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A slave trader’s legacy of hope

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A FEW years ago I was a teacher in a school in Bristol. A colleague and friend of mine had left the profession early to nurse her sick husband and after his death she looked for ways to continue to offer her tremendous skills to benefit others.

Hearing of the plight of a primary school in central Bristol where the pupils were the most disadvantaged in the city, the demands on the teachers were enormous, staff turnover was very high and the school was struggling to find and keep a head teacher, she responded to an appeal for school governors. Seeing the difficulties she offered her support in a directly practical way, tutoring a group of lively but ill-disciplined boys.

Her career had been as a teacher of French at secondary level. Her husband had taught at the Bristol Grammar School and her three children attended the school as pupils. She knew the level of expectation of such an education and the dedication required to reach the entry level.

Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (QEH), is a high-achieving private boys’ school in central Bristol. Founded in 1586, it has had endowments from many philanthropists over the years. One of these was Edward Colston, who held positions in the Royal African Company which among other things traded slaves from West Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas and Caribbean. It is not clear how much of Colston’s wealth derived from this compared with his other business interests. In 1702 he gave some money to QEH and later gave more to other schools, almshouses and churches, amounting in total to a minimum of ten thousand pounds. This converts to a sum of over £1.6million today, but if translated into the capital costs of buildings is likely to far exceed this value. Statues, plaques, buildings and ceremonies exist in abundance in Bristol to remind us of this.

My friend applied her bottomless well of optimism and grit to a mountain of hopeless negativity and worked her magic. In two years she had prepared and entered three boys for the QEH entrance test, in which they were successful. This was an opportunity beyond their knowledge, let alone their dreams, before she entered their lives.

QEH is a private school and it is possible for boys from poor families to attend only with the help of scholarships. Scholarships are possible only where philanthropists have donated their wealth to generate ongoing funds. Three hundred years after his death Edward Colston’s money is helping to fund opportunity for young people of varying ethnic origins to benefit from one of the best educations available in this country.

The argument against slavery has been fought and won. As with everything else in this world, there is little that is clear-cut or without stain. I have used this story in a school assembly, talking to a large group of highly intelligent 11-to-18-year-olds, as an example of the complexity of interpreting the past, appreciating a sense of place and the long-term good that can come from tainted origins. What Colston thought or said about slavery is unknown. It is not new knowledge that he was involved in this trade. We cannot change the past but we can view it with honesty and recognise its contradictions. Allowing young people to explore and develop their thoughts and understanding of the world with openness allows us to ponder the difficulty of judging others then or now. It may just help us to be more reflective and forgiving of ourselves and our fellows. And it might help us to be more determined to ensure that the legacy of that past is applied well to the greater good of the present and future.

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Linda Beskeen
Former deputy head of a grammar school and teacher for 25 years in comprehensive schools.

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