Posts Tagged ‘Bristol Museum’

Bristol’s Colston Hall Changes Name to Bristol Beacon

September 25, 2020

My fair home city of Bristol was in the news yesterday. One of its premier music venues, the Colston Hall, is changing its name. This is obviously a consequence of the pulling down of Colston’s statue on the town centre not far from the Hall a month or so ago by Black Lives Matter activists. The Hall’s been debating for a long time whether or not to change its name, and the decision has been hastened as it and other places try to distance themselves from the slaver and his legacy. Colston Tower, an office block on or near the centre, is also being renamed. And there was mention on the news a little while ago that Colston Girls’ school was also considering changing its name.

The item I saw about this on the national news showed one of the journos walking along Pero’s Bridge. It’s an eccentric structure crossing Bristol’s docks, as it has two horn-like structures either side of it at one point. It takes its name from one of the few slaves in the city, whose name is actually known. Then there was a brief interview with Dr. Edson Burnett, one of the leading historians of the Bristol slave trade. He said that the some people were afraid that the renaming of some of landmarks was an attack on history and an attempt to rewrite, but instead it was an attempt to uncover other histories that had been hidden or neglected.

He’s right, and David Olusoga was also correct when he pointed out in an article in the Radio Times the other week that none of the other historic statues in the area were attacked when the BLM protestors took down Colston’s and threw it in the docks. However, it still needs to be pointed out over and over again that Bristol’s involvement with the slave trade has never been covered up. It was mentioned in history textbooks for the city’s schoolchildren. Pero’s Bridge was put up in the 1990s, as was an exhibition, ‘A Respectable Trade’, at the City Museum and Art Gallery, and there is a gallery on it in Bristol’s M Shed.

As for the Colston Hall’s change of name, I don’t think it’ll make any difference. The debate has been going on for some time now, as have demands to have Colston’s statue removed. They were controversial, but now they’ve happened I don’t think it’ll make much difference. I think most Bristolians will simply shrug and get on with better things to do and think about.

And the Bristol Beacon is a great name for one of the city’s most historic and outstanding concert halls.

Correspondence with Deputy Major Asher Craig on Slavery Education in Bristol

July 9, 2020

Asher Craig (below) is Bristol’s deputy mayor from communities, which takes in public health, public transport, libraries, parks, and events and equalities, and the Labour councillor for St. George West.

Councillor Asher Craig

I sent an email to her on Tueday this week, 7th July 2020, expressing my concerns at a brief interview she had given to BBC News Sunday night, and which had been repeated that morning on Radio 4. This was about Edward Colston and the legacy of slavery in the city. The Beeb had dispatched Lisa Mzimba to Bristol to investigate this lingering issue, and sound out local people about their opinions on it. One of those he spoke to was Asher Craig. And her comments frankly annoyed me, because they appeared to show that she was unaware that the city had tackled slavery and produced books and exhibitions about it, and that there was now a gallery devoted to it at the M Shed museum on Bristol’s docks. She kindly replied to me, and I include this with my email in this article, as well as my own comments on this.

I’m very well aware how sensitive racial issues. Please don’t anyone troll her or send her abusive or threatening messages. There’s far too much of this on the net as it is, and I don’t want to stoke up more of it or increasing racism instead of trying get rid of it.

Craig had declared that Bristol had covered up its history of slavery, and that she wanted to see a museum of slavery opened here. She also said that the council was introducing a new curriculum, which would educate children about this aspect of the city’s past. This also concerned me, as I feel very strongly that western slavery needs to be put into its global context. Slavery has existed in many societies right across the world, including Africa and Islam. It was Black African kingdoms who sold the slave to us, rather than White Europeans raiding Africa directly for slaves, although that had also gone on. Furthermore, in the 16th and 17th centuries the Barbary pirates of Muslim north Africa raided Europe for slaves. Ships from Bristol were also attacked and their crews enslaved. I am concerned that these aspects of the slave trade should also be taught in order to avoid teaching a view that is equally racist but against Whites, that racism and slavery is something that only Whites do to people of colour.  And anti-White racism has also existed in Bristol alongside hatred of Blacks and other people of colour.

