversion of the Maori people from their indigenous religion to the Christian faith. Today we are not so keen on travelling to distant civilizations with the purpose of winning them over to our own religious beliefs. Perhaps the numerous institutions named after Selwyn, both in the UK and in New Zealand, will need to be renamed too.

    The fact is that historical reputations do not long endure when subjected to criticism according to the standards of subsequent ages. Even as recent (and indisputably great) a figure as Winston Churchill is not immune to this process. Bromley’s Churchill Theatre should take note!

    Something that the UK musical establishment may like to consider would be reverting the Wigmore Hall to its original name of Bechstein Hall. The Bechstein company was an innocent victim of anti-German opinion and policy during the First World War, and it is perhaps time, 100 years after the hall’s reopening under its current name, for us to put behind us the legacy of the First World War and celebrate this valuable German contribution to our cultural life.

    • Minutewaltz says:

      Thank you, Alexander Davidson, for an excellent comment.
      The opinions and decisions of an awful lot of famous people pre the Great War could be found wanting when judged by today’s standards.
      I wonder who of today’s great and good will be subject to revisionism in 100 years time.

    • George Porter says:

      Well said (which is not to say that renaming the Colston Hall is necessarily a bad thing.)

    • Steve P says:

      Yeah, but were any of his wives illegal immigrants? Or gay? Or transgender? Or descendants of slaves? Cause those seem to be the only folks that matter anymore. Just regular ol white womenfolk? Not a problem – chip away, Hank.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    How pathetic of the Colston Hall people to give in to silly political correctness, you can’t re – write history and who is to say that a new donor will be squeaky clean.

    • John says:

      Tell that to African American people in the south which for decades after decades was festooned with statues of confederate heros who fought a war to separate from the United States in order to preserve slavery.

      • Alexander Davidson says:

        That is actually somewhat different, since erecting statues of defeated Confederate heroes always was a perverse and defiant thing to do. Once the Union had reasserted sovereignty over the Confederate states there really was no case for commemorating the leaders of the Confederacy as anything other than traitors, certainly not as heroes. To erect statues of the Confederate leadership even after they had been defeated was nothing less than a rejection of the outcome of the war and of the justness of the cause of the Union in waging the war, not only with regard to the issue of slavery, but also with regard to the integrity and sovereignty of the United States of America. Those who erected statues of the Confederate heroes did so in order to assert allegiance to both a polity and a set of values that had been justly defeated. It was, among other things, an act of aggression towards the black population of the southern states.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    The name change is entirely appropriate.

    Colston’s apologists above need not worry that his sorry life of kidnapping innocent people from their homes and forcing them into lives of slavery will be forgotten, for it is documented by other means in clearer fashion than this building name.

    It is inappropriate to continue to honor him without that context by this edifice as if none of that ever happened. Whatever good he did by creating this structure is far outweighed by the evil and the misery he profited from.

    • Alexander Davidson says:

      Edward Colston lived from 1636 until 1721. Slavery was not wholly abolished within the British Empire until 1843. During Colston’s lifetime, therefore, slavery was a widespread and entirely lawful means of earning a living. I do not doubt that it was an appalling evil, but there was nothing aberrant about it at the time.

      Let us not forget that Colston was born in the reign of Charles I. During the first four years of his life torture was still lawful in England. It was not until five years after Colston’s death that Catherine Hayes was executed, becoming the last woman to be put to death in England by being burned alive at the stake. They were different, and brutal, times, and people routinely behaved towards each other in ways which would be unthinkable to us today. Indeed, white Englishmen were still liable to be impressed into the service of the Royal Navy until as recently as the end of the Napoleonic wars, enduring comparably appalling conditions, including being liable to be punished by dozens of lashes of the cat o’ nine tails (incidentally, the cat o’ nine tails and the birch, which now seem barbarous to us, continued to be used in the British criminal justice system until the 1960s).

      I respect entirely the views of those who wish to condemn Colston, provided that those same people also wish to condemn other historical figures in vast numbers simply for being representative of their own times.

