June 21, 2014—
“As Bristol prepares to become the Green Capital of Europe, Professor Mark Horton and Madge Dresser argue that the past exploitation of millions to Africans that built the region’s should not be forgotten
Between 1686 and 1807, 565,000 human beings were forcibly removed from their African families and communities and loaded onto ships owned and fitted out by Bristol and West Country merchants – to endure the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. Only 466,000 reached their destination, and 99,000 died on route, and their bodies most likely flung overboard to be eaten by sharks.
For those who managed to survive, they were then sold at auction into the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean and the southern states of America.
The majority – some 414,000 – ended up as field slaves on Jamaica, the Leeward and Windward islands. Here their daily task was working the cane fields, harvesting the stalks and processing them in the crushing and boiling houses.
Mortality rates were extremely high and the slaves were accommodated in primitive conditions with only the most basic food. For much of the period they could be tortured, murdered and raped with impunity. And planters were reluctant for them to have contact with Christian missionaries who might preach the equality of souls, while work was maintained by the lash and many other gruesome punishments.
Meanwhile the Bristol merchants become exceptionally rich on this human misery.
It wasn’t just the slave trade (in fact this was the least profitable part of the whole system), but the whole economy that benefited. This ranged from fitting out the ships and the supply of trade goods with which to buy the slaves on the African coast, to the products of the West Indian plantations, especially the sugar that became the commodity that everyone wanted in Europe.
Bristol had no fewer than 20 refineries, supplying some 30 per cent of the nation’s sugar needs. Then there was the banking and insurance, for those merchants who had so much money, that they could further increase their fortunes and increasingly distance themselves from a direct involvement in slave trading itself.
But as we walk around the West Country today, and marvel at the great houses or Georgian architecture, rarely do we pause to think where the money came from, to pay for all this.
So many buildings in the region from the eighteenth century has some connection to the slave trade, and even the nineteenth century left its mark as the region’s wealth burgeoned from the compensation given the plantation owners when the slaves were emancipated in 1834. The slaves of course, while now free, received nothing. The cash that returned to Bristol in the 1830’s helped pay for the great engineering projects of the period – often the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Should we remember these legacies? We often hear people say, ‘well that was a long time ago’ or ‘its just history’.
But history has lessons; it tells us that the exploitation of other humans in this way is wrong.
Religious and radical thinkers joined to form the abolition movement; the sermons of John Wesley, and the researches of Thomas Clarkson in Bristol, the poetry of Hannah More and Anne Yearsley helped to fuel a new sensibility and pave the way for the later human rights movement and many of the basic freedoms that we cherish today.
It is a complex story, but one that everyone needs to know. Even today, we are trying to stamp out modern slavery and human trafficking.
The tragedy is that we are now is danger of forgetting. Bristol’s recent past seems full of bouts of denial about the eighteenth century inhumanities, with short episodes – generally at anniversaries (such as in 1998 and 2007) – of remembering.
If you were a visitor to Bristol, you would find it hard to find any public reference to the slave trade.
There is a small plaque on the M-Shed, and Pero’s bridge. Go out to Henbury Church and you might find a gravestone of Scipio Africanus, a slave who died in Bristol in the early eighteenth century.
Bristol needs to remember. It’s not just plaques on the wall, but a permanent location is needed where the full story of slavery can be told.
Aside from a tiny and hard-fought for section on slavery in MShed, there is little official commemoration.
Only a few months ago the two museums in the Bristol with any direct connection to slavery – Blaise Castle and the Georgian House – were threatened with closure. With this would have been a return to the dark days of denial.
Now is a good moment to think about Bristol’s slave-trade past because our present, as Green Capital of Europe 2015, and our future have to be sustainable. Sustainability is everything slavery is not; it means living within the limits of resources, generating wealth through ingenuity, not by exploitation.
Slavery, Legacies and Remembrance – a panel discussion, is taking place in the Great Hall, University of Bristol, on the June 26, 6.30pm – for details: http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk”
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