Under the Neem Tree

Can Bristol City Conceal Its Slave Past?

Can Bristol City Conceal Its Slave Past?
  • PublishedJune 7, 2006

The British weekly, The Observer, reported on 7 May (2006) that “passions” were “running high” in the city of Bristol over whether it “should say sorry” for its role in the slave trade.

“For generations,” said the newspaper, the people of Bristol had “gloried in the beauty of their city, with its graceful Georgian terraces, grand public buildings and honey-coloured churches.” What they had failed to acknowledge was the part that money from the slave trade had played in creating that magnificence. But now, the people were being made to face “a decision that has split the city – whether to apologise for the cruel trade that paid for so much that makes it beautiful.”

The front page headline in the Evening Post, Bristol’s local newspaper, was in no doubt when it said: “It’s time the city said sorry”. But, there was no consensus on the issue. Dr Gareth Griffiths, director of Bristol’s  British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, pointed out that Bristol was “one of the main ports involved in the trading of slaves taken from West Africa to British colonies in the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most Bristolians were involved in the slave trade in one way or other,” he added. “Local people supplied the labour and provisions for the slaving ships; they created the goods that paid for the slaves and they bought the spoils from the ships when they returned.”

The extent of Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is to be discovered in practically every civil and religious landmark in the city: from Merchants Wharf to the Redcliffe Caves where slaves were probably incarcerated, to Queen Square – completed at the height of Bristol’s involvement in the trade – where a former mayor called Nathaniel Day petitioned against a tax on slaves.

No official representative of Bristol has ever apologised for the fact that, from 1698 to 1807, when trading in slaves from Africa was outlawed, 2,114 ships set sail from Bristol to Africa and then on to plantations in the Americas, carrying over half-a-million slaves. No one knows the exact number of slaves who were carted out of Africa altogether, but many people were killed during slave raids. Others died horrible deaths in the unhygienic holds of the ships that transported them. And yet more died on the plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, either through being brutalised whilst working, or being shot down when they tried to escape. Bristol’s record as a city that benefited from slavery was only exceeded by Liverpool. London also benefited enormously. Liverpool made a public apology for its role in the slave trade in 1994.

Kofi Mawuli Klu, chair of the Pan-Afrikan Taskforce for Internationalist Dialogue, told The Observer that Bristol had “failed to honestly come to terms with its role in the trade. The story of enslaved African peoples must be remembered, retold and reinterpreted. Only then can we come to terms with the fact that, although the trade ceased 200 years ago, the descendants of the slave trade in Bristol still live in mansions while the descendants of slaves remain in poverty”. And Toyin Agbetu, of Ligali, a voluntary organisation dedicated to challenging negative representations of the African-British community, said that an apology by Bristol would encourage honest engagement with the past. “An apology is just a beginning,” he said. “As well as an apology, there should be re-education, reparation and a rewriting of history.”

As has been reported in New African, an organisation calling itself the “African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission” has already set the ball rolling, in terms of reparations, by demanding  that “777 trillion US dollars”  be paid as  reparations by the West for slavery and colonialism in Africa. The sum of “$777 trillion!” has shocked some people in the West, but the question I keep asking these Western cynics is: what sum is not “crazy”? Africans were “valued” like goods or animals by the white slavers before being sold. Should Africans now condescend to place a value on themselves that is not “crazy”? Who is to decide the value of one human being as against another?

The “$777 trillion” was only a metaphorical figure, whose outlandish size was meant to draw attention to the enormity of the crime committed against the African people through the slave trade. NOTHING can ever compensate Africans for the suffering that slavery and colonialism wrought on African societies for over 400 years. We cannot forget that. 

As for Bristol, a report on the BBC website published in 2005 said: “Look around you in Bristol and you’ll see all sorts of reminders of the slave trade that made the city prosperous during the 18th century. There are concert halls, street names and statues to commemorate the men who exploited slavery [emphasis added]. But there is precious little to remember the thousands of victims of the slave trade. With its strategic position on the River Severn, Bristol has always been a city of merchants and traders. The slaves were taken to the Americas in dreadful conditions. This abhorrent trade lasted for a relatively short time, but its influence on the city’s wealth was immense. Between 1200 and 1600, many Bristolians made their fortunes through the cloth and wine trades. They soon controlled all merchant trading going out from the port, and Bristol itself became the second biggest city in [Britain].”