I therefore sent Deputy Mayor Craig the following email:

Dear Madam,

This morning Radio 4 broadcast a brief interview you did with the BBC’s news presenter, Lisa Mzimba, about the current controversy surrounding Edward Colston’s statue and the need to confront the city’s participation in the slave trade. You, like many people, feel that it has been insufficiently addressed and more needs to be done to tackle racism. Unfortunately, you made several statements which were factually incorrect and suggest that there are areas about Bristol’s education system and the various displays the city’s museums have put on to address this, of which you are unaware.

Firstly, you claimed that the city has covered up its involvement in the slave trade. This is myth, and I am shocked that it is still circulating. I understand that it comes from an incident in the 1970s when a member of Bristol’s Black community telephoned the city council whether there was anything available about the city and the slave trade. The person answering the call denied that Bristol ever took part in the trade. Obviously that is clearly wrong, and it is understandable that after this many of Bristol’s Black citizens would feel that the city was engaged in a cover-up.

However, educational materials produced at the time for teaching the city’s history in schools do cover the slave trade. The book Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey (Bristol: George’s Booksellers 1975) discusses the slave trade on its page on 18th century trade. 13 years ago there was also a book published about Bristol in 1807, which was specifically brought out to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. While this was a work of general history, it made a point of discussing the city’s participation in the slave trade. The book was available from the Central Library among other venues. The Central Library has also published a booklet of materials they hold on slavery. This was published by the Reference Library, and titled Bristol 1807: A Sense of Place – Our City in the Year of Abolition. It had the subtitle, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: A Reading List. The local branch of the historical association also published a booklet,Bristol and the Abolition of Slavery, by Peter Marshall.

In the 1990’s the City Museum presented an exhibition, ‘A Respectable Trade’, about Bristol and the slave trade, which coincided with the drama of that name then showing on BBC television, based on the book of the same name by Philippa Gregory. This exhibition has now ended, but there is an entire gallery devoted to the subject at the M Shed. I realize that a gallery or exhibition is not the same as the museum you wish to be built, but it does show that the local council has addressed this issue.

You also said that you had created a curriculum for schools across the city that would cover this and other aspects of Black history. I’d be very grateful if you could tell me whether this includes the participation of African states in the slave trade, and their resistance to its abolition. As I’m sure you’re aware, the slave trade was not simply a case of White Europeans kidnapping Black Africans. Many African states, such as Dahomey and Mali, had slavery long before the appearance of White Europeans in Africa. Europeans were largely confined to ghettos in some of these states’ cities, and it was these African states that led the raids and obtained the slaves, which they then sold to Europeans.

The slave trade was also not confined to White Europeans either. There was also the Arab and Indian slave trades, which saw people from central and eastern Africa enslaved and then exported to India, Afghanistan, Arabia and other countries. It was partly to suppress this slave trade that the British empire first made treaties with Imam of Muscat, who was then the region’s suzerain, and then invaded this part of Africa.There was also the Turkish slave trade, which saw Black Sudanese enslaved and transported north to Egypt and the other states of the Maghreb.Moroccan slave trade only ended in 1911, because the British empire actively opposed its conquest by the other European powers.

I realize that this goes beyond merely local history, but it is important to avoid perpetuating a simplistic view in which slavery in only something that Whites ever did to Blacks. You have made it very clear that you wish to stamp out racism. However, in my experience racism is far from being confined to Whites. There has been anti-White as well as anti-Black racism in Bristol’s schools, as well as vicious ethnic hatred between Asians and the BAME community. As difficult as this, I feel very strongly that this also needs to be addressed.

I would also like to know what you are doing to cover the subject of the White Bristolians, who were also enslaved. As you know, Bristol’s participation in the slave trade actually predates that of the transatlantic slave trade.The city sold English slaves abroad in the 11th and 12th century centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Bristolian seamen were also kidnapped and enslaved by the Barbary pirates. Five of Bristol’s ships were captured in one year. While the enslavement of White Europeans was obviously minuscule compared to that of the Black Africans enslaved – 2 1/2 million compared to 12 1/2 million, nevertheless it occurred and is, I believe, partly responsible for modern prejudices towards Islam.

