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The slave trade: local truths

The Black Lives Matter campaign has seen people demonstrating against the presence of historic statues in cities across the world where the individuals had connections with slavery. Emma Clegg investigates and discovers that the slave trade is ingrained in our urban landscapes and our cultural heritage, including those of Bath and Bristol

William Wilberforce has loomed large in our history text books as the British abolitionist parliamentary warrior. He supported the campaign for the abolition of slavery, which led to the banning of the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807 and the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. His statue has a duly prominent place in Westminster Abbey.

For those studying the modern history of slavery however, Wilberforce only tells a fraction of the story. In fact he provided a convenient national hero, allowing the British in the years following the abolition to hide behind their country’s violent, self-seeking and profitable past.

Money talks, and for more than 200 years it talked louder than the individual rights of 3.1 million African men, women and children

Wilberforce could not have achieved what he did within parliament if there had not been a huge popular anti-slavery movement beyond it creating pressure on the elite political system who had benefitted. It was a host of voices who eventually caused the tide to turn, who forced parliament to rethink a system that had brought unparalleled wealth to the country, and even then a colossal budget was required to compensate the slave owners in the British Empire. Money talks, and for more than 200 years it talked louder than the individual rights of the 3.1 million African men, women and children who were stolen from their homeland and sold into slavery in the British colonies. It had to talk again to buy them their freedom.

As the Black Lives Matter movement upsurged in the aftermath of the brutal death of George Floyd in May in Minnesota, angry demonstrations took place internationally, defying the social distancing measures brought on by a pandemic. In a demonstration in Bristol, the controversial statue in Colston Avenue of sugar merchant and Royal African Company member Edward Colston was torn down from its pedestal, dragged through the streets, and thrown into the harbour, making international headlines. Some were outraged by what has been described as the whitewashing of history and the importance of protecting our historic statues. Historian and presenter David Olusoga countered this with, “The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history”, and the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, described the act as a “piece of historical poetry”.

The statue wars are one thing, but what about the real slave-owning stories behind the statues that bring out the demonstrators?

Britain was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade, with the principal ports being London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol. Bristol’s official involvement in the slave trade started in 1698 when the trading monopoly of the London-based Royal African Company – a company established by King Charles II in 1662 – was ended, although the illegal trade in slaves in Bristol was believed to have started well before this.

Bristol merchants were so successful in the 1730s that the Bristol docks overtook London in being the busiest in Britain and many ports of the west country made huge profits. The trade in slaves formed a triangle from England to West Africa and then to the West Indies and back. Ships travelling to Africa were loaded with cargo that would be traded for slaves with Black African slave traders. The village of Saltford, six miles from Bath, has the last remaining brass mill in the country and its brass products, and those of other companies such as the Warmley Brass Company, owned by the Goldney and Champion families, were used as a main currency of the slave trade. Once in West Africa, the cargo products were sold, the ships were filled with their human ‘purchases’, with each African man, woman and child secured in chains in unsanitary and cramped conditions, and transported to the West Indies, a voyage that took around 10 weeks. With dysentery, dehydration and scurvy rife, many didn’t survive the journey.

British ships transported in the region of 3.1 million enslaved Africans with just 2.7 million surviving the crossing. Bristol traders were responsible for a fifth of these shipments, so more than 600,000 slaves.

There were 46,000 claimants, 800,000 slaves and £20 million (£70 billion in today’s money) was paid in compensation

Let’s consider the study of an archive in the 1830s, the Legacies of British Slave Ownership, showing all slave owners in Britain in 1834, after slavery was abolished. It contains some startling truths. This record – discussed in David Olusoga’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, a two-part BBC series that aired in 2015 and is now available again on iPlayer – shows how the slave trade and its profits were entrenched within British society. It is the only record of British slave owners at a given moment in time, showing all the claims for compensation across the British Empire following abolition. It gives the claimant’s name, address, biographical information where available, how many slaves they had and how much compensation they received. There were 46,000 claimants, 800,000 slaves and £20 million (£70 billion in today’s money) was paid in compensation.

On this record there were 182 people resident in Bath in 1834 who applied for compensation for the loss of their slaves, and these slave owners made a total of 275 claims (a ‘claim’ represents a claim for however many slaves a person owned in a certain plantation; some owned one slave, others hundreds). There were 131 people resident in Bristol that applied for compensation, and these slave owners made a total of 583 claims. Of the Bristol and Bath claimants, seven were Church of England vicars and 125 were women. You can look them up and find their payments and their addresses – Bristol brings up addresses in Catherine Place, York Place, Clare Street, Meridian Place and Lower Park Row; in Bath we find Sion Hill, Great Pulteney Street, George Street, Henrietta Street and Sydney Buildings included.