Visit Bristol today and one name you cannot help coming across often is that of the big slave trader, Edward Colston. There is Colston Street, The Colston Hall, and Colstons’ schools. The man whose name is thus honoured, Edward Colston, was born in 1636, the son of a wealthy merchant. He made his money initially by trading with Spain and other Mediterranean countries. However, although he went to great lengths to keep it a secret, Colston became, in 1680, a member of the company to which the British Parliament had given a monopoly over the slave trade, the Royal African Company. Colston took a very active part in the planning and financing of slaving ventures to Africa, with his name appearing in the company records for 11 years.

Through his profits from slavery, Colston became a popular benefactor to the City of Bristol, providing money for various charities throughout his life, despite the fact that he lived in London from the time he was 18 until his death. There is a statue of Colston in the city. But it’s what the statue doesn’t say that’s interesting. It doesn’t say that a significant portion of his wealth was based on the labour of enslaved people.

There isn’t very much information in the city, generally, about the iniquitous trade through which the rich Bristol merchants would take their goods to West Africa to trade for slaves. Or how the slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to the Americas in appalling conditions, with many not even surviving the journey. Nor is there much to be found about how the slaves  were put to work on the plantations, and the profits made by the merchants when they returned to Bristol with sugar, tobacco, cocoa, coffee and cotton from the Caribbean and the Americas, which were sold for enormous profits. From these profits, new voyages were planned for Africa, whose profits would be used to buy goods to be sold in Bristol and other cities in Europe. This is why the trade was called the “Triangular Trade”.  

Another slave trader whose name is commemorated in Bristol is Azariah Pinney (1661-1720). Pinney was banished from England in 1685 because he was involved in a rebellion, and sailed to the Island of Nevis in the West Indies. He was a clever businessman and he managed to make money and buy land. Using slaves, he turned this land into a sugar plantation. His descendants became very rich. One of them, John Pinney II (1740-1818) went to Nevis in 1764. In a letter to someone back in Bristol dated 1765, he wrote: “Since my arrival, I’ve purchased 9 Negro slaves in St Kitts and can assure you I was shocked at the first appearance of human flesh for sale. But surely God ordained ‘em for the use and benefit of us, otherwise his Divine Will would have been made manifest to us by some particular sign or token.”  

He set up business as a sugar merchant. He made even more money than he had as a plantation owner. He owned grand houses in the country and had a smart new town house – “The Georgian House” – built. It is now owned by the Bristol Museum.

These are the people upon whom Bristol bestows its honours. But as more people obtain information about the slave trade, Pinney and his ilk will be systematically unmasked and presented in their true colours. Africans and people of African descent have very good precedents to follow in terms of negotiating for reparations for slavery. For instance, a group of Jewish organisations have succeeded in getting German firms to pay thousands of Nazi-era slave labourers large sums from a $4.5bn German compensation fund – more than half a century after the fact.

The payments were in respect of Jews presented by the Nazis to German firms for use as forced labourers during the Second World War. The companies that set up the compensation fund include famous names such as Volkswagen, BMW, Deutsche Bank, BASF, Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, and Dresdner Bank. Originally, the organisations representing the Jews demanded $20 billion. So seriously did the firms take the Jews’ claims that they were represented at the negotiations by no less a person than the former German economics minister, Count Otto Lambsdorff.

This episode, and one involving Swiss banks, has proved the Akan saying that: “Wo ka ntam hye amena mu a, efiri ba!” (If you swear an oath and secretly hide it in a hole in the ground, it will eventually emerge to the surface one day!). 

PS: After writing my piece, I have since learned (via the BBC website) that Bristol unofficially apologised for its role in slavery more than 20 years ago, despite [the] new debate. In mid-May, hundreds of people took part in a meeting to discuss the city’s part in the slave trade, and voted in favour of a formal apology. But the organisers of a civic ceremony in 1982 say Bristol said sorry for its slavery links back then.

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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