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19 April 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
The Slave Trade memorial plaque
© Dean Smart
Legacies of the Slave Trade

The port of Bristol

From the late 1300s to the mid-18th Century, Bristol’s main income was related to seaborne trade, and the need for profit was a strong motivating force. Consequently Bristol ship owners were always looking for lucrative new routes and new business opportunities; some merchants are recorded as having sent children as slaves to Ireland as early as the 12th Century.

By the 18th Century Bristol was England’s second city and port, and as a result of this prosperity a building and investment boom took place in Bristol and nearby Bath. Local merchants voraciously lobbied King William III to be allowed to participate in the African trade, which until 1698 was a crown monopoly granted to The Royal African Company.

Pinney's house
Pinney's house - the family held plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis.
© Dean Smart
Bristol merchants were granted the right to trade in slaves in 1698 and it did not take them long to turn the business opportunity into profit. From 1698, to the end of the Slave Trade in Britain in 1807, just over 2,100 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages. According to Richardson (The Bristol Slave Traders: A Collective Portrait Bristol: Historical Association, Bristol Branch, 1984) this amounted to around 500,000 Africans who were carried into slavery, representing just under one fifth of the British trade in slaves of this period.

During this time an average of 20 slaving voyages set sail from Bristol each year, with many of the earliest voyages based on multiple investors, sometimes with “ordinary” people providing a quantity of cash or trade goods to be bartered for captured Africans at the end of the outward passage. Later voyages seem to have relied on one or two wealthy investors, perhaps with an eye to not diluting the profits! Clearly many Bristolians were happy to be involved in slavery if it meant getting rich.

Words: Dean Smart

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