In the footsteps of Bristol's slave traders

Much of this city's prosperity was built on the traffic in human beings. Mark Rowe walks through the city's dark past

For more than 100 years, Bristol was a key port in the triangular slave trade. Arms, alcohol and textiles were shipped from the city to the west coast of Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The vessels then took their human cargo across the Atlantic to the plantations where they filled their holds with sugar, molasses and tobacco to return to Bristol. Between 1698 and 1807, more than 2,100 slaving ventures sailed from Bristol.

For more than 100 years, Bristol was a key port in the triangular slave trade. Arms, alcohol and textiles were shipped from the city to the west coast of Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The vessels then took their human cargo across the Atlantic to the plantations where they filled their holds with sugar, molasses and tobacco to return to Bristol. Between 1698 and 1807, more than 2,100 slaving ventures sailed from Bristol.

This walk, based on a route constructed by the local council, traces the startling extent of Bristol's involvement in the slave trade. Start at the Bristol Industrial Museum, on Princes Wharf, which gives a brief account of the trade. With your back to the museum, turn right, cross the road and continue along the harbourside. At the end of Merchants Wharf, turn right and then left and cross the small footbridge to reach the Ostrich Inn pub. Around the corner is the derelict entrance to Redcliffe caves - local tales claim that slaves were incarcerated here, though this is unlikely, as the handful of slaves brought to Bristol were those who worked as servants to the merchants.

Walk up the ramp by the caves on to the impressive, 18th-century terrace of Redcliffe Parade. Turn left on to Redcliffe Hill to reach the Quakers' Burial Ground, now a small park. Several Bristol Quaker families were heavily involved in the slave trade, including the Frys, of the cocoa dynasty, and the Lloyds and the Barclays. By the 1760s, though, the Quakers were the first religious body to oppose the slave trade.

Opposite the burial ground is Bristol's loveliest church, St Mary Redcliffe. Thanks to what Bristol's 1970s town planners presumably considered their finest hour, the church is surrounded by dual carriageways. Enter the church by the north portal, a magnificent structure dating to the early 14th century with an intricate hexagonal design that, intriguingly, is similar to those in mosques and courtyards in Yemen. In the churchyard lies the grave of a church cat which died in 1927. It is thought that the church's bells rang out when William Wilberforce's Bill to abolish slavery was defeated in 1791.

Continue back past the Quakers' Burial Ground and cross Redcliffe Bridge to reach The Hole in the Wall pub, named after two thin slits in a snug look-out post, reputedly to watch for press gangs. Walk around the pub to reach Queen Square, Bristol's most serene public space. The square was completed in 1727 when Bristol's involvement in the slave trade was close to its height. Immediately on your left, at number 29, is the former house of Nathaniel Day, Bristol's mayor who in 1737 petitioned against a tax on slaves. At number 37 is the site of the first US consulate in Britain, established in 1792.

Head across the square and take the far left-hand exit. The modern building by the roundabout is the site of the old Merchant Venturers' House. The venturers were a powerful lobby in the 18th century who ensured Bristol had its share of the African trade. They defended the trade, arguing the city's prosperity depended upon it. Bear right along King Street past the Merchant Venturers' Almshouse, a pretty courtyard surrounded by pink-painted buildings. Further along is the Theatre Royal, England's oldest working theatre, which opened in 1766 with funds from patrons heavily involved in the slave trade.

Walk along King Street to the water's edge and bear left along Welsh Back, cross Baldwin Street and climb the steps to All Saints Lane. You pass through St Nicholas' Market, a good lunch stop. Up the narrow alley is All Saints Church, the final resting place of Edward Colston, a merchant who traded in St Kitts and a member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade until 1698.

Pop into the Corn Exchange on your left. Above three exits are plaster busts of Asia, Africa and America that point to the exchange's history as a meeting place for traders. Turn right along Corn Street, and then left down Broad Street past the Guildhall. Cross Colston Avenue to reach Lewin's Mead Sugar House. Recently converted in to a Hotel Du Vin, this Grade II listed building was once the place where impurities were removed from the cargo delivered from the Caribbean - when the River Frome, rather than a dual carriageway, ran past the front door.

Proceed left under St Bartholomew's Arch to reach Colston Square, where, marooned by traffic, is a statue of Edward Colston, which idealises him as a "virtuous and wise son" of Bristol. He looks pensive, as well he might: like many slavers, his conscience began to pinch as he aged, and he was a generous benefactor, endowing many educational institutions, almshouses and hospitals.

Follow Colston Avenue as it bears right uphill to become Park Street. On the left, halfway up, follow a sign on Great George Street for the beautifully restored Georgian House. The former home of John Pinney, who earned his fortune from his sugar plantations on Nevis, is a fascinating place to snoop around, from the cold water plunge bath in the cellar, to the opulent breakfast table, set as though Pinney had just left to check on the progress of his ships. A display on the second floor outlines Pinney's views on the trade: "It's as impossible for a man to make sugar without slaves, without the assistance of Negroes, as to make bricks without straw."

This walk ends here, though a few yards further up Park Street is the Boston Tea Party café, perhaps the best place to grab a coffee in the city - and it's bought from ethical sources.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Distance: two and half miles.

Time: two to three hours.

A pamphlet on this trail is available for £1.60 from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery on Queen's Road.

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