      • Maria says:

        It’s refreshing to read a comment grounded in common sense. So many people on this site are solely interested in parading their imagined superior virtue.

      • Cyril Blair says:

        “…there was nothing aberrant about it [slavery] at the time.”

        And yet there were people living through that time who DID recognize that it was evil and hideous and aberrant to all notions of humanity and civilization.

        It’s inexcusable to make excuses for slavery and slave-trading regardless of when it was happening. Over time people began to realize that it was an evil practice. We should be proud of being more enlightened than slave traders, not shrug our shoulders and bemoan political correctness.

        Good grief!

        • Alexander Davidson says:

          Certainly I am pleased to be living when I am living and not even a few decades ago. In the UK the last half-century or so has seen many admirable advances towards creating what Roy Jenkins called ‘a civilised society’. For example, we have abolished hanging, flogging with the cat o’ nine tails, birching, and corporal punishment in schools, and we have introduced suspended sentences and parole; we have decriminalised male homosexuality, created the institution of civil partnerships, and opened marriage to same-sex couples; we allow transgender people to obtain gender recognition certificates; we have enacted legislation that protects people from discrimination on grounds such as sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, and disability; we have abolished censorship in the theatre. These are, of course, just a small number of ways in which British society is better now than it was fifty years ago. One could also talk about constitutional reform (e.g. removing any real power from the office of Lord High Chancellor), the largely successful outcome of the Northern Ireland peace process, and establishing a statutory basis for foreign aid spending.

          However, almost every age has considered itself to be an improvement on the past. For example, hanging criminals inside prisons was considered to be an improvement upon public hangings, and public hangings in turn were considered to be an improvement upon hanging, drawing, and quartering. Doubtless there were people who condemned the practice of slavery in the 17th century, just as Christians in the 1st century are said to have held their property in common, which is to say that in any society there will be a small number of people who reject the status quo. The fact remains, therefore, that it was perfectly normal in the 17th century for people to believe that slavery was an entirely proper activity, and we cannot pass judgement against people whose actions merely reflected the values of the times in which they lived.

      • William Safford says:

        “I respect entirely the views of those who wish to condemn Colston, provided that those same people also wish to condemn other historical figures in vast numbers simply for being representative of their own times.”

        Good point. I cannot speak for England, but at least in the United States, such a purge is long overdue.

        • Alexander Davidson says:

          Really? Some people suggest going back as far as George Washington. I suggest going back as far as Elizabeth I, whose persecution of her Catholic subjects alone must surely be enough to condemn her by today’s standards. Sufficient grounds, I say, for renaming the Commonwealth of Virginia to something more acceptable to contemporary morals. And then we have her successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England, after whom, for example, the James River continues to be named. Among doubtless many faults, King James is today notorious for his persecution of witches. Again, since persecuting witches is clearly unacceptable in the 21st century, I suggest finding a more suitable name for the river, and anything else named after James.

          • Furzwängler says:

            Furthermore, the State of Maryland should, according to your tunnel-vision logic, immediately be renamed – along with any other place names in the US which contain the name Mary – as Queen Mary I (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”) was responsible for the persecution of Protestants and their horrible deaths by being burned alive at the stake, including, as you no doubt know, prominent Protestant bishops and other churchmen.

          • Alexander Davidson says:

            Actually, Maryland is named after Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, not after Mary I. I agree that the logic is tunnel-visioned, but fear that you have missed the context. I was merely pointing out the folly of this line of reasoning, since, if we begin with renaming Colston Hall, we logically must eventually rename Washington, D.C., the State of Washington, George Washington University, the George Washington Bridge, etc, as well as anything else named after slave-owning presidents, namely, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant, and, in turn, historical figures such as Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James VI and I (I doubt anything is named after Mary I), right through to Churchill and Thatcher.

          • Furzwängler says:

            Good point, it would be like opening Pandora’s Box, something one might bitterly regret with the benefit of hindsight.

            Thanks for the correction re. Maryland. I didn’t know it was named after Charles I’s wife.

