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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Slavery evident across many of our Sounding the City projects

One of the topics that we chose to research kept on cropping up in many of the other projects too - Slavery.

Arnos Vale Cemetery We found the grave of Mary Carpenter in our visits to Arnos Vale. In 1843, Mary became interested in the anti-slavery movement with the visit from American philanthropist and radical reformer Samuel May. In 1846 she attended a meeting at which the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass (who had escaped from slavery in 1838) spoke.  She raised funds for abolition and continued to campaign for twenty years. In 1851 the return of a fugitive slave from Boston back to the southern states caused her to say of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that the United States had

"committed an atrocious act ... against humanity, against itself, against God."

Bristol Old Vic

The Theatre Royal (now more commonly known as Bristol Old Vic), the second oldest working theatre in the country, was built as a result of very wealthy subscribers each pledging a sum of money for the building.  Several of these investors had made or improved their personal fortune from businesses directly involved in or related to the slave trade. Today some of the descendants of these families still have a silver token, which has been issued to the original investors that guaranteed a seat at any performance at the theatre.

These subscribers included the Farr family (later the owners of Blaise Castle Estate), Henry Bright and Michael Miller, who all lived in Queen Square and were participants in the African trade. Another patron, George Daubeny (Bristol's mayor in 1786), was a sugar refiner and glass manufacturer, who lobbied for abolition (and signed a petition against it in 1788), then changed his mind and joined the city's anti-abolition committee in 1789. Several plays adopted by the abolitionists were performed at the Old Vic, including 'Oroonoko', the story of an enslaved African and 'The Padlock' which was praised by Clarkson for its importance to the abolition cause.

Bristol Merchant Fleet & Floating Harbour

Although it would be another 30 years before slaves gained their final freedom when the bill to abolish the slave trade was finally voted upon, there was a majority of 41 votes to 20 in the Lords and a majority of 114 to 15 in the Commons.  On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute books. Nevertheless, although the Act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies, trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued, regardless, until 1811.

The Floating Harbour wasn't completed until 1809, 2 years after the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, by which time much of Bristol's port trade had left for Liverpool because:

  • Bristol was an expensive port because the Bristol Merchant Venturers, who controlled overseas trade, took all sorts of payments from the traders - including for anchoring, mooring, cranes to remove cargo, for the upkeep of the lighthouses in the Bristol Channel, to use the quays, to have pilots guide them down Avon Gorge (£16 to tow out of port and £12 for journey up river and back) and duties on the cargoes that were in addition to the ordinary customs duties (1 shilling (5p) on each hogshead of sugar).

  • Bristol was a busy port with dangerous overcrowded conditions.

  • As ships got bigger it was very hard for them to navigate the Avon Gorge safely - especially at Horseshoe Bend near Shirehampton.

  • There were no large industries around Bristol that needed to be exported, other than sugar.

As a result, Liverpool merchants were able to sell slaves £4 or £5 cheaper than in Bristol.

The port of Bristol had relied on the slave trade.  From the late 1300s to the mid 18th century, Bristol’s main income was related to seaborne trade, and the need to make a profit was fundamental. Bristol ship owners were always looking for new routes and new business opportunities and some merchants are recorded as having sent children as slaves to Ireland as early as the 12th century.

By the 18th century Bristol was England’s 2nd city and port. Local merchants lobbied King William III to be allowed to participate in the African trade, which until 1698 was a crown monopoly granted to The Royal African Company. Bristol merchants were given the right to trade in slaves in 1698. From then until the end of the Slave Trade in Britain in 1807, just over 2,100 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages. This amounted to around 500,000 Africans who were carried into slavery, representing just under one fifth of the British trade in slaves of this period.


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