Bristol slave trade

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Stowage of a British slave ship, Brookes (1788) Slaveshipposter (cropped).jpg
Stowage of a British slave ship, Brookes (1788)

Bristol, a port city in south-west England, was involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Bristol's part in the trade was prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries as the city's merchants used their position to gain involvement. It is estimated that over 500,000 enslaved African people were traded by Bristol merchants.



Located on the banks of the River Avon in the South West of England, the city of Bristol has been an important location for maritime trade for centuries. [1] Bristol participated in the medieval slave trade from before 1000 AD, with English and Irish slaves being traded until the 1100s. [2] The city's involvement with the slave trade peaked between 1730 and 1745, when it became the leading slaving port. [3] Bristol's port facilitated, and benefited from, the transport of half a million slaves. In 1750 alone, Bristol ships transported approximately 8,000 of the 20,000 enslaved Africans sent that year to the British Caribbean and North America. [2]

Transatlantic slave trade

Bristol's entry into the slave trade

The Royal African Company, a London-based trading company, had control over all trade between the Kingdom of England and Africa from 1672 to 1698. [4] At this time, only ships owned by the Royal African Company could trade for anything, including slaves. Slaves were an increasingly important commodity at the time, since the British colonisation of the Caribbean and the Americas in the 17th century which necessitated cheap labour to work on Sugar, Rum, Tobacco and Cotton Plantations. [2]

The Society of Merchant Venturers, an organisation of elite merchants in Bristol, wanted to participate in the African slave trade, and after much pressure from them and other cities such as Liverpool and Hull, the Royal African Company's control over the slave trade was broken in 1698. As soon as the monopoly was broken, Bristol commenced its participation, though it is thought that illegal involvement preceded this. [5] [2] What is thought to have been the first "legitimate" Bristol slave ship, the Beginning, owned by Stephen Barker, purchased a cargo of enslaved Africans and delivered them to the Caribbean [6] [ self-published source? ]. Some average slave prices were £20, £50, or £100. In her will of 1693, Jane Bridges, Widow of Leigh Upon Mendip bequeathes her interest of £130 in this ship to her grandson Thomas Bridges and indicates that the vessel was owned by the City of Bristol. Due to the over-crowding and harsh conditions on the ships, it is estimated that approximately half of each cargo of slaves did not survive the trip across the Atlantic. [7] [2]

Bristol became one of the biggest centres of the transatlantic slave trade between 1725 and 1740, when it is estimated that profits of 5-20% were made from the trading of black slaves. One estimate suggests that over 500,000 Africans were brought into slavery by Bristol traders. [8] By the 1730s, an average of 39 slave ships left Bristol each year, and between 1739 and 1748, there were 245 slave voyages from Bristol (about 37.6% of the whole British trade). In the last years of the British slave trade, Bristol's share decreased to 62 voyages or, 3.3% of the trade in Great Britain – in comparison, Liverpool's share increased to 62% (1,605 voyages). [9]

Number of enslaved African people traded

"Am I not a woman and a sister?" antislavery medallion from the late 18th century SisterSlave.jpg
"Am I not a woman and a sister?" antislavery medallion from the late 18th century

An estimated 2108 slaving ventures departed from Bristol between 1698 and 1807. The average number of enslaved people on a ship was considered to be in excess of 250. It is therefore estimated that merchants in Bristol were responsible for more than 500,000 enslaved African people being shipped to the Caribbean and North America. [10]

Triangular trade

Depiction of the classical model of the triangular trade Triangle trade2.png
Depiction of the classical model of the triangular trade

The triangular trade was a route taken by slave merchants between England, Northwest Africa and the Caribbean during the years 1697 to 1807. [11] Bristol ships traded their goods for enslaved people from south-east Nigeria and Angola, which were then known as Calabar and Bonny. They exchanged goods produced in Bristol like copper and brass goods as well as gunpowder, which were offered as payment of shares in the voyages by Bristol tradesmen and manufacturers. [12] The ships set sail to St Kitts, Barbados and Virginia to supply English colonies requiring free or cheap labour to work on sugar and tobacco plantations, with enslaved Africans. [9] Alongside slaves, British colonies were supplied with a wide range of goods for the plantations by the Bristol ships; this included guns, agricultural implements, foodstuffs, soap, candles, ladies’ boots and 'Negro cloths' for the enslaved, from which the British economy benefited. [2] Some Bristol slave merchants were also importers of goods produced in the plantations. [13] This meant that the Bristol economy was intrinsically linked to slave-produced Caribbean goods such as sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa. These goods were imported for sugar refining, tobacco processing and chocolate manufacturing; all important local industries which employed thousands of working-class people in Bristol and the surrounding areas. [2]



The slave trade significantly influenced the growth of racist theory as a method for society to justify itself. [2] Stories of slave rebellions, runaways and attacks on plantation owners in the colonies were printed in the British press to perpetuate the myth that Black people were unreasonable and violent. Such narratives impacted how black people were treated in Bristol long into the 20th century. For example, in the 1960s, the Bristol Omnibus Company openly employed only white bus drivers and conductors, [2] resulting in the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. [14] A number of people impacted by the slave trade were invited back to the United Kingdom as part of the Windrush generation from 1948 onwards, and a significant number of these people settled in St. Paul's in Bristol. [15] Members of the "Windrush generation" faced significant discrimination when they arrived in the United Kingdom from the Caribbean. [16]