I would greatly appreciate it if you could tell me what you are doing to address these issues, and look forward to your reply

Yesterday I got this reply from her.

Thank you for your email.

I am very much aware of the history of slavery in this city and the resources & educational materials you refer to in your email.

It’s a pity that my interview was edited because if you had heard my full response you would not have sent me such an email.

The One Bristol curriculum will tell the full truth not the half truths of history we were all taught in school. It will celebrate our black history from Africa, Caribbean, UK but will also expand to look at the wider local history of poor white working class communities. The History Commission the Mayor is putting in place will  also I form our work going forward.

We have to start somewhere and we’ve always known that the burning platform, I’m sure you’d agree, is eliminating racial hatred & discrimination which is deeply embedded in this society.

Thank you for the history lesson but we know what we’re doing. We work inclusively not exclusively which I’m afraid is the centuries old way of white men in power.

It’s possible that the appearance of ignorance on her part was caused by the Beeb’s editing. I think if you challenged them, the Corporation would probably tell you that it was all for time. But considering their shenanigans in trying to present as biased a view of the Labour party as they can get away with, I’m not sure you can completely discount malice. I doubt it in this case, however, as by and large the broadcast media has presented Black Lives Matter sympathetically. I am very much aware that there are glaring exceptions to this from the usual crowd of right-wing shills. There is a problem with the broadcaster’s own ignorance of Bristol’s history. An ITV report on the pulling down of Colston’s statue recited some of the old myths including that about Black Boy Hill. This is supposed to be named after a slave, but the 1990’s exhibition at the City Museum showed that this probably wasn’t true, and that it was most likely named after a race horse owned by Charles II.

Councillor Craig’s statement that the history curriculum would include that of the White working class is interesting, and a positive step if that is the case. However, I’m not impressed her comment about White men. It’s been true of western society,  but in nearly all societies across the globe power has been in the hands of elite men. And most societies have been extremely nationalistic as well as hierarchical, excluding other ethnic and social groups from power and privilege. I’ve met people, who have been really shocked at how racist some non-Western nations, like China, can be.

Bristol has also been an ethnically diverse city for centuries. The latest issue of the Postscript bargain books catalogue contains a book on this aspect of the city’s history. Written by Madge Dresser and Peter Fleming, two of the history lecturers at the University of the West of England, it titled Bristol: Ethnic Minorities and the City 1000-2001 (Phillimore 2009). The blurb for it runs

Over the past thousand years, Bristol, as one of England’s most important ports, has been a magnet for migrants. From medieval Jews to 21st-century asylum seekers. This pioneering study examines the activities of the various ethnic groups who have settled in the city. Investigating how the survived economically, how they dealt with social dislocation and discrimination, and how they constructed identities for their communities, it offers insights into the wider history of the city and the nation.

Dr Dresser was one of those involved in the creation of the 1990s slavery exhibit along with several others. I think one of them might have been Dr Mark Horton of Bristol University and then Time Team fame. Dresser teaches 18th century history and the slave trade at UWE, and has published a book on how the city continued slaving after its formal abolition, Slavery Obscured. If the city is putting together a commission to produce a multicultural approach to the city’s history, then it almost certainly will contain her.

As for Craig’s statement ‘Thank you for the history lesson but we know what we’re doing’, apart from showing a certain tetchiness – she obviously doesn’t like being pulled up on her history by a member of the public – it remains to be seen if the council does know what it’s doing. They won’t be short of experts, with real insights into these issues from the city’s universities.

It’ll be very interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Historian Edson Burnett: White Working Class Did Not Benefit from Bristol Slave Trade

June 10, 2020

Tonight on the local news programme for the Bristol region, Points West, the historian Dr. Edson Burnett said something very interesting about who did and did not benefit from the city’s slave trade. He was being interviewed as part of an item about the response of Bristol’s elected mayor, Marvin Rees, to the toppling of Colston’s statue on Sunday. Rees is Black, and has said during interviews on the past few days that while he understood that a number of Bristolians didn’t want to see the statue removed, and respected their feelings, he himself hated the statue and what it stood for. Now he has decided to set up a commission of historians and others to look into monuments and places in Bristol with connections to the slave trade, and decide what to do about them.

