Sat | Aug 17, 2019

Anthony Gambrill | Bristol’s prosperity built on the backs of slaves

Published:Sunday | July 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Bristol, in the county of Somerset in Britain, has a long heritage of maritime enterprise. It was from here that a Venetian, John Cabot, started his voyage of exploration to the New World, becoming the first European to reach the North American mainland since the Vikings.

The city was one of the earliest British slaving ports, with more than 2,000 slaving voyages taking place between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Bristol ship captains delivered nearly 500,000 slaves to the Americas and the West Indies. Very few of these men owned the vessels that sailed as they belonged to the merchants of Bristol and nearby Clifton. These merchants had originally formed the Society of Merchant Ventures in 1552 to promote mercantile activities and, in the next century, challenged the Royal African Company, which, at the time, had a legal monopoly on slave trading.

Their West Indian ships began carrying sugar, rum, tobacco, rice, cotton and, occasionally, a few slaves for the English aristocracy to retain as household servants. Church records in the city indicated that Africans had been buried in their cemeteries, even predating slave trading.

As early as the 1650s, Bristol merchants were provisioning the West Indian plantations, and by 1680, Bristol boasted four sugar refineries. Bristol was to be overtaken by Liverpool (for a short while, Bristol briefly surpassed London as Britain's major slave-trading port) largely because of the northwestern city having easier access to the products of the evolving manufacturing economy that supplied finished goods for West Africa.




In 1695, one Bristol sugar merchant was to describe slave trading as "a most profitable trade". Profit made from slave trading and plantations enriched generations of merchants and financiers, ultimately providing for owners of stately houses, patrons of the arts and, inevitably, members of parliament for the city of Bristol.

In her book Slavery Obscured: A Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, Madge Dresser noted 42 properties within 11 miles of Bristol owned by slave traders. While the proportion of country houses in Britain held by slave holders averaged between five and 10 per cent of the total, it was in an area that included Bristol, which was to noticeably exceed this estimate.




Philip John Miles became the first millionaire in Bristol building Lehigh Court, a Palladium-style mansion on 250 acres bordering on the River Avon, later acquiring nearby King Weston as a second residence for his children as their inheritance. His wealth was generated as an absentee owner and as a

mortgagee of several West Indian plantations with the slaves on them. At Emancipation, he and his partner were awarded 36,000 pounds for 1,700 slaves in Jamaica and Trinidad.

Sir John Hugh Smyth was fortunate enough to marry a Jamaican heiress, Rebecca Woolnough, who brought Spring plantation into the marriage, building Ashton Court near the city. Ham Green House was the reward for Richard Meyler, whose estates in Jamaica included Meyersfield, Beeston Spring and Garradu. His Bristol residence included a wharf to service the ships he owned.

Cleveden Court is a many-time remodelled medieval manor house in North Somerset owned by the Elton family, whose wealth originated with mining but was to be augmented by the slave trade and sugar estates in Jamaica.

John Dukinfield began his career modestly in a Bristol slave-trading company in which he was to rise to ownership,

marrying his employer's daughter. His probably unique achievement was to carry out a slaving voyage into the Indian Ocean to the island of Madagascar. Here he purchased a cargo of Malagasy slaves, half-African, half-Malaysian. When he died in 1745, he left his 5,000-acre Dukinfield Hall estate to his 24-year-old son, Robert.

Robert Dukinfield served in the Jamaican House of Assembly, eventually representing Portland. Upon his death in 1750, he left his will, land, slaves, and a lot in Kingston to build a house for Jane Engusson, "a free Negro woman", and his three children by her. Eight years earlier, he had an act passed in the Assembly entitling his children to the same rights and privileges as English subjects born of white parents.

Following the 1807 Abolition Act, the political and commercial elite predicted that, without the slave trade, Bristol's future would decline drastically. As Madge Dresser, in her book, says, "... It was the forced labour of [the slaves] on West Indian plantations which underwrote the city's prosperity in the 18th and early 19th century." As well as their elegant country houses, the Bristol citizens were able to claim compensation for more than 4,000 Jamaican slaves at Emancipation, in addition to an amount for another 8,412 accounted for between Jamaica and Trinidad.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian.

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