Bristol slave trade

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Bristol is a city in the South West of England. It is located on the River Avon which flows into the Severn Estuary. Because of Bristol’s position on the River Avon, it has been an important location for marine trade for centuries.[1] The city's involvement with the slave trade peaked between 1730 and 1745, when it became the leading slaving port.[2]

Bristol used its position on the Avon to trade all types of goods. Bristol's port was the second largest in England after London. Countries that Bristol traded with included France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and North Africa’s Barbary Coast. Bristol’s main export was woollen cloth. Other exports included coal, lead, and animal hides. Imports into Bristol included wine, grain, slate, timber, and olive oil. Trading with the various colonies in the Caribbean and North America began to flourish during the Interregnum of Oliver Cromwell (1649–1660).

The Royal African Company, a London based trading company, had control over all trade between countries in Britain and Africa before the year 1698 [3] At this time, only ships owned by the Royal African Company could trade for anything, including slaves. Slaves were increasingly an important commodity at the time, since the British colonization in the Caribbean and the Americas in the 17th century. The Society of Merchant Venturers, an organization of elite merchants in Bristol, wanted to commence participation in the African slave trade, and after much pressure from them and other interested parties in and around Britain, the Royal African Company’s control over the slave trade was broken in 1698.

As soon as the monopoly was broken, the first Bristol slave ship, the Beginning, owned by Stephen Barker, purchased enslaved Africans and delivered them to the Caribbean. Some average slave prices were £20, £50, or £100. In her will of 1693, Jane Bridges, Widow of Leigh Upon Mendip bequeathes her interest of £130 in this very ship to her grandson Thomas Bridges and she indicates that the vessel was owned by the City of Bristol. Business boomed; however, due to the over-crowding and harsh conditions on the ships, it is estimated that approximately half of each cargo of slaves did not survive the trip across the Atlantic.[4]

Between 1697 and 1807, 2,108 known ships left Bristol to make the trip to Africa and onwards across the Atlantic with slaves. An average of twenty slaving voyages set sail a year.[5] Over 3.4 million slaves were brought into slavery by these ships, representing one-fifth of the British slave trade during this time.[5] Profits from the slave trade ranged from 50% to 100% during the early 18th century. Bristol was already a comparatively wealthy city prior to this trade; as one of the three points of the slave triangle (the others being Africa and the West Indies), the city prospered. This triangle was called the Triangular Trade. The Triangular Trade involved delivering, as well receiving, goods from each stop the ship took.

In popular culture[edit]

Folk duo Show of Hands have written and performed a song 'The Bristol Slaver' covering the subject.


  1. ^ E. M. Carus-Wilson, 'The overseas trade of Bristol' in E. Power & M.M. Postan, Studies in English Trade in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1933)
  2. ^ BBC - Legacies - Immigration and Emigration - England - Bristol - Legacies of the Slave Trade - Article Page 2
  3. ^ John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. New York: Modern Library, 2003. ISBN 0-679-64249-8.
  4. ^ S.I. Martin. Britain and the Slave Trade: Channel 4 Books, 1999.
  5. ^ a b BBC - Legacies - Immigration and Emigration - England - Bristol - Legacies of the Slave Trade - Article Page 1

Further reading[edit]

  • Gregory E. O'Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.