It isn’t just about the statue, but also about the names of streets and buildings like Colston Street, Colston Girls’ School, the Colston Hall and so on. Some of these are already distancing themselves from Colston and changing their names. Rees stated it was all about setting up a conversation with the public over the issue. The measures taken might include changing the names of places with offensive connections, but he left that open as just one option.

One of those appointed to the commission is Dr. Madge Dresser of the University of the West of England. She’s an historian, teaching the 18th century and specialising in the slave trade. She has written a couple of books about Bristol and the slave trade, one of which is Slavery Obscured. This is about how the city carried on financing and reaping the profits of the slave trade after its official abolition. She used to take her students on a field expedition to the slave fort in Gambia. She was also one of those involved in the expedition A Respectable Trade about Bristol and the slave trade at the City Museum in 1995. She’s an excellent choice.

Another expert, who has been selected for it is Dr. Edson Burnett. Burnett’s Black, and has researched and written extensively about Bristol and the slave trade. And he said something very interesting indeed. I thought he would keep himself to commenting on the effect of slavery on Black people. But he didn’t. He also wanted to include the White working class as those affected by it. He said that the White working class did not benefit from the trade, and said that many sailors were so afraid of slavery voyages that they had to be duped.

This is brilliant! I wish someone had made this point 25 years ago when the City Museum opened its superb exhibition.

I have absolutely no doubt that Dr. Burnett is right. A paper published by Black American students of the slave trade found that mortality among the crew of slave ships in the Middle Passage was slightly higher than those of the slaves themselves. One crewman wrote a pamphlet angrily attacking his captain, as he had contracted a disease during the voyage that robbed him of his sight. He was angry as he had no sympathy from his captain, who had refused him treatment. Historians have rightly commented on the sailor’s own callousness, as he had no sympathy for the poor slaves the ship carried. as for the attitude of contemporary Bristolians towards the trade, a famous visitor to the city commented that everyone hated it, but they could see no way of doing without it. And so the city carried on its bloody business.

Edson’s inclusion of the White working class among those excluded from the trade’s benefits is very interesting. The Tories are able to muster popular support for their policies, including their view of history, by presenting it as a matter of angry, racist Blacks against all Whites. The whole ‘Southern Strategy’ of the Republican party in America is based on them posing as the defender of poor Whites, who feel unfairly discriminated against by pro-Black affirmative action campaigns. This is also how they manage to persuade dirt poor Whites to vote against the introduction of welfare benefits. Because they manipulate the situation to seem that such benefits would only go to profligate, undeserving Blacks. It’s a classic case of ‘divide and rule’.

I’m assuming that the Tories are gearing up to do something similar about this attack on traditional British history and the monuments left by the slave trade and imperialism. They and the Tory press will present it as evil Commies and Blacks working to erase proper history and White identity. They will claim that those liberal elites are going to benefit Blacks at the expense of the White working class. The same White working class they themselves cordially despise and patronise.

But Burnett seems to have dodged that by excluding them as those who benefited from the trade.

This is going to be a very interesting discussion indeed.

Expect more Tory anger soon!

 

Racial Politics and the Toppling of the Statue of Slaver Edward Colston

June 9, 2020

On Sunday Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of Edward Colston from its plinth in the city’s centre, and threw it in the Floating Harbour. It’s been both local and national news. The local news interviewed a White woman, who had been part of the protest. She was married to a Black man, and as the mother of a half-Black child thoroughly approved of the statue’s maltreatment. In fact, she felt a bit teary and overcome with emotion.

Colston, Slavery and Charity

It’s not hard to see why. Colston was a 17th-18th century slaver and president of the Royal African Society. He made a colossal fortune from the enslavement of Black Africans. As historians and Black activists have pointed out, millions of the enslaved died en route to America and the Caribbean due to the appalling conditions on board the slave ships. Slavers like Colston also responded brutally to slave mutinies aboard ship by throwing their cargo overboard, chains and all, to drown. They also did this if a storm threatened to sink the ship, and they needed to lighten it. That’s shown in the classic 19th century painting of a ship at sea facing an oncoming storm. It was based on a real incident, that of the Zong, and the painting shows the struggling Blacks drowning as a detail.