Street names, schools and public buildings

Colston Hall in Bristol Colston Hall, Colston Street, Bristol (geograph 3705711).jpg
Colston Hall in Bristol

Street names such as Guinea Street, Jamaica Street, Codrington Place, Tyndall's Park, Worral and Stapleton Roads are references to Bristol's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. [2] Using the wealth generated from the slave trade, merchants invested in purchasing land, cultural buildings and upgrading ships in Bristol. The Theatre Royal in Bristol, which is the second oldest working theatre in the country, was built as a result of very wealthy subscribers (that directly or indirectly benefitted from businesses involved in the slave trade) each pledging a sum of money for the building. [8] Some buildings and institutions such as schools were named after their slave trading benefactors; for example, Colston Hall, Colston Girls School and Colston Primary School (renamed recently to Cotham Gardens Primary School) were named after Edward Colston, a Bristol-born slave trader and member of the Royal African Company and the Merchant Venturers Society. [17]

Georgian House, Bristol was originally built for John Pinney (1740 - 1818) who owned several sugar plantations in West Indies. From 1762 - 1783, Pinney lived on Nevis, running his plantations, but in 1783 he returned to England and settled in Bristol. When Pinney moved to Bristol, he brought two black attendants with him - Fanny Coker and Pero Jones - who were both bought by Pinney in 1765. Pero was twelve years old when bought along with his two sisters, Nancy and Sheeba at six years old. [18] There is related original documentation held by the University of Bristol library, for example, the record when Pinney bought Pero and his two sisters [19] and proof of age when bought. [20] Pero's Bridge, named after Pero, is a footbridge across the River Frome which was opened in the docks of Bristol, 1999. Nancy and Sheeba were left behind to work on Montravers plantation in Nevis. Pero died in 1798, aged 45 in Ashton, Bristol. [21]


Several Bristol banks, such as the Bristol Old Bank, were founded by prominent slave traders and merchants, such as Isaac Elton. [22] [ self-published source? ] [23] [24] They have amalgamated and changed names many times before becoming part of other institutions, notably NatWest. [25]

Profit and wealth

Residents in Bristol could financially benefit from the slave trade in a myriad of ways. This was primarily from investing in the slave voyages, which were sometimes funded by as many as eight investors. They also benefits from industries which facilitated the slave trade, for example, employment in the production of goods that were exported to the plantations and to Africa, employment in the ships which carried enslaved Africans and local goods and, from the handling and further refinement of cargoes received from the plantations. It is estimated that by the late 1780s, Bristol earned £525,000 per year from all of these slave-related commercial activities. Since this was past the peak of Bristol's participation in the slave trade, it is likely that Bristol's earnings from the commercialisation of enslaved Africans and related activities were much higher in the earlier 18th century. [13]

Whilst the Bristol economy benefited, it was primarily the merchants that owned the ships who made significant material gains in their personal family wealth. The merchants were organised as a group in the Merchant Venturers Society. Given their status with holding leadership positions in Bristol, the Society was able to successfully oppose movements to abolish the slave trade in the late 1700s in order to maintain their power and source of wealth. The slave trade in the British Empire was abolished in 1807 however the institution itself was not outlawed until 1834. [2] Following the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland's Slave Compensation Act of 1837, which compensated slave owners for the loss of what was considered their property, according to the Bristol Museums, plantation owners based in Bristol claimed over £500,000, equivalent to £2bn in 2020. [26]

The folk duo Show of Hands have written and performed a song entitled "The Bristol Slaver" covering the subject.


M Shed in Bristol explore Bristol's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade in their 'Bristol People' gallery. It features a section on the legacies of the slave trade on some of Bristol's public institutions. It features the antislavery movement as the beginning of a display on modern public protests including the Bristol Bus Boycott, treating the abolition campaign as the start of a British tradition of society campaigning. [27] M Shed held a workshop on Bristol and the Transatlantic slave trade from September 2019 to July 2020. [28] This workshop encouraged students to investigate historic objects, modern attitudes and opinions and to consider how Bristol was changed by its involvement in the slave trade. M Shed also held a workshop in February 2020 on 'Slavery, public history and the British country house', outlining the historic links to slavery of many country houses in the south west of England. [29]

New Room, Bristol has an exhibition about the abolitionist John Wesley and the Methodist response to slavery.

See also

Related Research Articles

Atlantic slave trade Slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th to the 19th centuries

The Atlantic slave trade, transatlantic slave trade, or Euro-American slave trade involved the transportation by slave traders of various enslaved African people, mainly to the Americas. The slave trade regularly used the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, and existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from Central and West Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans to Western European slave traders ; Europeans gathered and imprisoned the enslaved at forts on the African coast and then brought them to the Americas. Except for the Portuguese, European slave traders generally did not participate in the raids because life expectancy for Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa was less than one year during the period of the slave trade. The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies were particularly dependent on labour for the production of sugarcane and other commodities. This was viewed as crucial by those Western European states which, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with one another to create overseas empires.