          • William Safford says:

            “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” –Lao Tzu

      • Lucas says:

        During the Third Reich, enslaving and murdering jews and other minorities was legal and acceptable. Shall we have an Adolf Hitler theatre then?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Colston, or his local representative, are very unlikely to have forced anyone into slavery themselves. The slave trade meant buying people already having the status of slaves in west Africa, and transporting them to the Americas. These slaves were largely owned by black local rulers who were happy to sell them to Europeans. Of course, these local rulers attacked nearby communities to capture and enslave more people that they could then sell. (This is similar to, say, Viking raids on England during the dark ages and pretty much everyone who is English has ancestors who were largely slaves).

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Both Bristol and Liverpool were involved in the despicable slave trade . So do you think they should move down the coast to avoid the historical connotations? Perhaps close the cigarette factory? It happened it was awful but you can’t whitewash the past just because their behaviour was appalling.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    I wouldn’t mind betting that Colston’s School in Bristol are not planning a name change.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    While slave trading may have been legal when Mr. Colston lived and worked, it was despicable even then and it was recognized as such even then. There is a reason, after all, why the UK abandoned it long before some other nations did.

    On the other hand, however, it has a certain smell of hypocrisy as well, since the name change allows a lucrative bidding war for the naming rights. It would be more convincing, if the name would be changed to that of an 18th century black musician (and yes, there were a few famous black composers even then). But I am not holding my breath…

  • Frederick West says:

    ‘We want to embrace our position at the centre of this naming discussion to work beyond the building and help lead conversations across Bristol about diversity and inclusivity.’

    Anyone care to offer a translation of this paragraph?

  • Peter says:

    So when will Washington DC finally be freed from the disgraceful name of the slave owner Washington?
    And do not stop there. The declaration of independence and the US constitution are of course also null and void, since they were authored by slave owners.
    Which begs the only technical question, when the Queen of England will take control over the crown’s territories again?

    We must change the past by all means. Yes we can!
    Everybody is to be held accountable for his or her past deeds to current law.
    The rule of law, forbidding punishment of past deeds that were not punishable under their contemporary law, is abolished. Long live idiocy.

    • Steve P says:

      Yep, let’s take it back to the beginning: constitutional framers were only authorized to amend articles of confederation; instead they ignored the limitation and wrote a new constitution. So we shouldn’t be taking the IS constitution or any of the amendments seriously since they are all illegal.
      And yes, Presidents Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, so remove their names from…practically everything in the US. (Sigh) The madness just won’t end

    • William Safford says:

      Oh, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to be pruned (pun intended). No need to reach back to President Washington–who, it should be added, manumitted his slaves in his will, and who was succeeded as President by an ardent abolitionist.

      Why, for example, does the U.S. have military institutions named for treasonous generals, such as Fort A.P. Hill?

      Why are major highways and roads named for the head white supremacist and traitor, Jefferson Davis? And for countless other traitors and slave owners and white supremacists?

      Only this week were four public monuments to white supremacy removed from New Orleans, Louisiana. “From 1932 until 1993, [one] monument bore a plaque that said, in part, that the “national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state,” the city statement said.” (New York Times)

      So yes, a purge of accolades for slave owners and white supremacists and traitors is long overdue, at least in the U.S.

      • Steve P says:

        Yes, by all means, erase all mention of the war of northern aggression. That will cure all the ills and we’ll begin the healing process. I can just feel the good vibes flowing…along with new data revealing the safest counties in the US also have the highest percentage of legal gun ownership (proud to say I live in one of those freedom-loving areas).
        Slavery in any form is wrong and I am glad it no longer exists; just hope there is a more accurate picture painted of the motivations behind political causes of the war that brought about an end to the institution in the US.

        • William Safford says:

          These monuments and accolades to the War of Southern Treason and its KKK terroristic aftermath exist in large part to terrorize and demean African-Americans, as part of American Jim Crow apartheid.

          Purging ourselves of these symbols of what should be a bygone era, is part of purging ourselves of this sordid history and stain on our nation.

          At the very least, the purging of accolades of white supremacists, traitors, bigots, and terrorists is a long-overdue courtesy to our fellow citizens.