Anti-racism activists have been campaigning for the statue’s removal for over forty years, ever since the St. Paul’s race riots of the 1980s. Mike wrote a long piece about it yesterday. He, and the peeps, whose tweets he cited, viewed the statue’s fall as good riddance to bad rubbish. He wondered why it hadn’t been done years ago. Some of those commenting were Blacks, like the awesome Kerry-Ann Mendoza of The Canary. They compared the statue to those of Hitler, and described how it had tore them up to go past it. If Colston had only been a slaver, the statue’s removal wouldn’t have been an issue. What complicated the matter is that Colston, who actually spent most of his life in Mortlake in London, gave very generously to charity. He endowed several schools in Bristol, one of which was Colston Girls School. As Mike explains in his excellent article, we also had Colston Day at school. This was a one-day holiday. Some pupils were also called upon to attend a special service at St. Mary Redcliffe church, and received a Colston bun. Mike had that experience. So did I.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

I should also point out here that, like Mike, I also grew up believing that one branch of our ancestral family tree, the Haberfields, had been slavers. That was dispelled last week by the historian David Olasuga on the Beeb’s programme, A House Through Time. Olasuga stated instead that the Haberfield’s made their money as wine merchants. There may have been other branches of the family that were slavers, however. I don’t know. I’ve heard stories that one ancestor was the captain of a slave ship, and that the City Museum has his log. But when I talked to people from the City’s museums, they denied they had any such thing. Bristol did benefit immensely from the slave trade, but, contrary to popular belief, most of the slaves were taken to the Caribbean. Those few that came back to the City were trusted personal servants. As a result, there is precious little in Bristol, apart from the luxurious homes the slavers built for themselves, that is directly connected to the slave trade. When the City Museum held an exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade there were so few objects left over from Bristol’s slave trade, that they had to borrow some from elsewhere. There are written documents, like contracts and ledgers, but museums don’t like putting them on display. Not because they’re trying to hide anything, as some people have alleged, but simply because visitors don’t find them interesting.

Anti-racist Politics in Bristol

There have been petitions over the years to remove the statue. It’s remained, because these campaigns did not achieve a majority. At the last poll, Bristolian opinion was divided half and half. Roughly the same proportion of people wanted the statue to stay as those, who wanted it gone. And not all Black anti-racism activists wanted it removed. Paul Stephenson was one of the leaders of the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960s and 1970s. This was against the colour bar operated by the local bus company, which refused to employ Blacks. When he was interviewed about racism and the slave trade in the city a few years ago, he felt the statue should be kept, but with a plaque pointing out that he was responsible for enslavement and genocide. As it is, the statue is going to be fished out of the harbour, and put on display in the M Shed. One of the arguments for keeping it up is that it serves to educate people about this aspect of Bristol’s history, but as one of the tweeters Mike quotes also says, this comes from people, who really don’t want schoolchildren talk about the dark side of the British empire.

I’ve also no doubt that some of the resistance to tearing the statue down and to some of the initiatives by the local authorities to commemorate Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and its millions of victims comes from the highly emotive and divisive racial politics in the city. Although Britain has had a Black presence since the Roman Empire, and Bristol has had a Black population from at least the 16th-17th centuries, there has only been a large Black community in Bristol since the mass immigration of the post-War years. The Black community in the inner city has, like those elsewhere, a reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and violent crime. St. Paul’s was a district Whites from outside the area drove through with their windows up and doors locked. Furthermore, some of the demands and accusations made by the community’s representatives were less than tactful.

It’s often asserted that Bristol was built on the slave trade. That’s true, but only up to a point. Bristol did profit very well from the trade, as did many other ports. But Bristol was great trading city before the slave trade took off in the 17th century. We traded with France, Spain and Portugal, as well as Ireland and across the Channel to Wales. And the first slaves sold by Bristol were White Anglo-Saxons bought by Irish merchants. The Anglo-Saxon cleric St. Wulstan visited the city to condemn the trade in the 11th century.

