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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Bristol

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Immigration and Emigration
Legacies of the Slave Trade

Crest on the Merchant Venturers' Sailors Alms Houses
The Society of the Merchant Venturers dominated Bristol trade and politics.
© Dean Smart
In Bristol the principal financial gains from slave voyages and slave labour were made by the merchant classes. Trade and local politics was dominated by members of The Society of Merchant Venturers, a group which still exists today. Their power in the city in the past cannot be underestimated, and during the years of the slave trade 16 owners of ships which were slaver traders served as Masters of the Society, 16 served as Sheriff of Bristol, 10 as Aldermen and 11 as Mayor. Involvement in the trade was common amongst many of the City’s leading families.

Other members of the same families, or their relatives and friends, became plantation owners in the West Indies, and Bristol families like the Pinneys became fantastically rich by the standards of the time. With a vested interest in maintaining their profits from slavery these same families then fought to keep the slave trade when campaigns for its restriction and abolition were started in the late 18th Century.

The battle for change

In Bristol there was a strong tradition of radical thought and “Dissenting Churches”, which included the Quakers, Evangelicals and Methodists, were all heavily involved in the movement to abolish the slave trade from the 1780s onwards until abolition. However, according to historian Madge Dresser, several prominent members of each of these churches had been slave owners or investors in the trade. Abolition occurred in two stages, in 1807-8 trading of slaves in Britain’s colonies ended, however slaves already working had to remain in their positions until 1833 when an act emancipating them was passed, this act also compensated their “owners” for their freedom.

Plaque commemorating Thomas Clarkson
Thomas Clarkson collected evidence of the maltreatment of slaves.
© Dean Smart
Thomas Clarkson, a major figure in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, came to Bristol on numerous occasions and gathered evidence about the horrors of the slave trade. He interviewed men like Alexander Faulconbridge, who had served as a ships surgeon on slaving voyages, and had been horrified by conditions below decks. His actions made him unpopular with many people at the time and he was physically attacked by rogues paid by pro-slavers, he also suffered a near breakdown due to pressures of work and the stories he heard whilst gathering evidence.

Words: Dean Smart

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