Triangular trade Trade among three ports or regions

Triangular trade or triangle trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.

Royal African Company English slave trading company

The Royal African Company (RAC) was an English mercantile (trading) company set up in 1660 by the royal Stuart family and City of London merchants to trade along the west coast of Africa. It was led by the Duke of York, who was the brother of Charles II and later took the throne as James II. It shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade.

Edward Colston British merchant, politician, philanthropist and slave trader

Edward Colston was an English merchant, philanthropist and Tory Member of Parliament who was involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

Slave Coast of West Africa

The Slave Coast is a historical name formerly used for that part of coastal West Africa along the Bight of Benin that is located between the Volta River and the Lagos Lagoon. The name is derived from the region's history as a major source of African people taken into slavery during the Atlantic slave trade from the early 16th century to the late 19th century.

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean Slavery in British and French possessions in the Caribbean

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean refers to slavery in the parts of the Caribbean dominated by France or the British Empire.

A slave plantation was an agricultural farm that used enslaved people for labour. The practice was abolished in most places during the 19th century.

Scramble (slave auction)

A scramble was a particular form of slave auction that took place during the Atlantic slave trade in the European colonies of the West Indies and the United States. It was called a "scramble" because buyers would run around in an open space all at once to gather as many bondspeople as possible. Another name for a scramble auction is "Grab and go" slave auctions. Slave ship captains would go to great lengths to prepare their captives and set prices for these auctions to make sure they would receive the highest amount of profits possible because it usually did not involve earlier negotiations or bidding.

John Pinney

John Pretor Pinney was a plantation owner on the island of Nevis in the West Indies and was a sugar merchant in Bristol. He made his fortune from England’s demand for sugar. His Bristol residence is now the city's Georgian House Museum.

John Dukinfield was a Bristol merchant and slave trader. Born 12 August 1677 in Bristol, he died in 1745. He had two brothers, Robert and William. A member of the family holding the Dukinfield baronetcy, he was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers.

Abraham Hooke was a wealthy slave merchant from Bristol who participated in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from 1703 to 1736.

Statue of Edward Colston Statue in Bristol, England, toppled 2020

The statue of Edward Colston is a bronze statue of Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston (1636–1721), which was originally erected in The Centre in Bristol, England. It was created in 1895 by the Irish sculptor John Cassidy and erected on a plinth of Portland stone. It was designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977.

William Challoner was a prominent Bristol slave trader in the 18th century.

William Swymmer was a Bristol sugar merchant, involved in the slave trade. In 1667, he became a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers. He was an alderman in Bristol, and then Sheriff in 1679. Swymmer may have inherited a share in a sugar plantation in Barbados from his father. His brother Anthony Swymmer and his wife Elizabeth Swymmer were also involved in the slave trade. Records survive of the1684 correspondence from William Swymmer and William Hayman, to William Helyar, the Somerset owner of a Jamaica plantation, explaining why they were unable to provide the ten slaves they had contracted to supply. The deal was illegal, as the Royal African Company had a monopoly on the British slave trade at this point.

William Hayman, was a merchant, slave trader and Mayor of Bristol in the 17th Century.

Thomas Daniel (merchant) English merchant and Caribbean planter

Thomas Daniel was a slave owner and sugar merchant in Bristol who was known as the "King of Bristol" because of his omnipotence in corporate affairs for over 50 years.

George Case (slave trader) English slave trader

George Case (1747–1836) was a British slave trader who was responsible for at least 109 slave voyages. Case was the co-owner of the slave ship Zong, whose crew perpetrated the Zong massacre. After the massacre, the ship owners went to court in an attempt to secure an insurance payout of £30 for each enslaved person murdered. A public outcry ensued and strengthened the abolition movement in the United Kingdom. In 1781, he became Mayor of Liverpool. After he died, the wealth generated by his slavery was bequeathed to the Case Fund by his grandson.

William Gregson (slave trader) British slave trader (1721–1800)

William Gregson was a British slave trader. He was responsible for at least 152 slave voyages, and his slave ships are recorded as having carried 58,201 Africans, of whom 9,148 died. Gregson was the co-owner of a ship called the Zong, whose crew perpetrated the Zong massacre.

Liverpool, a port city in north-west England, was involved in the transatlantic slave trade. The trade developed in the eighteenth century, as Liverpool slave traders were able to supply fabric from Manchester to the Caribbean islands at very competitive prices.

John Knight (slave trader) English slave trader

John Knight (1708-1774) was an English slave trader. He was responsible for at least 114 slave voyages in the period 1750-1775 and he transported over 26,000 Africans to the Americas. Knight traded enslaved Africans with the American politician and slave owner Henry Laurens.


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31. Bristol's involvement in Slavery both before and during the Transatlantic Slave trade

Further reading