Bristol's Role in the Slave Trade and Abolition

After the market town of Brycgstow developed into a port in the 11th century, the town became a major centre for the Anglo-Saxon slave trade. Men, women and children captured in Wales or northern England were traded through Bristol to Dublin as slaves, from where the Viking rulers of Dublin would sell them on throughout the known world. Eventually this trade was forbidden by the crown, though it carried on in secret for many years.

Around the time of British colonization in the Caribbean and Americas during the 17th century, slaves were once again becoming an increasingly important commodity. However, prior to 1698, all trade (including slavery) between British and African countries was controlled by the Royal African Company, based in London.

It was largely due to pressure from the Bristol-based Society of Merchant Venturers, an organization of elite merchants, that this monopoly was eventually broken. At this point, the first Bristol slave ship, the Beginning, promptly purchased enslaved Africans and delivered them to the Caribbean.

The slave trade then boomed, with Bristol being one of the three points of the slave triangle (the others being Africa and the West Indies). Between 1697 and 1807, 2,108 known slaving voyages were made by Bristol ships. Bristol had been a comparatively wealthy city prior to this trade, which brought yet further prosperity.

The slave trade also created a demand for cheap brassware, causing a boom in the copper and brass manufacturing industries of the Avon valley, which in turn led to the development of the Industrial Revolution in the area.

Some of the earliest campaigns against slavery began in the 18th century, with many prominent opponents coming from or having strong connections with Bristol. These included Anne Yearsley, Hannah More, Harry Gandey, Mary Carpenter, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Bristol's Seven Stars public house is still noted for its association with abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who visited in 1787 and used the pub as a base for his research into Bristol's slave trade.

In May of that year, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, with the Slave Trade Act 1807 eventually abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. Slavery itself remained legal until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.