The sobering thing about this study is that it reveals not only that massive fortunes were amassed by those exploiting slave labour in distant lands, but that a vast number of the slave owners named in the study were not aristocrats but ordinary people – including lawyers, doctors, vicars, shop owners and manufacturers, from all over the country. And 40 per cent of these slave owners were women, many of them widows who relied on the income they received.

This study reveals not only that massive fortunes were amassed by those exploiting slave labour in distant lands, but that a vast number of the slave owners named in the study were not aristocrats but ordinary people

The majority of claimants were absentee slave owners who would have had no direct contact with the plantations or the people involved, but their slaves and the money they earned from them were an integral part of the British economic system. And the money that was awarded in 1834 on slavery’s abolition to the slave owners – not to mention the colossal profits taken during the 200 years of slave trading and industry before that based on the production of cotton, tobacco, rum, indigo and sugar – was invested heavily in British industry, education, the arts and commerce. This transformed the country’s landscape and provided the roots for what is Britain today.

Take Bristol. The profits from the slave trade were used to build Bristol’s first banks and supported the development of its finest Georgian architecture. The Georgian House Museum in Great George Street was built for John Pinney who earned his fortune from sugar plantations in Nevis. The Goldney family, of Goldney Hall (now owned by the University of Bristol), were part of the triangular slave trade, and they invested in Abraham Darby’s ironworks as well as setting up their own bank.

Thomas Farr, a major investor in the slave trade, built the gothic folly Blaise Castle in 1766 on top of Blaise Hill. Clevedon Court, built in the 1400s, was bought in 1709 by Abraham Elton, a self-made industrialist and manufacturer, with interests in brass and glass, who made much of his fortune in the slave trade. It remains home to some of the Elton family’s unique possessions.

The Theatre Royal in King Street, Bristol, now the Bristol Old Vic, was funded by 50 merchants, of whom at least 12 were slave merchants or slave ship owners, and another six were suppliers to the slave ships, plantation owners or sugar traders. King Street was also home to Henry Webb, captain of the slave ship Nevis Planter, and Robert Walls, surgeon on the slave ship Guinea. St Mary’s Redcliffe was built by Bristol’s merchants whose donations allowed them to have masses sung for their souls and who were given funerary plaques after their death.

Edward Colston needs little explaining to the residents of Bristol and – after his recent dip in the harbour – now much further afield. He made his fortune as a sugar merchant and member of the Royal African Company and became a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery. He invested heavily in the city, famous for his charitable funding and philanthropy including founding almshouses, donating to churches, founding and supporting local schools and bequeathing around £71,000 (well over £20 million today) to charity at his death in 1721. This has made him a controversial figure and an ever-present reminder of the city’s association with slavery.

Those directly involved in the trade such as Colston, Tyndall and Farr and West Indian plantation owners such as the Brights, Smyths and Pinneys are found in the Bristol’s street names such as Guinea Street, Jamaica Street, Elton Road, Codrington Place, Tyndall’s Park, Worral and Stapleton Roads.

While Bath is a stage removed from Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade, the city still reverberates with its echoes. Black people would have been a common sight in Bath in the 18th century because of its closeness to Bristol and London. Many in Bath would have had black servants, seen in family portraits of the time. Many freed slaves would have come to the city with wealthy plantation owners from the Americas and the Caribbean, who visited the spa or retired to the glamorous city.

Black people would have been a common sight in Bath in the 18th century because of its closeness to Bristol and London

The architecture of Bath also marks the impact of the slave trade. Art critic, politician and plantation owner William Beckford had enormous personal wealth, but he was less interested in his plantations (never travelling to Jamaica) and more focused on spending the money generated by them. In 1822, he moved to Lansdown Crescent, where he commissioned Beckford’s Tower to house his vast collection of possessions and collections. Beckford received a total of £12,802 (£1,675,000 in today’s money) from his slave compensation claims in 1834.

Great Pulteney Street in central Bath was commissioned from the wealth of plantation owner Sir William Pulteney, the first Earl of Bath, and the major tourist site of Pulteney Bridge, designed by Scottish architect Robert Adam, was built to connect the centre of Bath with the Bathwick Estate where Pulteney lived. The first earl died in 1764, but the slavery connection continues in the compensation claims of 1834 where another (Sir) William Pulteney, who married the daughter of the cousin of the first Earl of Bath, owned 176 slaves in the Westerhall Estate in Grenada and was awarded £4867 18S 1D (over £559,500 in today’s money).