There’s also the problem that some anti-racist activists make unwarranted assumptions about racism and Whites. There’s an automatic assumption by some that if you’re White, you must be racist. That naturally gets peoples’ backs up. One of the Conservative blogs I read years ago quoted an American study that found that police officers tended to become more racist after anti-racist training than previously. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. The automatic reaction of anyone accused of racism, whatever their colour, is going to be resentment and defensiveness. And in the 1980s the Tory papers explicitly claimed that the riots were caused by Black racism. Some Black leaders didn’t help their cause either. I remember an article in the Absurder c. 1984/5 attacking one Black politician – it might have been Paul Boateng – for suggesting that Blacks should have their own autonomous areas. The writer correctly pointed out that this was a demand for segregation and apartheid. Fortunately, the call for separate Black communities went unheeded.

There has also been the problem that the city has devoted funds and resources in combating the poverty, unemployment and crime in the racially mixed inner city areas of Bristol, at the expense of the White majority areas further out. South Bristol was promised a local hospital back in the 1970s, but it was only built a few years ago. Positive discrimination schemes also give more funding to those areas with a large ethnic minority population. This has caused some resentment.

As a result it has seemed at times that the demands for Colston’s statue to be pulled down, and for the slave trade to be commemorated in Bristol, has come from a position of anti-White racism, rather than a desire for racial justice in itself.

Black Separatism and the Name of the Malcolm X Centre

And if you’re talking about the official commemoration of racists, there is the whole issue of the name of the community centre in St. Paul’s. It is, or was called the Malcolm X Centre, after the American civil rights leader. The problem is that Malcolm X’s organisation, the Nation of Islam, is racially separatist. They want a separate Black state, to be formed from a group of Black majority states in the US. In the 1960s they used to hold joint rallies with the American Nazi party. There was an article on this in the Sunday colour supplement for the Independent back in the 1990s. It contained an article written by a White American female photographer, who followed, interviewed and photographed Malcolm X at the time. The article reproduced some of the photos shed’ taken of these rallies. Now Malcolm X didn’t remain a separatist. He later converted to orthodox Islam, and supported integration after he went on the Hajj to Mecca, during which he found that people of all races were fundamentally the same. I think he also took an orthodox Muslim name. There is therefore the problem that if it is wrong to commemorate a slaver like Colston, then why should a Black activist, who also stood for racism and separation, be commemorated?

Conclusion

Colston’s statue had its time long ago. It’s removal, one way or another, was pretty much inevitable. It won’t be missed. The argument for its retention was weakened when the Americans began pulling down the statues of Confederate generals. At the same time, it’s right that Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and the slaves transported should be commemorated. There’s a whole gallery devoted to this at M Shed on Bristol’s docks. There’s also a slave walk, and a commemorative plaque. Black Lives Matter still has an urgent point. Racism still exists in this country, and Black communities as a rule are underprivileged, poorer with higher rates of unemployment and underrepresented in large parts of industry, society and the arts.

But anti-racist campaigns also need tact and sensitivity. Accusations that Whites in general are racist, or that Bristol must somehow be intrinsically racist because of slavery, just cause more division and resentment.

It leads to embittered Whites giving their votes to the Tories, who will just use them to justify their own racism and destruction of state aid for the disadvantaged regardless of their colour.

 

 

 

Two Books Showing Bristol Has Not Kept Secret Its Involvement in the Slave Trade

June 6, 2019

The week before last, Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns was in Bristol, examining its history in the Georgian period. The show’s presented by Dr. Alice Roberts, who I believe is the Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. She’s had a long career in television presenting programmes on archaeology, history and human evolution, beginning in the 1980s with Time Team. She’s a medical doctor, who I believe also taught anatomy at Bristol University. She regularly appeared on Time Team to give her opinion on any human remains that were recovered during their escavations.

Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’

Time Team was finally cancelled after a very successful run several years ago, but like its presenter Tony Robinson, Roberts has continued fronting history and archaeology programmes. Each week the show visits a different British town and explores a specific period of its history. Roberts tours the town, talking to experts on its history and architecture during the period, and very often tries on the ladies’ costume at the time. Last year among the various towns the series covered was Cheltenham during its heyday as a regency spa. This year’s series started off with Dover, concentrating on it history during World War II. Last week it was looking at Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, when the city became the major centre of the global coal industry. And the week before that they were in Bristol, telling its history during the Georgian period. Roberts has a personal connection to the city, as it’s her home town and she went to school here. She also had a personal connection to Cardiff, as it was at its university that she studied medicine.

