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Walking Bristol's slave trade

Walking Bristol's slave trade
04 Dec
2018
For this month’s Discovering Britain Trail, Laura Cole visits Bristol, where the city’s role in the slave trade puts it at the centre of a global debate

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

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The statue of Edward Colston in central Bristol looks at ease considering the debate surrounding him. His relaxed pose, face resting on palm, has become symbolic of a city-wide controversy. The plaque reads: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.’

What’s not mentioned is that Colston was on the governing committee of the Royal African Company, which from the 1670s to 1750s monopolised the transatlantic slave trade. In recent years, this omission has prompted some Bristolians to deface the statue with graffiti, even adding shackles and a ball and chain to his wrists and ankles.

Ros Martin, a Bristol-based author of Nigerian and Caribbean descent, describes the statue as ‘a lightening rod’ for residents when it comes to addressing the city’s link to slavery. Many want the statue to have a new plaque, or for it to be removed altogether. Others worry that removal risks erasing history before it has been fully acknowledged. Martin disagrees: ‘It is just one statue after all – the city is full of Colstons. In fact, Bristol is full of signs of the whole slave trade.’

On Guinea Street, there are rows of five-storey, sand-coloured terraced houses. ‘They were home to several renowned slave traders,’ says Jo Kemp, who wrote this Discovering Britain Trail with the help of Madge Dresser at the University of Bristol. ‘The street’s harbourside location was ideal for managing their day-to-day affairs.’ 

Web2Edward Colston looks nonchalant, unaware of his state's controversy

A SAILOR’S LIFE

While few slaves were brought to these shores, Britain nonetheless industrialised the system that captured populations from Africa and sent them as cargo to North America and the Caribbean. In the transatlantic slave trade, Britain’s dual role involved trading processed goods for slaves, and maintaining the system – financing voyages and building slave ships. London, Bristol and Liverpool profited immensely as a result. Bristol in particular flourished between 1730 and 1746 – the city’s slave voyages made up 40 per cent of all British trade. In those years, the city was the slave port capital of the nation.

Following the dock along the waterside and over the bridge, it’s possible to understand how Bristol became a trading port. The city grew up on a tidal stretch of the River Avon, 12km before it flows into the Bristol channel. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the harbours would have been busy with sailors, many of whom were coerced into spending a life at sea. There are still signs of this shipping underworld. The Hole in the Wall pub gets its name from a tiny glass window on its harbour side. From outdoors it looks like a vertical letterbox. This lookout was used by sailors trying to avoid press gangs, groups of men hired by the navy to force – or ‘impress’ – men to join.

‘Press gangs were not used for slave voyages,’ says Kemp. ‘Instead, slave ship owners would pay pubs to get sailors very drunk, encouraging them to run up debts.’ For the unwary sailor, life became a choice between sailing slave voyages or debtors prison. Such a setup is difficult to imagine today – The Hole in the Wall is a busy, family pub and the harbour is filled with floating restaurants.

REMEMBERING THE DEAD 

If Colston’s statue has become the emblem of Bristol’s slave trade history, a bridge to the new harbour signals attempts to readdress it. Opened in 1998, the gently winding structure is a pedestrian bridge that sits low over the water. Foot ferries skim just shy of it. The bridge is a memorial to Pero Jones, a man born into slavery on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Brought to Bristol as a ‘privilege slave’ by a sugar plantation owner called John Pinney, he died a slave in the city in 1798.

In total, Bristol is thought to be responsible for the shipment of more than 500,000 Africans, which represents around one fifth of the people shipped by British vessels – an estimated 3.1 million. Of that total, only 2.7 million are thought to have survived the Atlantic crossing. Though Martin feels the bridge is meaningful, she notes that there is now a movement for a human statue. ‘It is important to remember that the slave trade happened to people,’ she says.

NAME AND SHAME

Following the harbour northwards, the route turns into Corn Street, one of four roads that have made up the heart of Bristol’s commerce since medieval times. ‘Bristol’s slave income wasn’t just based around trading and shipping of people,’ says Kemp. ‘Glass was used to transport brandy and rum, which was traded in West Africa in exchange for enslaved Africans. Meanwhile, sugar was brought back from the plantations and processed in Bristol.’ Glassworks and sugar refineries popped up across the city throughout the 1600s. 

At Number 32 there’s a handsome, columned building – the Old Bank. It was one of the first banks set up outside London and anchored the slave trade in Bristol. Voyages could take 18 months and credit was used to underwrite the journeys. Enslaved Africans were insured as goods. ‘The money of the tradesmen and the institution it created are now not only part of Bristol, but laid the foundations for our whole Western financial system,’ says Kemp. The Old Bank eventually merged to become National Westminster, or NatWest. The building today is still a NatWest and a plaque commemorates the Old Bank, though the slave trade is not mentioned.

The trail turns west to Colston Avenue, Colston Street and Colston Hall. According to Bristol Archives, many other areas such as Elton Road, Farr Lane, Tyndalls Avenue and Winterstoke take their names from venture merchants who were involved in slavery. There have been campaigns to change them, the loudest of which has centred on Colston Hall, now a famous music venue. Calls to change the name began in the late 1990s but have gained traction in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall movement – the campaign to remove statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and the University of Oxford – as well as the removal of statues of confederate generals in US cities. In response to the global campaign, the Bristol Music Trust will change the name when the hall reopens following refurbishment in 2020. 

Corn streetBristol's corn street, at the heart of Bristol’s commerce since medieval times

A NEW APPROACH

The last stop looks at Bristol’s slave trade on a personal level. Number Seven Great George Street was the home of John Pinney, slave-owner to Pero. Since the 1930s, the building has been the Georgian House Museum and is arranged as it might have been during Pinney’s era. The rooms are grand and full of light, with high-ceilinged Georgian architecture, tall windows and delicate colour schemes of duck egg, cream and white. The dining room is set with fine china and, in the pantry, a foot-high column of sugar would have needed chipping like an ice block.

Upstairs there are a series of panels detailing the way Pinney ran his Nevis plantation. The tradesman owned around 200 slaves and died a millionaire in 1818. When the Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, his son, Charles Pinney, received £29,000 in compensation for loss of ‘property’, an amount worth around £2.5m today. Altogether, Bristol’s plantation owners received £500,000 in compensation, which could be worth more than £2 billion in today’s money. The freed slaves received no compensation at all. 

In the furthest corner of the room is a new panel dedicated to Fumnanya Coker. She was born on Nevis to a mother taken from Nigeria at the age of 12. Like Pero, she was brought to Bristol by Pinney, however she was freed and permitted a small wage. 

Ros Martin has been involved in bringing Fumnanya’s life to the fore. She is in two minds about the city’s attitude to slavery. ‘It is troubling that exhibitions showing the Black experience are often temporary,’ she says. But she remains hopeful that stories such as Fumnanya’s ‘can help residents to think critically about their city’. Though the room with Fumnanya’s history is the smallest in the house, it’s also the busiest. Maybe her tale is having the desired effect.

VIEWPOINT
• Location: Bristol
• Type: Urban
• Duration: 90 minutes, 1.5 miles
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the December 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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