Trail Of The Unexpected

Step Into Britain'S Secret History At The New Empire Museum In Bristol

Would Queen Victoria have been amused to find the story of her Empire shoehorned into the train shed of a provincial railway junction? Almost certainly not, but this is no ordinary station – it's Bristol's glorious Temple Meads, built by Brunel in 1841 – and, given the sensitivity of the subject, it's just as well that the new British Empire and Commonwealth Museum isn't housed in a latter-day Crystal Palace.

The museum opened last Sunday. It describes how this country won, managed and lost its colonies, and looks at the legacy of Empire, from post-war immigration to asylum-seeking and the Gibraltar question.

Far from being a flag-waving celebration of "greatness", it seeks to be even-handed, showing the evils of colonisation, from insensitivity to indigenous peoples and their environment to slavery, greed and paternalism. Prominently displayed in the bookshop are books on the slave trade and bars of fair-trade chocolate.

Covering the period between 1497, when John Cabot sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland, and the Hong Kong handover in 1997, the museum offers a whistle-stop tour of a mass of complex issues. Despite the overwhelmingly upbeat closing Commonwealth section, which features a happy-clappy video celebration of Britain's multiculturalism, it is never dull, and it doesn't flinch when confronting the issue of slavery. And the modern, interactive displays are full of startling objects: a Bible in Inuit, a beaver-skin top hat, footage of missionaries in Uganda in the 1930s teaching "mercy and kindness to the savages".

Whatever you make of the museum, you couldn't find a more appropriate location. The railways were crucial to the stability of Empire, of course, but more significant is Bristol's role as a principal gateway to the colonies.

In the opening gallery, you can view the progress of the Venetian-born Cabot. He was the first explorer commissioned by the Crown to search for new territories. Aided by local cod fishermen, he set sail from the city in 1497, hoping to find a North Atlantic route to the riches of Cathay.

Instead, he stumbled upon Newfoundland, and returned with a fortune in salt cod and a whalebone, now on show in nearby St Mary Redcliffe, the imposing church where merchants and mariners prayed for safe passage.

The Victorians celebrated the 400th anniversary of Cabot's achievement by erecting a 105ft tower on Brandon Hill. It's still there today, and offers sweeping views of the city's Floating Harbour, home to Brunel's SS Great Britain, the first propeller-driven iron liner, and a replica of the Matthew, Cabot's pretty, Portuguese-style wooden boat, built to mark the 500th anniversary of his voyage.

At the same time, an ambitious programme of regeneration and reinvention began to bear fruit. Stroll along the pristine, regenerated harbourside, and you'll find avant-garde arts centres, designer restaurants, posh penthouse apartments, even swans, which returned only recently after a clean-up campaign. But even in this thoroughly modern environment there's no escaping the city's imperial past.

On the wall of the Industrial Museum on Prince's Wharf is a sober plaque, attached in 1997: "In memory of the countless African men, women and children whose enslavement and exploitation brought so much prosperity to Bristol through the African slave trade." And across the harbour is a new footbridge named in honour of a West Indian slave, Pero. He was bought in 1765, at the age of 12, by a sugar merchant, John Pinney, along with his two sisters and one adult, for £115 (around £5,570 today). Pinney, who once observed, "It is as impossible for a man to make sugar without the assistance of negroes as to make bricks without straw", kept Pero – but only Pero – as his servant when he returned to Bristol. Pinney's parchment-coloured townhouse on Great George Street is now a museum (open April-October).

Not far from Cabot Tower are the Georgian terraces of Clifton, all lacy verandas and luxuriously large windows. Like their counterparts in Bath, they're breathtaking, but your admiration is tempered by the knowledge that many were owned by merchants who prospered thanks to sugar and slaves. Bristol traders carried about 20 per cent of the 2.8 million slaves traded through British ports between 1698 and 1807, the year slave trading was abolished in the British Empire.

And what of post-colonial Bristol? Has atonement for past sins been matched by efforts to integrate? Well, yes and no. The city is proud of its contributions to pop culture – Massive Attack, Tricky, Roni Size – and has promised that multiculturalism will be at the heart of its bid to be Europe's Cultural Capital in 2008. Yet the St Paul's district is still seen as a centre of drug crime, and the locals seem reluctant to embrace the global shopping on offer in the East Side. Can a museum of Empire change that? Edson Burton, of the Kuumba arts and community centre, is cautiously optimistic. "The museum tries to reconcile the two sides, but doesn't show how fundamental racism was to the concept of Empire. Still, it gets people talking."

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, Station Approach, Temple Meads, Bristol BS1 6QH, open daily except Christmas Day and Boxing Day 10am to 5pm (0117 925 4980, www.empiremuseum.co.uk)

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