Blood on the Bricks: More Than Colston?
Bristol’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade and the great wealth acquired from it brings uncomfortable questions about how we deal with our city’s past. Tayo Lewin-Turner explores the stories that lurk behind some of the grand Georgian buildings in Bristol…
With contributions from Dr Madge Dresser and Sue Giles.
Bristol is a city of beautiful architecture. The monuments, cathedrals and glorious structures that grace the city are an integral aspect of its unique and developing identity. However, many of these celebrated architectural feats have shameful roots, some of which have come to public attention. Bristol’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade and the great wealth acquired from it has come to light and brought with it some uncomfortable questions about how we deal with this city’s (and this country’s) past.
The trade in human cargo, undoubtedly the biggest stain on Britain’s chequered past, fuelled the urban development which transformed Bristol into the grand city it is now. One cannot see or touch many of the damaging effects of slavery that are still haunting us today. But an honest look at the architectural legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade begins to display how the sins of this city’s past live on today.
A name which is particularly difficult to avoid in Bristol is Edward Colston. Brandished across the city with great pride, the Anglican and Tory slave trader’s name is ubiquitous. From statues to schools, street names, music venues and even church windows. Colston, who once held one of the most senior positions in the Royal African Company (a chartered company which held a monopoly on the African slave trade until 1698), is often at the centre of the discussion of the legacy of the Transatlantic slavery in Bristol.
Yet, a focus on an individual in many ways misses the point and leads to a misunderstanding and distortion of the legacy of Transatlantic slavery. This is especially true when it comes to port cities such as Bristol and Liverpool. The legacy of this trade cannot be pinned to an individual: the slave trade did not – and could not have – existed in isolation.
Bristol was a processor of slave-produced goods, a supplier of goods to West African slave traders, the provider of slaves and goods to plantations, as well as the home of planters and planters’ agents (and many more who grew rich from the trade).
All these connected activities helped make the city what it is today. This is not to take away from the importance of figures such as Colston, who was responsible for the enslavement and transportation of tens of thousands of men, women and children, as well as civic development in Bristol.
So, where else can we see this legacy in Bristol? As a business, the Transatlantic trade was diverse, as was the urban development it fuelled. Some of the physical legacies are more obvious than others.
An example of this is Guinea Street. Just off the harbourside and with sugar houses processing slave-produced sugar nearby, Guinea Street was a convenient home to several prominent traders of enslaved Africans and others linked directly, or otherwise, to the slave trade. Guinea was the colloquial term for West Africa used by Europeans in the eighteenth century and the terms ‘slave trade’ and ‘Guinea trade’ were often used interchangeably – which explains the name of the street.
Image: Slave trader and slave owner Edmund Saunders lived at this property on Guinea Street.
Newly developed streets inhabited by slaving merchants were not uncommon. Prince Street has a similar history to that of Guinea Street, notably being home to the slave trader and Tory MP Thomas Coster. Like Colston, the Farr’s family name is also firmly stamped in Bristol’s city centre, with Farr’s Lane crossing Prince’s Street. The Farrs were a rope-making firm who also managed slave voyages and rose to political and economic prominence from the slave trade.
Some of the architectural legacies of slavery are less obvious. Queen Square, an eighteenth-century urban space, completed simultaneously with Bristol’s rise as the country’s pre-eminent slaving port, is an example of this.
Located close to the harbour, like Guinea Street, Queen Square was home to prominent merchants who had interests in the African trade. Woodes Rogers, Joseph Earle, James Laroche, Isaac Hobhouse, John Day, and Richard Farr, to name a few, were some of the slave traders who resided in the London-inspired square. Slave traders Abraham Elton II and Thomas Coster promoted the erection of the bronze statue of William III, which stands in the centre of Queen Square.
The Georgian House, on a street off Park Street, one of Bristol’s major shopping and social hotspots which links the city centre to Clifton, illustrates the great wealth of plantation owners.
Built in 1790 and now open to the public as a museum, the Georgian House was the home of John Pinney, the owner of multiple plantations in the Caribbean. The processing of his slave-produced sugar would take place in Bristol and London. Pinney was one of the wealthiest men in Bristol at the time, with an estate worth an estimated £17 million today.
