The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most disgusting examples of racism in recorded history. Millions of black people were kidnapped from their homelands, separated from their families and forced into slavery.
Many were tortured and abused.
Many never escaped captivity.
The UK was one of the most prolific slave trading countries. A lot of Britain’s riches were made in the plantation fields of America, Africa and The Caribbean.
The UK itself had several slave trading ports. Some of these locations included Liverpool, Portsmouth and Bristol.
In the 17th and 18th century, many black people were sold into slavery here in Bristol, where their physical bodies (and minds) were thought of as commodities/products. We will be giving you a few examples of what this would have looked like.
Documented Examples of Bristol’s Ties To Colonialism
John Riddell of Bristol Wells (talking about his slave Dublin, who had escaped from him).
“He was determined to leave me as soon as I returned from London which he did without even speaking to me... I believe that I shall not give myself any trouble to look after (for) this ungrateful villain”.
The idea of being a slave was thought of as a privilege to some white people believe it or not. It was almost unbelievable to them that black people would dare try to escape captivity! For British people, owning black people was a way of in their eyes saving them from the “barbaric” life experienced in their home lands (how ironic!!). To run away was seen as the ultimate betrayal to slave/servant owners, which is why Mr Riddell is so vex here!!
Slaves or “servants” who had escaped captivity struggled to avoid their masters, who would usually pay people to locate, kidnap and force their runaway slaves on board ships to the West Indies. This happened in Bristol all the time. So even if you technically “escaped”, you were not free until you escaped from the men trying to find you.
Sometimes loyal slaves or servants were simply sold on, viewed as commodities or products that had outlived their particular purpose. This is seen in the Bristol Journal, who had reported on the sale of a black servant who had been sold for £80 Jamaica currency. She was shipped to Jamaica to fulfil further slave duties.
“Tears flowed down her face like a shower of rain” as she boarded the ship at Lamplighters Hall” - this is now a pub in Bristol by the way.
Some Black people were not classed as slaves in Bristol, but as servants. They were still seen as inferior to white people. In some cases though, there were positive, almost parental relationships between servants and masters. (for example, Scipio Africanus and Charles William Howard).
Generally speaking, slave/servant adverts were incredibly common in newspapers:
Farleys Bristol Newspaper, 31st August 1728 – An ad from Captain John Gwythen
“For sale – a Negro man about 20 years old, well limbed, fit to serve a gentlemen or instructed in a trade”.
The sale of human beings were conducted in pubs, coffee houses and in some cases by art dealers, who would sell paintings alongside human "commodities".
Ashton Court was owned by the Smyth family until the 1950’s, who lived on the estate since it was purchased in 1545 by John Smyth, the former sheriff and mayor of Bristol.
Some historians argue that the Smythss were involved with the slave trade as early as the 1630s, before Bristol became a “Big Dog” in the colonial trade.
This is now a location for conferences and weddings, but the mansion was originally built in 1814 for a man named Philip John Miles.
Miles inherited his father's Caribbean plantations to become Bristol first sugar millionaire and biggest West India merchant, according to Historic England academics.
Slave Compensation Records also show Miles claimed over £36,000 for the 1,700 African slaves at plantations in Jamaica and Trinidad in 1830s. This is the equivalent of £3,000,000 today. Just let that sink in. The average wage of a skilled labourer was £12-15 per year during this time, so this shows you just how much money was claimed back by Miles at the time for owning slaves. No money was given to former slaves who were liberated.
How does this make you feel knowing that slavery was a common practice in Bristol only a few lifetimes ago?
How do you think black people in Bristol felt during this time?
Did you know any of this information beforehand? If the answer at any point is no, why do you think you haven’t been taught about this?
If you could tell someone close to you one thing about what you have learned here, what would it be and why?
Bristol has a very uncomfortable history when it comes to the transatlantic slave trade. As a city, a large proportion of wealth and business was accumulated through the buying and selling of black people. Edward Colston, the man whose statue was recently thrown into the harbourside was one of the most prolific slave traders in Bristol and probably embodied this point best. Yes, he donated money to hospitals and invested in businesses, but this money came directly from the slave trade. It came from treating black people like cattle, like sugar - anything but human. This is why the community was so outraged by buildings and statues being named after Colston - it was the history of Bristol that he represented!! This is just a very small insight into the history of Bristol and its ties to slavery, but hopefully now, if you didn’t know already, you can begin to see the impact the slave trade had on our city.
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Has this section peaked your interest?
Here are some further areas/people surrounding the transatlantic slave trade you may wish to research.
The Royal African Company
Sons of Africa
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