Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Myths and Truths

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

by Sue Giles, senior collections officer for World Cultures and edited by Hudi Charin, participation volunteer

The transatlantic slave trade is a dark area of Bristol’s history, and it’s important we can understand the city’s role in it. Do you know your fact from your myth? Read our list to find out…

“Blackboy Hill got its name because enslaved Africans were auctioned here”


The street name comes from the Black Boy Inn.  The pub name was probably linked to King Charles II, who was known as ‘the Black Boy’ because of his dark hair and complexion, rather than to the slave trade (not least because enslaved Africans never were auctioned on the Downs).

Image showing map of Bristol highlighting the port.“Bristol was a minor port in the trade.”


Bristol played a major part in the transatlantic slave trade, with Bristol merchants financing over 2000 slaving voyages between 1698 and 1807. These ships carried over 500,000 enslaved Africans from Africa to slave labour in the Americas.

“Bristol residents were given billions in compensation for their lost ‘property’ in 1834.”


Bristol’s plantation owners and merchants who invested in plantations received over £500,000 in compensation for the ‘loss’ of their enslaved ‘property’ when the Emancipation Act was passed, freeing the enslaved in 1834. Today, that could be worth up to £2,036,000,000.

Enslaved Africans were advertised in the local paper.”

Cut out of Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal advertising slavery


If an enslaved African was brought into Bristol and sold as a house servant, it was usually by word-of-mouth or an advertisement in the local paper. Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal advertised ‘A Negroe Boy, about Ten years old, He has had the Small-Pox’ for sale in August 1760, enquiries to the Printing Office in Small Street.

“Redcliffe Caves were used to house enslaved Africans.”


Sand was dug here for the local glass making industry, creating the caverns. Very few enslaved Africans came to Bristol and were sold here, they were normally shipped directly from Africa to the Americas and sold there, where there was the demand for their labour. The caves were used to store goods, including those for the Africa trade, and may have been used as a temporary prison for French prisoners of war.

“St Mary Redcliffe church rang its bells in celebration when a bill to abolish slavery was defeated in 1791.”

Drawing of St Mary Redcliffe Church.


There is no record of payment for the bell ringers, so this is most likely a myth. However, the church certainly had links with the slave trade, and many of its congregants would have had some financial interest in the trade. One of the city’s biggest slave traders, Edmund Saunders, was Churchwarden in the early 18th century.

St Mary Redcliffe church kept enslaved Africans in the crypt.”


The crypt was a temporary gaol, but for French prisoners of war in 1744.

“Whiteladies Road was where white women promenaded, with their black enslaved footmen in attendance.”

 Drawing/watercolour by Samuel Jackson. View of Tyndall's House from Park Place, showing Whiteladies Road.MYTH

The road was a dirt track then and ladies were unlikely to walk there and get their hems and shoes dirty.

More probably, the road ran alongside the land belonging to a convent at the bottom of St Michael’s Hill.

The nuns wore white habits, hence the name.

“Many street names are connected to slavery.”


Colston Street was named after Edward Colston, well known for his involvement in the slave and sugar trade: however there are many other lesser known connections.
To name just a few:
Elton Road – the Elton family were investors in the brass industry, and also owned slave ships.
Farr Lane – the Farrs were rope makers and slave traders.
Tyndalls Avenue – the Tyndalls invested in slaving ventures.
Winterstoke Road – Lord Winterstoke was head of the Wills family, associated with the slave-grown commodity of tobacco.

“Pero’s Bridge is named after an enslaved African.”

Photograph of Pero's Bridge over the harbour © Destination Bristol


Pero Jones was born enslaved on Nevis.  He was bought by John Pinney and brought to Bristol around 1790, when the Pinneys left Nevis. Pero was Pinney’s valet, and worked for him for over 30 years, though he was never freed. The footbridge was named after Pero in tribute to the many unknown African men, women and children who were enslaved by Bristol’s merchants.

“Some of the buildings in King Street were built as a result of the slave trade.”


The Theatre Royal was funded by 50 merchants, of whom at least 12 were slave merchants or slave ship owners, and at least another six were suppliers to the slave ships, plantation owners or sugar traders. The street was also home to Henry Webb, captain of the slave ship Nevis Planter, and Robert Walls, surgeon on the slave ship Guinea.

“Edward Colston’s statue explains how he made his fortune.”

Image of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol city centre


Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol is a controversial monument to a wealthy man who founded schools and charities. Based in London, he traded with Europe, and as an investor in and a committee member of the Royal African Company he made part of his fortune from the slave trade and from sugar.  There is still no official mention of this on the statue, though there was an unofficial plaque referring to the slave trade.

“Between 1730 and 1746, Bristol’s slave voyages made up 20% of the whole of British trade.” 


In fact, it was much more: about 40% of British trade was made up by Bristol’s slaving voyages in this period. In the 1730s, on average 36 slave voyages left Bristol each year, with 53 in 1738. For these 16 years, Bristol was the leading slaving port, overtaking London and being overtaken in turn by Liverpool.

“Bristol’s slavers were responsible for shipping over half a million enslaved Africans.”

The Blandford Frigate, by Nicholas Pocock, 1760. This image illustrates the narrative of the transatlantic slavery through the border drawings depicting the ship: On the passage to the West Indies and On the coast of Africa trading


British ships carried an estimated 3.1 million enslaved Africans altogether, although only 2.7 million survived the Atlantic crossing. Bristol traders were responsible for shipping about one-fifth of the total of enslaved Africans carried on British ships, that’s over 500,000.


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One comment on Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Myths and Truths

  1. Mark Anthony Howell

    This – together with the M-Shed’s wonderful exhibition & UWE Professor Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured – is one of the best online evidence-supported accurate detailed admissions of Bristol Merchant Venturer’s shameful profit earned from kidnapping, enslaving, torturing, raping, abusing & murdering more than half a million African families. Bristol’s Old Vic (a National Theatre still owned and funded almost entirely by the state) refused to extend the run of the 1788 anti-slavery and anti-racist play revived by John and Jodie Kidd as a 2015-16 London hit. Yaricoi: the Musical was a huge hit, which deserved to be staged as part of Bristol’s Old Vic 250th Anniversary celebrations. Institutional racism in UK professional theatres led every single one to obstruct Kidd’s offer to extend its run, including Bristol’s Old Vic Trustees. Since then, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Centre Stage” research publication has ensured colour-blind casting, including at Bristol’s Old Vic. It’s time to revive the five-star production of “Yarico: the Musical” to remind ourselves that professional UK theatres were at the core of the anti-slavery movement from 1788-1831 and leading the creation of a new inclusive, cross-cultural, INCLUSIVE GLOBAL society. The first step should be reviving this international hit production from 1787-1788 on the stage of our three surviving Georgian Theatres Royal, before taking it to our National Theatre and then the world.


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