          • Steve P says:

            Well, if it is a courtesy to remove all trace of the uncivil war, then no, thank you, I’d like to decline the opportunity to give my fellow citizens that request.

          • William Safford says:

            Steve P, your support for the Lost Cause mythology, and for the old Confederacy and what it stands for, is duly noted. You showed your hand with your Lost Cause reference to the so-called “War of Northern Aggression” and with your use of the “snowflake” epithet.

            The symbols and accolades for slave owners, white supremacists, traitors, and terrorists belong in a museum, not in public spaces. I prefer to be considerate to our fellow citizens, whose ancestors were disenfranchised, abused, murdered, and/or owned. You don’t.

  • Greg says:

    And I thought it was just the US that pandered to the PC crowd in this way. What a load of rubbish. Sorry, snowflakes, but you can’t erase history. It isn’t always pretty, but it is integral to the identity of a nation. Why is it that the so-called centres of higher learning are generally the ones leading the crusade to erase history and block “free” speech that isn’t in line with their liberal progressive ideology?

    • William Safford says:

      A “snowflake” was a person who was opposed to the end of slavery.

      So, it is no surprise to see the alt-right racists to appropriate the word and try to turn it against others.

      Think about this fact, as you choose whether or not to continue to use it in the future.

      • Steve P says:

        Come now, William, certainly you are aware usage changes. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that we all thought there were just two genders and you were born to one or the other.
        Snowflake is a negative label attached to those who demand their feelings be placed above individual liberties such as free speech. Maybe you’ll think about that next time you gave in the mirror.

        • Steve P says:

          Gaze – argh, autocorrect foils my fantastic prose yet again

        • William Safford says:

          Why, yes–the alt-right bigots are doing exactly what you suggest: taking a word once strongly associated with being Pro-slavery, and trying to repurpose it for their own ends.

          Congratulations for enabling them in this process. It telegraphs to the world your belief system.

          • William Safford says:

            Phooey. I made an editing error. The sentence should read:

            “Congratulations *to anyone who uses the word ‘snowflake’* for enabling them in this process.”

          • Steve P says:

            So the libs get a free pass for their word repurposing? Speaking of telegraphing – I can sense your snowflakening from here

          • William Safford says:

            So, do the racists get a pass for being racist?

            Who is the real snowflake?

  • augustin says:

    This is not ‘political correctness’, but rather common sense, that we should not pay tribute to murderers and slavers. We should simply not be naming buildings after people unless they really led an exemplary life, and not hesitate to rename them when we realize that they didn’t. Colston and Henry VIII (and you can find many examples in the US as well – Rockefeller for example) did horrible things even when judged during their own times.
    Nobody who witnessed slavery could possibly have not realized that it was evil, even if it was legal, just as beheading your wife is inexcusable under any circumstance. They got away with their behavior, but plenty of people wished to punish them for their crimes during their lifetimes – for example, I imagine that the slaves in question were not fans of Colston. Of course people are complex and they may have had redeeming qualities, which is interesting to think about. When it comes to naming buildings however, why not just look for people we can admire without any reservations and name the buildings after them? And that shouldn’t mean just naming them after the first rich person who comes your way – if you do that, you might have to rename it again soon!

    Many people, then and now, simply don’t have a moral compass – but there have always been those who do, and who speak out against injustice.

  • Thomas Tompkins says:

    Colston Hall name change? Bonkers. So don’t listen nor buy from DG because of the Second World War. Once the PC Crowd start, where does it end? No more Rule Britannia, nor Porgy and Bess, Fidelio…someone somewhere will be “offended”.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The authorities in Bristol don’t seem to have noticed that something strange landed on the roof at Colston Hall – or that the roof itself has come loose.

  • John Larson says:

    libs white-washing the past

    • William Safford says:

      Actually, no, it is the washing away of the historical whitewashing by slavery apologists, to reveal the ugly truths of chattel slavery lurking underneath: the torture, the violent separation of family members, the rapes, the abnegation of the humanity of owned people, the denial of basic human rights, and much more.