The Holburne Museum is another example, a Palladian style building in the grounds of Sydney Pleasure Gardens. It contains Sir Thomas William Holburne’s collection of more than 4,000 objects, pictures and books, bequeathed to the people of Bath in 1882 by Holburne’s sister. While not compensated in the 1834 payout, Holburne was a beneficiary under the will of his aunt Catherine Cussans who had shares in the West India Dock Co. and in the Forth and Clyde Navigation. She ordered her personalty to be sold with the proceeds invested in consols to generate £500 per annum for her nephew (£65,400 today), helping him develop his art collection.

Bath’s celebrated Circus and Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood the Elder and completed by John Wood the Younger, which were constructed as an expression of Bath’s rising status in the 18th century, were part-funded by James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, who was a key player in the Royal Africa Company. Other funding came from Richard Marchant and John Jeffreys, who made their fortunes from slavery.

Bath Abbey doesn’t escape; it features more funerary monuments for slave traders, planters and West Indian merchants than any other final resting place in Great Britain, and includes James Holder Alleyne, whose family owned sugar estates in Barbados.

The baroque mansion of Dyrham Park, near Bath, was built between 1692 and 1704 for King William III’s Secretary of State William Blathwayt, who was MP for Bath from 1693–1710. His wife Mary’s family had connections to the Caribbean and Blathwayt held government offices dealing with trade and the colonies where he promoted the slave trade to increase revenues for the British government from plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. The magnificence of Dyrham Park, with many objects and works of art sourced from across the Americas and Asia, reflected his status and his colonial influence.

It’s important to recognise that we look at history through the eye glass of our own era. During the 17th and 18th centuries there were few who believed that all humans were born equal, and had the right to a free life. While this seems incredible in a time where individual freedom is seen as a universal right, many thought that inequality and slavery were part of a natural order backed up in the Christian Bible. But there were outspoken dissenters. As the tide turned against slavery at the end of the 18th century, there were many contributing factors: slaves taking guerrilla action against their masters, economic and social factors and anti-slavery campaigns that supported petitions against slavery, and we can see this energy in both Bath and Bristol.

During the 17th and 18th centuries there were few who believed that all humans were born equal, and had the right to a free life

William Wilberforce, the leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade and close associate of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, was married in Bath and visited the city on a number of occasions. In 1788, following a visit by Clarkson, Bristol became the first city outside of London to set up a committee for the abolition of the slave trade. Clarkson found that many Bristolians were very critical of the trade, but at the same time feared the economic impact of abolition. The Anglican Dean of Bristol, Josiah Tucker, was an active abolitionist, along with Bristol poets Robert Southey, Hannah More and Anne Yearsley and Somerset-based William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge who all wrote against the trade. Josiah Wedgwood, a frequent visitor to Bath, supported the movement, and manufactured anti-slavery medallions and black basalt wax seals engraved with the words ‘Am I not a man And a Brother?’.

The Quakers were a driving force in the abolitionist movement, although their stance was not always based on a belief in human equality – many saw it as promoting immorality, cruelty and a move away from religious tenets. Bath and Bristol Quakers took action by inviting escaped American slaves to speak in their meeting houses and many citizens actively supported the cause of abolition through meetings and petitions to their MP and to Parliament, and by setting up anti-slavery societies. There were also active groups of anti-saccharites who refused to use sugar, as a statement against slavery.

The trade in slaves was not only violent, criminal, cruel, inhumane and enduring but the massive wealth it brought to Britain over two centuries made an indelible mark on the country’s infrastructure

David Olusoga said in The Guardian in 2015, as the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database was released, that, “Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from Britain’s ‘island story’.” The incontrovertible facts about the number of slave owners throughout the British Empire – a wake-up call to those of us who were lulled in their history lessons by the achievements of Wilberforce and his campaigns for the abolition of slavery – attest to this. The trade in slaves was not only violent, criminal, cruel, inhumane and enduring but the massive wealth it brought to Britain over two centuries made an indelible mark on the country’s infrastructure, its economy, its architecture and its culture. Bristol and Bath are just two examples.

We can’t make amends for the past, but we do have a responsibility to see it clearly and to explain it thoroughly within the historic surroundings that have been bequeathed to us.

The Legacies of British Slave Ownership database: ucl.ac.uk/lbs; Watch Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, presented by David Olusoga on iPlayer; Watch Black and British: A Forgotten History, presented by David Olusoga on iPlayer