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A city faces up to its shady past

Mark Rowe is both fascinated and horrified by what he learns from following Bristol's slave-trade trail

Mark Rowe
Sunday 12 December 1999 00:02 GMT

It was known as the "respectable trade", a good way for an honest man to better himself in the world. And yet, standing in the centre of Bristol, the history of the slave trade all around me, this particular white middle-class person felt ashamed at having known so little about the grim business.

A visit to Bristol changed all that. The recent global trend has been to re-evaluate the horrors perpetrated by Western nations upon the developing world in the past 500 years. Rather than hoping this process would quietly pass it by, Bristol has created a slave-trade trail for visitors that commendably brings its role in the whole affair to life.

The trail snakes for three miles around the centre of Bristol. Though the promised route signs have not yet materialised, the city council has produced an excellent historical pamphlet with a map that is easy to follow. The booklet reports events of the time in a matter-of-fact fashion, hiding none of the horrors but placing it within its historical context. Most sights on the route are free and the trail takes three to four hours to complete. There are several pubs and cafes (some of which carry their own tales of the slave trade) along the way to break the journey.

It is a good way to see Bristol, for the route takes you past many attractions that are not part of the trail, such as the Arnolfini arts centre, Bristol Zoo with its superb penguin pool, and Cabot Tower. You will also see striking natural features such the Avon Gorge, and evidence of the genius of Brunel, notably his Clifton Suspension Bridge and SS Great Britain, the first of the great steamships.

Between 1698 and 1807, when the trade was abolished, 2,114 slave ships were handled in Bristol. The pre-eminent slave port in Europe during the 1730s, the city accounted for 18 per cent of the entire slave trade, compared with Liverpool (48 per cent) and London (21 per cent). The wealth it generated directly contributed to some of the city's finest Georgian architecture and the creation of well-to-do neighbourhoods such as Clifton. Some of the world's largest traders benefited, including Wills (tobacco), Fry's (cocoa), and Lloyds and Barclays (banking).

Few slaves in the triangular trade between England, the Caribbean and Africa ever landed at Bristol. Instead, the city's role was to handle the "middle passage", ships returning from the West Indies and north American colonies laden with sugar, tobacco and rum that docked in Bristol before reloading with guns, alcohol and other commodities that British merchants could exchange for slaves in Africa - mainly modern-day Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria, Benin and Angola.

The trail starts in the city's docks by the Industrial Museum, where an exhibition about the trade will open shortly. Though post-war architects were not much kinder to the city than the Luftwaffe, there is a great deal that is easy on the eye. Looking over my shoulder as I ambled between the old dock train lines, I saw terraced houses, their back walls painted alternately in light blue, pale green and yellow, standing out in the wintry gloom alongside the magnificent Georgian houses of Clifton.

I soon came to St Mary Redcliffe, perhaps Bristol's loveliest church, with dramatic stone carvings at the entrance portals and a deceptive impression of depth. Inside is a whalebone brought back by John Cabot, the Italian seafarer who discovered Newfoundland after setting sail from Bristol in 1497.

Later, reflecting the mood of the times, in 1791 the church rang its bells in celebration when William Wilberforce's anti-slavery bill was defeated in Parliament.

A short walk away is the Hole in the Wall public house, with a small alcove housing the eponymous window. Slave ships were unpopular with sailors, who used the window to spot requisition squads before hiding in the cellars. Ironically, it was the death rates of sailors, rather than slaves, aboard the ships that inspired much of the initial disquiet about the trade.

The Hole in the Wall is located in gorgeous Queen Square, one of the greatest embodiments of the trade and built when the commerce in human labour was at its height. Here you will find the site of the first American consulate in Britain, set up as the trade in slave-produced tobacco developed. Nearby is King Street, a cobbled road full of drinking dens together with alms-houses for sailors, and the Old Vic, Britain's oldest working theatre, which was launched by patrons made wealthy from their dealings with the West Indies.

Many of these were merchant venturers, a society which survives to this day and is heavily involved in Rotary and other charitable projects.

The introduction of the slave trail has upset many people in the city, who feel the past should not have been raked up. Edward Colston, perhaps the city's greatest sugar trader who amassed his fortune on the backs of slaves in St Kitts, is buried at All Saints' Church. His tomb makes no reference to his involvement in the trade, though you will have to take my word for it. Open by appointment only (Thursday afternoons, since you ask), a brusque woman at the door who refused me entry snapped: "We're not happy about being on the trail, they didn't seek our permission."

Yet the argument about Colston's involvement in slavery is complex, for you stumble upon positive aspects of his legacy all across the city. Having made his fortune on the backs of slaves, it seems that in his twilight years, Colston's conscience caught up with him as he founded three schools and several alms-houses. In an irony not lost on the city's Afro-Caribbean population, the Bristol branch of the Commission for Racial Equality is located in Colston House, on the edge of the city's major thoroughfare.

Quickly, though, I was back into the Middle Ages, walking past Pellogrino's fried fish and chipped potato shop, built like the neighbouring Three Sugar Loaves pub in olde-worlde timbers that formed the entrance to an enticing alleyway called Christmas Steps that was full of small shops.

Nearby I came to Park Street, the base for many anti-slavery campaigns. Having resisted Pellogrino's, hunger forced me into Woodes cafe, where I munched on an excellent Jarlsberg and tomato sandwich. Flicking through my trail pamphlet I learnt that even this establishment had a link to the trade: it was named after Captain Woodes Rogers who made his wealth from the slaver ship Whetstone Gally.

A little further up the hill you will come to the Georgian House, where scenes of the slave drama A Respectable Trade, broadcast in 1998, were filmed. It was home to John Pinney, owner of sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis. It is popular with school groups, who delight in scurrying around the huge rooms, from the pantry below stairs to the luxurious master bedroom.

The trail comes to an end at the city museum at the top of Park Street, but perhaps the most poignant site is off the trail, a short taxi-drive north to the suburb of Henbury.

Here you will find a secluded cemetery in which lies the grave of Scipio Africanus, complete with colourful tombstone, thought to be among the first black servants brought back from the Caribbean.



Avon Gorge Hotel, with dramatic views, two-night weekend breaks from pounds 84 per room (tel: 0117 973 8955).

City Inn, Temple Way, pounds 40 per room at weekends (tel: 0117 904 1111).

If you are on a budget, the modern Youth Hostel has rooms from pounds 12.50 (tel: 0117 922 1659).


Bristol Tourist Information Centre (tel: 0117 946 2222 for hotel info; 0117 926 0767 for general info; net: www.about-

NB: some of the buildings on the trail have restricted winter opening hours, or are closed, until 1 April 2000. Phone Bristol TIC for details.

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