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The Slave Trade in Bristol

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December 2007

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society December talk on The Slave Trade in Bristol was presented by Madge Dresser, a history lecturer from UWE and a well-known writer and authority on the subject.

As many people know, Bristol was heavily involved in the African slave trade, and the impact of this was apparent in the surrounding areas in the c18, even here in Thornbury. Archives examined by Thornbury museum have shown that many local families either owned African slaves or were involved in the trade in some way, perhaps by marrying into another family involved in the trade.

Profit was made not only by investing directly in a slave cargo or sugar plantation, but by owning shares in a trading company such as the Royal Africa Co., or the South Sea Co. (of bubble fame), or by supplying goods and provisions to the ships and crews that plied the trade or to wealthy plantation owners. Many local industries, such as the famous Bristol glass, were boosted by the booming slave based economy and many of the large houses in our area, such as Ashton Court, Kings Weston and Blaise Castle owe their prosperity to the trade. Indeed, one of the African words for a European at this time meant "Son of Bristol".

The original house on the site of Colston Hall (built on profits from the slave trade) had Bristol's first African slaves, before the site became home to a sugar refinery, processing the product of slave labour in the Caribbean. Such was the wealth that poured into Bristol from the trade that Queen's Square was developed as one of the first planned squares of genteel 'modern' housing in the country. Nearly every house in the square was owned by a family involved in the slave trade.

Bristol's prosperity was based on a cruel and inhumane industry. In the early c18, 25% of slaves taken across the Atlantic did not survive the trip. If they did, they and their offspring were enslaved in perpetuity, treated as stock, with no human rights. Half a million slaves were transported via the Bristol trade alone. To many African people today a legacy survives. They cannot trace their families back in time (as so many of us like to do) because they have lost their original family name as a result of the slave trade.

Bristol's part in this is not totally ignominious. When Thomas Clarkson (the anti-slavery campaigner) came to Bristol he did receive some local support (to his surprise). The first public anti-slavery meeting was held in Broad St., and many Bristol people joined in a sugar boycott.

The talk was followed by an excellent question and answer session where the presenter displayed her depth of knowledge on the subject. The society thanks Ms Dresser for a most illuminating talk.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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