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Posts Tagged ‘representation’

Bristol and the slave trade is a complex web as I feel it’s a heady mixture of the need for acknowledgment and recognition of the impact & legacy / the need to seperate fact from myth and the lack of evidence thereof / and the very human emotional need for healing and the effects on identity.

When you realise that the first time the (civic) city officially recognised the part it played in slavery was only 7 years ago, with the naming of Pero’s Bridge and exhibition at the City Museum, you realise just how long this issue has been boiling under the surface for many ‘aware’ Bristol residents, and just how much this year as seen the city and those residents playing catch up.

A long time before 2000, and in every year since, there has been such a lack of education and transparency about Bristol’s role in slavery that unsurprisingly people have latched onto anything they can find to validate their suspicions.  These range from linking Whiteladies Rd and Blackboys Hill (which research suggests had nothing to do with slavery), believing there were tunnels under the city where the enslaved Africans were kept and hidden, and also Redcliffe Caves holding captured enslaved.  In truth, the presence of the enslaved in the city would have been in the form of house servants rather than the plantation style chained enslaved that was the approach of the plantations.  But with the void and vacuum in an official line in what the involvement in slavery was, the images of enslaved Africans shackled and sold in Corn Street validated people’s natural need to understand and acknowledge and remember that SOMETHING terrible happened to their ancestors, and the physical image of misery is the most tangible emotion to relate to.  The fact that probably not many enslaved actually ever came here, but that it was the wealth created from this enslavement that came here and very much actually BUILT the city to what it is today, is one step too far removed for some as they feel it lets the city of the hook.

They fail to realise something much worse, that it was this detached economic base that was the entire driver and motivation for the so-called “trade” to exist at all.  The brutality of enslavement did not happen in a moral-less frenzy vacuum for its own distorted sake, which is often the case in genocide, holocaust and ethnic cleansing.  Disturbingly, the Maafa [1] of the transatlantic slave ‘trade’ is that it was justified every step of the way by very sober rational men in government looking for a cost effective way of producing goods for greater profit. (Racist ideologies were magnified and created mixed with Biblical mis-interpretations and quasi-scientific anthropological corrupt justification). The real disturbing fact about slavery is that in a very calm way it murdered approx 10 times more people than the holocaust over a period of nearly 400 years as opposed to 5.  (Here I am not trying to compare suffering or say how worse one was than the other, but rather simply contrast a well documented atrocity against a less universally acknowledged one.  I hope that comes across!). 

I feel the shear scale and numbers involved in trying to understand what happened in the enslavement of Africans make it all the more appealing and manageable for ones to latch onto visioning actual African suffering happening on Bristol soil more tangible, and also why anniversaries such as the abolition of the ‘slave trade act’ in 1807 would never satisfy and be welcomed by all the people, as it is only 10% of the story of abolition and nothing actually changed until 1834 anyway.  Basically, 2007 was seen as a cynical quick fix by many, which wouldn’t even scratch the surface of stories that need to be told.  Even many in the city (civic and civilian) would like 2007 to be “we’ve acknowledged the slave trade now, so let’s end it there.” In reality though it is only the very beginning.

So what has this done to Bristol’s image?  Well in basic terms it (I feel) is seen as a city which cannot come to terms with its past, and a city which doesn’t even fully understand its past).  If you look at Liverpool it has done things very different, and has had a dedicated Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in the National Museum Liverpool for the past 13 years, and opened a dedicated museum to the subject in August this year.I feel Bristol has done itself no favours at all with regards representation in the city.  Some brief examples; Colston Colston Colston.  Even now that the Colston Hall is being revamped is a perfect opportunity, but the name will remain.  For the record I must say that I don’t think the statue should be pulled down, but I think it should be re-plaqued for education and awareness.  Pulling the thing down would just hide the history again.  Re-presenting it keep the history alive and acknowledged.  Also I don’t think that any street names should be changed.  But with not re-branding the statue it smacks of hero worship of a slaver.  Yes Colston did great things for the material and “charitable” wealth of the city, but it was on the back of the destruction and moral-less under-development of a continent and its people.Another error of representation by the city was the whole Merchants Quarter disaster.  (I won’t go into the whole Merchants Quarter connection now, as its too exhausting!).  But now to call the new area Cabot Circus is even more of a joke!  Yes John Cabot was long before transatlantic slavery and was not a slaver, but his endeavours were the precursor of imperialisation and colonisation and completely paved the way for the justifying slavery and the empire building that followed.

Another interesting twist in the whole representation issue is the fact that with regards slavery Bristol is seen as the bad guy of the South West, and Bath doesn’t even get a mention and is the pretty Roman/Georgian oasis.  The fact is that Bath was the playground of the wealthy MERCHANTS from Bristol and much of its wealth was spent there.  It was those rich visitors that built the wealth of Bath also the haven of people like William Beckford, the plantation owner who build the city’s landmarks such as Beckford’s Tower and Sham Castle. [2]  Also, as a clue, Bath gets hailed as the beautiful Georgian city, and it was under the King Georges era that British involvement in slavery thrived.

I’ll end here because, it’s Friday! 


[1] The term “Maafa” (from the book, “Let The Circle Be Unbroken”, by Dr. Marimba Ani) is a kiswahili word for “disaster” that we are now using to reclaim our right to tell our own story. (Rob Mitchell’s reference.)

[2]  Beckford built Sham Castle so he had something interesting to look at from his office window in Landsdown!

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