Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Slaver’s Protectors

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston has drawn attention to Bristol's dirty secret – the continued influence and activities of elite business lobby, the Society of Merchant Venturers.

On Sunday, June 7th a statue of Edward Colston which stood by the harbour where his slaving ships used to dock was pulled down by the people of Bristol and thrown into the water. This was the culmination of years of campaigning and frustration. For too long requests to alter or remove the statue had been denied, leaving no choice but for people to take matters into their own hands.

But why was there a statue of a renowned slave trader in the centre of Bristol? It’s because underneath Bristol’s bohemian veneer and city-wide cannabis haze there is a dark secret. In one of the few Labour strongholds in the south, there is an alternative pole of power: The Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV).

SMV is a secretive organisation of Bristol’s business elites, which grew out of a merchant’s guild founded in the 13th century, which acquired in the 17th century sole rights to the British slave trade. Their current stated role is that of a philanthropic organisation. They own and run schools and care homes across Bristol while funding charities, social enterprise and the arts. They have members as trustees or directors on the board of almost every major business or civic institution in the city, including: Rolls Royce; both universities; multiple water companies; the Old Vic; Bristol Rovers and Bristol City; Bristol Zoo; YTL (building Bristol’s controversial arena) and Masonic organisations.

One of their ex-members, the architect George Ferguson, became the city’s first directly elected mayor. Ferguson ran as an independent and renounced his membership of SMV before taking office. Once in office, he sold the freehold of Bristol docks to members of SMV, despite the majority of Councillors voting against for it fear it was being undervalued.

SMV is best understood using the “Hard and Hollow” idea of Anton Jaeger. They’re “powerful and capacious, mainly in their executive branch, but insulated from any pressure from below.” Their power is vast, yet undefinable. They’re on boards across the city, at the centre of the neoliberalisation of Bristol, yet it is impossible to say precisely what they have done. The statue of their most famous member being pushed into the water has put them into the limelight, and the actions of an (albeit temporarily) organised working has dragged them out of their ethereal plane. They have even been forced to release a statement on Twitter apologising for their long-term support of the Colston statues.

The history of SMV is inextricably linked with Colston and his statue. He was a member for almost 40 years and left huge trusts in their care. Most gruesomely, they keep Colston’s hair and nails as relics in their meeting hall. During the Victorian era SMV were a key part of the project to launder Colston’s reputation building what local historian Rev HJ Wilkins called “the Cult of Colston.” This was an ideologically-driven campaign to represent him not as a bloodthirsty slave trader but as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city” as was written on the statue’s plaque. The aim was to inspire the workers of Bristol into adopting his values to make them more productive employees.

To build the cult, the people of Bristol were given a day off to celebrate “Colston day” on the slaver’s birthday. SMV’s schools to this day continue to take part in strange rituals to celebrate both Colston day and Charter Day, which marks SMV’s forerunner receiving its royal charter from Edward VI (something it has received from every monarch since).

Lee, who attended Colston’s school on a scholarship is a host of Requires Improvement, a podcast by NEU members in Bristol. In a recent episode he said of the Charter Day ceremony “Even at the time I felt there was something a bit wrong about all these school kids saying prayers for a private institution. It was special prayers for special people”. As part of this ceremony the children receive a Colston bun  (a hot cross bun variant) to take home and a smaller bun called a staver which is intended to stop them eating the Colston bun.

In 1893, 170 years after Colston’s death, SMV member James Ashworth proposed the statue and attempted to get the public to fund it. One ill-fated approach to encourage donations was writing a letter to a local newspaper under a pseudonym stating, “We hear and read a great deal now about statueless Bristol, but we hope this will not be for long”. When the people of Bristol refused to pay, Ashworth anonymously donated £150 of his own money to create the illusion of public support.

Imperialist nations everywhere continue to profit from wealth pillaged from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. Rarely however, is that modern-day benefit so clear as in Bristol. SMV represent a single thread running from then to now. From slave ships in the 1600’s sailing along the river Avon, straight to the private schools educating the children of Bristol’s elite in 2020. Trusts (the largest of which is valued at over £250M) founded using Colston’s money and run by the club of which he was a member still fund whatever they choose.

SMV has a long history of running educational institutions. Although originally charged by Colston with setting up schools to support the poor, they have ended up running several fee-paying institutions. In the 1870’s they had to be forced by a Liberal government to educate girls and even then resisted this for almost 20 years. More recently they have moved into the state sector and become a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT).

In 2017, the Merchant Venturers’ Trust was found to be one of only 8 MATs in the country which were “neither attaining nor improving above the average [grades for disadvantaged students] for all secondary schools”. Despite this failure to deliver results they are continuing to grow under the new name Venturers Trust. Given their history, the shift into the state sector must be seen as a continuation of SMV’s original function as a guild for Bristol’s elite. They are leveraging their power to expropriate public resources into private hands. They are pushing an ideology where their abilities are considered self-evident due to their wealth and not their past performance.

On SMV’s website is the facile claim to “share a collective sense of responsibility to work with and support local people and communities”. Yet can an organisation with its roots in a slavery cartel ever be repurposed to support communities? When originally founded SMV’s charity was doled out only to those less fortunate in Bristol who were considered worthy and in line with Tory MP Colston’s beliefs. This meant no aid was to be given to Catholics or Quakers or to any charitable organisation that was run by Whigs or political radicals. In 2016 Cullum McAlpine was elected leader of SMV, despite it being public knowledge he was an infamous union blacklister.

From Lakota being turned into flats or the Bristol arena being moved outside of Bristol, to refusing to change the Colston statue’s plaque to something that acknowledged his involvement in slavery, SMV members have an uncanny ability to turn up whenever the council is doing something unpopular. Could it be that SMV has kompromat on local politicians from shadowy rituals taking place around an altar adorned with Colston’s mummified hair and toe-nail clippings? It’s unlikely, rather their involvement in Bristol is evidence of how charity is used by the rich to their advantage. SMV gives away thousands of pounds every year in donations to charities and social enterprises. Individual members of SMV donate to and are involved with of a variety of political parties. These donations help local politicians achieve their manifesto promises. There are obvious incentives for them to bend to the will of SMV members for fear that money will disappear. Structurally SMV, so deeply rooted in Bristol civil society, is designed to serve the interests of its members, not the people of Bristol.

There should be no place for this sort of organisation, a typical elite body that uses philanthropy to launder reputations and assert undemocratic control. However, in Bristol, the SMV’s desire to cling to the arcane trappings of a slaveholders drinking club gives us an advantage. We know who they are and where they have influence. In a world of increasingly bewildering power relations, they have given us a winter palace to storm. It’s time for us to demand that the Society of Merchant Ventures is disbanded and that its members step back from roles in public institutions. It’s time for the people of Bristol to be free of Edward Colston’s pernicious influence once and for all.