Georgian Bristol

During the Georgian period – the age of the four Georges, from the early 18th century to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – Bristol was one of the leading cities in Britain. It’s a port, whose location on the Bristol Channel gave it an excellent position for trading with Africa and America. The programme covered other aspects of Bristol’s history during the period, like the emergence of gin, the 1827 massacre by the army in Queen’s Square in Redcliffe of a mob demanding electoral reform, and the development of the Clifton and Hotwells suburbs as genteel residential areas for the city’s new mercantile elite. But Bristol’s wealth at the time was largely produced from the immense profits from the slave trade. Ships from Bristol took trade goods down to west Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. These were then taken to the West Indies to be sold, and the ships returned to Bristol with West Indian goods like sugar and rum in what has become known as the triangular trade. And it was on this aspect of Bristol’s Georgian history that the programme concentrated.

The show is well done and the research is very thorough. Among those Roberts talked to was Dr. Steve Poole, a lecturer at the University of the West of England; a member of Bristol’s Radical History Group, who talked about the Queen’s Square Massacre; and a couple of distillers, who showed her how 18th century gin was made. She also talked to Dr. Edson Burnett about the slave trade, going through some of the ledgers left by the slavers itemising their ships’ human cargo in the city archives. Some of these are really shocking. They simply give the number of slaves shipped aboard, and the deaths during the voyage. Those taken were simply items of merchandise, with no names. The ledgers give brief descriptions of those who died and how the body was disposed of. They were simply thrown over the side. One of the most horrendous incidents was the scandal surrounding the Zong, a slave ship, which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard during a storm, and then tried to sue the insurance company for compensation for them as lost cargo. It’s a horrific atrocity and injustice. She also mentioned how a number of plays were written during the 18th century attacking the slave trade, many of which were set in Bristol. She then spoke to the writer and artistic director of a modern play about the trade being staged by Bristol’s historic Old Vic theatre.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

The programme’s coverage of Bristol’s history during the period was fair, although there was much obviously left out because of the constraints of the programme’s length. It’s an hour long, and it could easily take that long to discuss the city’s involvement with the slave trade and some of the architecture that was built for the merchants involved in the trade. As it was, the programme showed only one of them, the house of George Pinney, a 19th century West India planter and merchant. This is now a museum, the Georgian House, open to the public in one of the streets just off Park Street. However, Roberts opened the discussion of the city’s complicity in the slave trade with a statement that was simply wrong. She said that it was a terrible secret.

Exhibitions

Well, if Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is a secret, then it’s a very badly kept one! Bristol’s M Shed museum, which takes visitors through the city’s history and some of its industries, including aircraft and motor vehicles built here, has a display on the slave trade. This shows not only slave manacles and the manillas, bracelet-like items used for barter, but also maps of homes and other properties owned and occupied by the slave merchants and plantation owners. This follows an earlier exhibit at the City Museum in Queen Street, ‘A Respectable Trade’, which was timed to coincide with the TV series of that name on BBC 1, based on the book by historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The book and TV series were about the slave trade, and much of it was set in the Bristol of the time. The exhibition was staged by local council and showed the historical reality on which the fiction was based. Gregory also appeared in a TV programme at the time, exploring the city’s connection to the slave trade, in which she spoke to several Black anti-racist activists.

Books and Pamphlets

Since then there have been a number of books published on Bristol and the slave trade. The city library has published a catalogue of books and other materials it holds on the subject.  There has also been a book published on the City in 1807, the year in which the slave trade was officially prohibited throughout the British Empire. Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian at the University of the West of England, has also published a book, Slavery Obscured, on the persistence of the slave trade after its formal abolition, in which merchants from Bristol were involved. And back in the 1990s the local branch of the Historical Association published a booklet on Bristol’s Black population in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Society of Merchant Venturers, the mercantile organisation that dominated Bristol’s trade in that period, has also published a catalogue of its holdings, which included it’s members’ plantations in the West Indies.

