Slavery: Is it time for an apology?

Bristol got rich on the back of the slave trade as its fleet transported 500,000, chained in appalling conditions. Last night, 200 years after abolition, the city debated whether to admit its part in the 'African holocaust'. By Cahal Milmo
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The Independent Online

The manifest states the ship was laden with five cases of clay beads, 410 rolls of cloth, 640 muskets, two tons of lead bars, 14 tons of iron and 1,000 copper bars.

It set sail down the Bristol Channel on an unspecified date in 1730 bound for the Niger delta. In return for its cargo of 18th- century bric-a-brac, the captain bought 250 humans. In the words of the merchant who sent the consignment, they were to be "Bonny Negroes". Each life was worth 1.6 rolls of cloth, two-and-a-half guns, 72kg of metal and a handful of beads.

When the broad-hulled ship returned to the frenetic quays of 18th-century Bristol, probably about 12 months after setting sail, it would have been laden with sugar, tobacco and rum from the Caribbean, paid for with the proceeds of the sale of the African slaves to plantation owners.

Life on board the Bristol slave ships was unremittingly, ruthlessly cheap. It is estimated that the return on the outgoing cargo for the city's merchants would have been between five and 10 times their original investment.

The likely deaths of about 20 per cent of the human "stock" on the voyage across the Atlantic, wallowing in their sweat, vomit and excrement in locked holds, did not seriously dent the Bristol investors' handsome return.

The ship was one of a fleet based in the West Country hub of 18th-century Britain's maritime economy which, between 1728 and 1732 alone, transported 100,000 slaves from ports in West Africa to the Americas, netting a vast profit for the burghers of Bristol.

As one of the city's foremost slave owners, John Pinney, put it: "It's as impossible for a man to make sugar without slaves, without the assistance of Negroes, as to make bricks without straw."

By the time slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807, more than 60 per cent of the Bristol economy was reliant on the brutal commoditisation of human life that was the slave trade. As a result, the gold and silver made from the Blackbirds, as the slave ships were known, is sown throughout the city lauded for the grace of its Georgian frontages, fine public buildings and the endowments of its mercantile benefactors.

From the Theatre Royal, built with donations from patrons heavily implicated in the slave trade, to the bells of St Mary Redcliffe, where the bells rang out in celebration of the defeat of an attempt to ban slavery in 1791, much of Bristol's glorious present is built on its bloody, ignominious past of buying and selling human life.

A statue in the city centre to Edward Colston, one of Bristol's most prominent slavers, praises him as a "virtuous and wise son".

Little surprise, therefore, that feelings were running high last night as a debate was held - appropriately in Bristol's British Empire and Commonwealth Museum - on whether the city should apologise for its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The apology debate has divided opinion in the city and beyond over the issuing of a mea culpa for events up to 400 years ago (classified as an "African holocaust" by one prominent Bristol campaigner), and how it could be made meaningful.

Despite the passing of two centuries since the last slave ship set sail from Bristol, the issue remains contentious in a city which has steadfastly refused to follow the example of Liverpool, which apologised in 1994 for its part in slavery.

Paul Stephenson, a veteran civil rights activist in Bristol, said: "The whole concept of racism as we understand it has its roots in slavery. The way it demeaned the black man as less of a human being is where the concept of inferiority of black-skinned people came from and it was supported by people and powerful sections of society.

"There should be an apology and it shouldn't stop there. Reparations should be made for the city to amend for that side of Bristol's history. Bristol is a very rich city and those riches came from slavery."

Sensitivity to the source of the city's wealth was brought to the fore once more last month when the developers of a new £500m shopping centre withdrew a proposal to name it Merchants Quarter after complaints that it was offensive to Bristol's Afro-Caribbean population.

But the extent and nature of Bristol's "enterprise" in following the example of 17th-century Spanish and Portuguese merchants in exploiting a slave trade "triangle" often goes unnoticed in popular history.

The Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers petitioned successfully in 1698 for London's monopoly on slaving - at the time a relatively undeveloped "industry" - to be ended with a new "0 per cent" tariff on "black Africans".

Between 1698 and 1807, some 2,108 ships, ranging from 27 tons to 420 tons, left the quays of Bristol for West Africa laden with trading goods from across Britain, including brass cooking pots made by the Bristol Brass & Copper Company. The items were then traded at fortified traded posts for men, women and children captured across western and central Africa.

Cargo holds that held the cooking pots were filled with humans, made to lie flat with just 50cm of vertical space as the vessels made the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic to ports in the Caribbean, the southern United States and Brazil.

The average death rate from these voyages of 5 per cent (it reached more than 30 per cent on some ships) belies the misery inflicted on the enslaved, who were chained together on a central iron pole running along the deck. It is estimated that 500,000 slaves were transported by the Bristol-based fleet, reaching a peak of 50 voyages a year in the 1730s.

From the Americas, the Bristol vessels returned to their home port laden with the bounty of the New World, making the city the prime entry point for sugar and tobacco.

Prior to the ending of the monopoly on the slave trade owned by the London-based Royal African Company in 1698, Bristol had 150 importers of sugar. By the 1700s the city had 379 importers and by 1750 it had 20 sugar refineries.

Dr Gareth Griffiths, director of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which is planning an extensive slavery exhibition next year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by Parliament, said: "Bristol was the first British port to engage with the slave trade in terms of equipping and sending ships out to West Africa with trading items to buy captive people.

"The system that developed involved most people in Bristol one way or another. Bristolians supplied the labour and the provisions for the vessels, they helped to create the goods that paid for the slaves and they bought and traded the spoils that came back."

Contrary to popular belief, virtually none of the slaves that made Bristol rich ever arrived there. The Redcliffe Caves, where legend has it that captive Africans were incarcerated, never held slaves. The few slaves or their direct descendants who came to the city were servants of their owners, brought to Britain as a status symbol.

But the legacy of the era remains dotted throughout the city. Queen Square, Bristol's most prized public space, was completed at the height of the slave trade in 1727 and was home to Nathaniel Day, the mayor who petitioned vigorously against a tax on slavery in 1737. Several roads, schools and buildings bear the name of Edward Colston, who endowed a plethora of public institutions late in life with a fortune made from planning and financing slaving ventures.

But demands for an apology from a city perceived as brushing its slavery past under the carpet fall wide of the mark, according to some of its senior figures. John Savage, chairman of Business West, a leading business body in the city, dismissed the request as "balderdash". He said: "It would be an empty gesture. It would be like asking the Italians to apologise on behalf of the Romans for killing Boudicca."

Others, including A C Grayling, the philosophy professor at London's Birkbeck College who chaired last night's debate, suggest the issue is a self-serving distraction from the more pressing problem of modern slavery.

Indeed, the city which was designated a Fairtrade zone last year, has already provided a formal recognition of the roots of its prosperity by attaching a plaque to a quayside which reads: "In memory of the countless African men, women and children who brought so much prosperity to Bristol through the African slave trade."

In Westminster, the Government has formed an advisory committee on how the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery - the culmination of the mass movement led by William Wilberforce - should be marked, and experts argue that it is not only in Bristol that there is a collective amnesia about Britain's exploitation of the slave triangle.

Stuart Hall, a historian, said: "There is a case for an apology, but it must be accompanied by informing people about the true nature of what took place. There is nothing to be gained from guilt- tripping people, just as we should not only celebrate Britain's role in achieving abolition."