Coleridge, Bristol and the Slave Trade in 2020

Coleridge and slavery

The ripples of the controversy surrounding the figure of Edward Colston in Bristol have reached Coleridge.  An article appeared in the 'County Gazette' for Tuesday 9th June reporting a speech by Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater, Somerset, strenuously opposing the toppling of the Colston statue.  He went on, neither logically nor accurately, to express his fears,

"What about Samuel Taylor Coleridge? On the quay at Watchet there is a fine statue of this famous English poet whose best-known work, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, describes in horrific detail diseases which were rife on slave trade ships," Mr Liddell-Grainger said.

"Should his effigy meet the same fate at the hands of a mob?’’

There is, in fact, no statue nor ‘effigy’ of Coleridge in Watchet, although on the quay there is a bronze figure of the Ancient Mariner with albatross. In addition, the similarities of the suffering of the mariners in the poem to that of slaves may be purely coincidental, although, as William Empson suggested as long ago as 1972, the poem may contain implicit allusions to slave ships.

Coleridge was, as is well known, a life-long and fierce opponent of the slave trade. In 1792, at Cambridge, he won the Brown Gold Medal for Greek verse for 'Ode on the Slave Trade', which was an attack on this trade. On 16th June 1795 he gave a public address 'On the Slave Trade' in Bristol itself, which the Bristol Observer reported as 'a proof of the detestation in which he holds that infamous traffic.' He later became a close friend of Thomas Clarkson, Vice-President of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Subsequently, a letter has appeared in the  'Western Morning News' for Tuesday 9th July from Richard Carder of Bath proposing a new name for Colston Hall, Bristol’s major concert hall:

‘Following the recent dramatic deposition of the Colston statue into the docks, we clearly need a new name for the concert hall, preferably some local who was firmly against the slave trade.’

He goes on to propose ST Coleridge as the ideal candidate. Watch this space …

Justin Shepherd, Chair, Friends of Coleridge

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