Origin of Belief Bristol Keeping Slave Trade Connection Secret

I’ve been told by members of the city’s Black cultural and anti-racist organisations that the idea that the city council is somehow covering up the city’s involvement in the slave trade dates from the 1970s. A member of the community rang the council up to inquire about what they knew about Bristol and the slave trade, only to be told that the city wasn’t involved in it. Which is wrong. I wonder if the person, who answered the call genuinely didn’t know about Bristol’s history of slaving. But whatever the reality, this planted the idea that the city council was deliberating hiding the truth. I think it was partly to dispel this idea that the City Museum staged the 1995 exhibition.

Two Books on Bristol from the 1950s and 1970s

But even before then, the city’s involvement in the slave trade was known and discussed. For example, the book Bristol and Its Adjoining Counties, edited by C.M. MacInnes and W.F. Whittard, and published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955, has several pages on the slave trade in the chapter by MacInnes, ‘Bristol and Overseas Expansion’, pp. 219-230.

The 1975 textbook, Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey, published by Georges, also covers the slave trade in its chapter on city’s 18th century trade, pp. 31-2. All the chapters are a page or so in length, with another page suggesting projects or containing questions for students on that period of the city’s history. The paragraph on the slave trade runs

Unfortunately, Bristol was better known at this time for its links with the slave trade. The “Blackbirds” sailed to Africa with various goods, exchanged them for slaves which were then shipped to the West Indies or North America. The ships then returned home iwth sugar and tobacco, the whole “Triangular Trade” bringing enormous profits to many Bristol merchants. Before 1760, Bristol carried about one-third of all the slaves, but this number died away by the end of the century as the anti-slavery movement made progress. (p. 31).

Few Obvious Monuments to Slave Trade in City

I also think that part of this misconception may come from the fact that there are few monuments from the time that obviously have direct connections to the slave trade. When I was studying archaeology at Bristol, one of the foreign students on the archaeology course complained to one of the lecturers that her housemate believed Bristol was racist, because there were no monuments for the slaves. The housemate was another foreign student, from Guiana, where I believe the buildings for landing and sale of slaves still exist. I think the student expected similar buildings to exist in Bristol. But they don’t, as the bulk of the city’s slave trade was with the West Indies. There were slaves in Bristol, but these were brought to the city as personal servants, rather than imported en masse as they were in the Caribbean.

Historic Buildings and Later Monuments Connected to Slaves and Slave Trade

However, there are architectural hints at the city’s connection to the slave trade all around. The city’s merchants decorated the exterior of their homes with carvings symbolising their connection to Africa or the Caribbean, such as pineapples. There are also coloured statues, representing the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in St. Nicholas Market, one of which is a Black African. And several of the city’s pubs also claim a direct connection to the trade. The Ostrich, one of the pubs on the harbourside, had a cellar, in which, it was claimed, slaves were held ready for sale. When I used to drink there in the 1990s there was a poster up about it, along with reproductions of the advertisements of the time for runaway slaves. However, it may be the reality here was more prosaic. The 1995 exhibition said that many the connection of many of parts of Bristol to the slave trade may just be urban folklore. Blackboy Hill, for example, is probably not named after a slave boy, but possibly a racehorse owned by Charles II. The city has also made other gestures to commemorating the victims of the slave trade. There’s a slave walk along Bristol’s docks, and a plaque put up to those enslaved by city on one of the former warehouses by M Shed. A remarkable bridge built across the docks in the 1990s, which features two horn-like constructions, has been called ‘Pero’s Bridge’, after one of the slaves imported into Bristol. And there is a gravestone for Scipio, an African slave brought to the city by his master in one of the city’s churchyards.

Bristol has a very rich and fascinating history, of which the slave trade is one part. It’s a history that definitely needs to be told. And it has only been within the last quarter century or so that the slave trade has been memorialised in local museums, not just in Bristol, but also elsewhere. Bristol has joined Liverpool and Nantes in France in creating exhibitions and galleries on its involvement in the trade. Before then it’s fair to say that City Museum did not display anything on the slave trade. It was a period of the city’s history that most Bristolians probably would have preferred not to commemorate, but it was never forgotten nor kept hidden.