Owning over 200 enslaved Africans in his lifetime, John Pinney chose two of his closest servants to accompany him back to Bristol. A freed slave named Frances (Fanny) Coker, and Pero Jones who had been ‘purchased’ along with his sisters at the age of twelve (one of whom was later ‘sold’ to a notoriously evil master). Pero, although never attaining his freedom, would posthumously have some impact on Bristol’s architecture. Named after Pero, in 1999, is a footbridge across the River Frome that links Queen Square and Millennium Square – often called the ‘Horned Bridge’.
Tobacco, as well as sugar, also allowed Bristol’s architecture to thrive. As can be seen at the top of Park Street on Queens Road, where The University of Bristol has its landmark site, the Wills Memorial Building. The sons of Henry Overton Wills III, George and Henry Wills, financed the impressive neo-Gothic structure in their late father’s memory. Sir George Oatley completed the 65 metre tall building in 1925.
The Wills family grew rich off the tobacco industry in the nineteenth century from their family company, W.D & H.D Wills. Although much of the Wills’ wealth would come after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833*, and although members of the family supported the pro-emancipation MP for Bristol in 1830, the family had long-standing ties with and profited greatly from the enslavement of Africans.
Henry Overton Wills III used slave-produced tobacco from the USA to supply his business. This source of revenue was not abolished until the loss of the Confederate States in the American Civil War in 1865. The Wills’ use of slave-produced tobacco allowed the family to become the great philanthropists for which they are now remembered.
* Although slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833 (except for the territories of the East India Company) the enslaved population did not get full emancipation until 1838.
The University of Bristol’s relationship to the slave trade is not unique for educational institutions in Bristol, as many men involved with the trade poured money into schools in Bristol and its surrounding areas. The two schools named after Edward Colston are a testament to this.
Bristol’s culture also benefited from the suffering of Africans. One street away from Queen Square, 50 men invested £50 each to create Bristol’s Theatre Royal (Bristol Old Vic), one of the oldest working theatres in the United Kingdom. Some notable patrons here were Henry Bright and members of the Farr family.
Many of these 50 investors were members of The Society of Merchant Venturers. This organisation of elite men, founded in 1552 (which still exists to this day), profited greatly from all elements of Transatlantic slavery. They lobbied against the monopoly of the London-based Royal African Society and for
‘letting in the merchants of this Citty to a share in the African trade.’
Bristol’s Financial system also took great strides during this period of growth. One of the first banks to be set up in England outside of London was on Bristol’s Broad Street in 1750. All but one of its founders were heavily invested in the Transatlantic slave trade. Slavery made banking, as well as insurance, necessary in eighteenth century Bristol, as plantation owners and slave traders needed large amounts of credit and to cover their goods.
The Old Bank would later merge with others to create National Westminster (NatWest). By the end of the eighteenth century, The Old Bank would move to the nearby Corn Street, where NatWest still has a branch, bearing a plaque which inadvertently remembers its Transatlantic past. The creation of The Old Bank shows how Bristol’s relationship with the slave trade benefited the city and the country in a multitude of ways, and displaying how the ripple effect of slavery touched almost every corner of Bristol’s society.
Prosperity brings people. Bristol’s population grew from 20,000 at the start of the eighteenth century to 64,000 by its close. This legacy spreads outside of the city centre. The rise of Clifton as an affluent and fashionable suburb followed the decline in the social importance of Queen Square.
Merchants owned much of the property, whose wealth was directly or indirectly linked to the slave-trade. Clifton, after Bristol’s decline as a slave port, had one of the highest rates of retired West Indian planters in Britain. The recent profitable exploits of these wealthy ex-planters allowed them to build or buy the outstanding Georgian houses that distinguish Clifton and its surrounding areas.
These are a few of the many ways that enslavement of Africans shaped Bristol. The stubborn legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade in Bristol is ubiquitous and cannot be confined to any one statue or building.
The grandeur of the Georgian development in Bristol that can be seen today is evidence of the great wealth gleaned from the misery of millions and shows the living and breathing case for reparations. Although Bristol’s time in the slave trade was transient, its legacy is not. The profound ramifications of this colonial trade stretch far beyond the harbour and continue to haunt Bristol’s contradictory history.
Compiled and written by Tayo Lewin-Turner, with contributions from Dr Madge Dresser and Sue Giles.
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