“It’s an important story,” says a warm mood from the west country over my shoulder as we look at the plaque outside the Seven Stars pub, a 17th-century landmark of the abolitionist movement.
If you block the posters for the band “Kunts” adorned with a large picture of Boris Johnson, and instead focus on the cobbled streets and Georgian walls, you can imagine the secret meetings between abolitionists and slave ship sailors.
This particular plaque commemorates Thomas Clarkson, an anti-slavery activist who, using Seven Stars landlord Thompson (his full name is not known), collected testimonies from sailors in 1787. Used as evidence in Parliament, the testimonies helped obtain the adoption of 1807 Slave Trade Act and eventually led to the end of the British slave trade.
Blue Badge Tour Guide Rob Collin takes me around Bristol and guides me through the city I grew up in, but whose history I was never taught. Last summer, protesters in the city toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston. Collins’ care and passion for representing the warts-and-all-truth about Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is unchanging, even as our hands freeze around our umbrella handles in the rain.
“If everything you want to portray to the outside world is what’s good … you rewrite history to your own agenda. It is dangerous. The whole purpose of a walk like this is to try to understand the past so that we can understand the present, ”he says.
As we stand on Colston’s shelf, on Colston Street, next to what was (until last year) Colston Hall and Colston Tower, we learn about the man. In 1680 he became a board member and then deputy governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most productive slave trade company in British history. During his time there (his engagement ended in 1692) it sent an estimated 84,000 people from the coast of Africa to plantations in the New World. About 19,000 of them did not even complete the treacherous voyage: they spent their last days chained to the ship’s deck before their bodies were thrown into the sea.
There are not many records of how much money Colston made from trading in slaves, but there is plenty of information about his philanthropy afterwards. More than 100 years after his death, when the port of Bristol closed for commercial use, Colston was held up as a hero, and his slave trade past was sanitized and ignored.
We head out to the Drawbridge pub, right in the center, where the harbor was carved into the middle of town. Now it is an elongated roundabout where traffic lights, locals and historical relics merge with a recent fleet of pink e-scooters. A copy of the figurine head from the Demerara steamer stands above this pub as a reminder of Bristol’s long history of importing sugar. The colorful statue wearing a red screen is meant to depict a native chief, a spear in his left hand and something green in his right side representing the “bounty of the West Indies”.
In the 1700s, sugar quickly became Bristol’s most lucrative import, and the city was a thriving hub for the triangular trade. Weapons, textiles, and wine were sent from Europe to Africa in exchange for slaves sent to America to work on sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and coffee plantations, which were then sent back to Europe.
Collin describes how the tentacles of trade spread into all cities, through the snuff of the British noses to the sugar in their tea, and how money made by slavery financed many of Britain’s universities, banks, bridges, schools and buildings.
“When trade and commerce dominate, the moral imperative will always be set aside,” Collin says. He rejects the claim that everyone agreed on slavery at the height of its practice in Britain. Instead, he says, “We understood disgust for the slave trade, but because of the economic argument for slavery, we did not care about the abuse of Africans in the slave trade.”
In Bristol, money from the trade went to the Clifton suspension bridge, the Bristol Cathedral stained glass windows and Bristol University’s main Wills Memorial Building, to name a few.
Standing in front of the cathedral, Collin begins to explain the slave trade remains found inside. The most prominent window, under a gold watch in the northern transept, is dedicated to Colston and has a tall dome of intricate cobalt, red and turquoise panels, with the initials EC picked out below the images of Jesus and the centurion. The transept also contains stone memorial plaques to former plantation owners in the Caribbean, including Abraham Cumberbatch (a direct relation to actor Benedict), who owned a sugar plantation in Barbados.
Outside as we look up Park Street, the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building towers over the town at the top of the hill. Students have protested to have the name of the building changed because they believe it celebrates the Wills family of tobacco magnates whose wealth also stemmed from slavery. However, given that most of the funding for the university came from the Wills family, the university decided to keep the name.
Collins slave trade tour runs year-round, but he’s getting more interested, now it’s Black History Month. Understanding the impact the past has on our present and future is crucial, he says. “The absence of knowledge leaves people in polarized positions. But if history is used as a positive force, you develop empathy for other people, which can only positively affect our relationships. ”
Bristol Slave Trade Walk £ 10 adult / £ 5 children, Sundays 12.00-15.00
More events in Black History Month
In Glasgow, there is a slave trade tour (free every Sunday until October 30) with the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, and Edinburgh hosts a Talking Statues tour exploring the city’s statues and their history.
Manchester has its own slave trade (free, October 17) led by historian Ed Glinert, as well as a specially curated program on HOME arts space.
At Sheffield’s Theater Deli, Lekhani Chirwa stages her “bold but humorous” play Can I Touch Your Hair (from £ 13, October 14) on acceptance of identity and micro-aggressions.
In London, there is a black story river cruise (£ 36, 14-17-17, October 23) along the Thames with guest speakers giving a story of slavery in London and what they call “the real pirates of the Caribbean”.