Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

(Eurocentric) Timeline on Port Cities

a Timeline on Port Cities website (click pic to go there)

This timeline is pretty useful. For history in an British school or education system. They are right of course, those who would argue it’s Eurocentric. Though no reason to dismiss it. It’s good for passing history exams in this country true enough! And it gives good references points for orienting our heads around annals of history even if it is on the Gregorian Calendar. Part of living in a multicultural world should be being able to navigate such things no? This is a time of World History.

Reading History – Coules vs. Dresser   – Two Books :

The Trade (Victoria Coules)


Slavery Obscured. (Madge Dresser)

Recently we’ve been reading some books The Trade by Victoria Coules and Slavery Obscured by Madge Dresser.  They are both excellent ways into the subject of Bristol and its role in transatlantic slavery. The Trade is a nice  easy read. It begins by acknowledging the roaring passions that were ignited with whole 2007 Abolition thing recently. It then flows through the story from the making of Brigstowe (Bristol) through to…well chapter 8 at the moment. Coules draws on a number of sources in recent writing and research including Madge Dresser. That’s the other book. Madge’s is much more academic in its historiography and prides itself on getting close to the sources. Madge is an academic historian. Victoria is a film maker. Victoria wants to share a story that fascinates us, researched it and shared it with us in like an easy but informative documentary film. Madge wants to push back the frontiers of knowledge on the subject and assert new a position.  One thing Slavery Obscured looks to do is clarify the exact nature of the impact of the Africa business on Bristol’s rise in ‘Gentility’ (ironic notion) .  The language of the Slavery Obscured is much more academic – with its research, many images and ploughing of new research sources and directions.  It asserts a certain authority in research in this field.  The Trade is a much easier read since  the language targets a much wider  audience.  It could be read by older primary school children.  Both bring Bristol into the mix giving a much better of picture of exactly what we mean by ‘Bristol had something to do with the slavery’.

Both are reading well so far, and backing each other up about Bristol, Cabot, Colston, the ‘white slave trade’, (Which Derek Robinson mentioned back in 1973 with his very readable Shocking History of Bristol and giving dates and names to Bristol’s involvment in the ‘Africa trade’.   The Coules and Dresser books  complement each other well. So  more Coules AND Dresser rather than VERSUS. They are useful to bounce back and forth between and feture lots of knowledge there for us to better our understanding of the nature, impact and legacy of Bristol’s involvement.

Monarchs and Merchants

What happened to the wealth people featured on this BBC site?

What’s quite enjoyable about reading books about history is the references to English history. A bit like school.  With Henry VII and VIII, Mary, Elizabeth I, James, Charles, Cromwell and so forth. They are all there. Though some of it also reads like any page of the Financial Times today. Then there’s Colstons and Canynges and Cabots –  Investors in (ad)-ventures, traders and protectors of UK GDP.  New Worlds, New Markets.

But now. New Identities. For those transported and..

…for many of those companies, banks, insurance companies, big corporations have changed their names. And business interests.  Well maybe not Tate and Lyle. Like those after the Nazi Holocaust that became safe names like BASF. [as Wikipedia would say – needs citation]

There are a few institutions that are still evident very strongly today. The Monarchy, Bristol City Council and The Society of Merchant Venturers. Others have changed evolved in identity as well as markets. The monarchy were clearly key investors in licenses and laws to trade and colonise. Though when the whole busines proved proved lucrative, the intested cash.

Bristol City Council.

Many of the Society of Merchant Venturers were also members of Bristol Corporation, the council that ran the city. They were powerful men. The setting up of the Society transformed a loose network of traders into a formal organisation to promote trade..

The members of the Society were the leading merchants of the city and they had asked King Edward VI for a charter (a licence) allowing them to oversee foreign trade. They complained that the city�s trade was being ruined by untrained merchants. The King�s charter gave control of overseas trade to the Society and the rules governing membership stated that members should have been through a proper apprenticeship or training in the �Arte of Merchaunts� (the Art of the Merchant).
quotes above from Port Cities website

All the big Bristol names carved into the walls, the streets, the monuments, the houses, the parks and public places are there in this story. It’s impossible to separate from any aspect of English life of the time. A bit like trying to separate the arms trade from other strands of the global economy including our pensions funds and saving accounts.

The story of the (white) Bristol poor is another thing and they could have been shipped to ‘Barbadoes’ for liberating  a loaf of bread to feed their starving families.  Barbados was not the tourist hotspot we know today (that’s a later market!) but a growing colony in a hostile climate, hungry for labour on sugar plantations.

Barbadoes, William Mayo , 1722

From British Library

The books refer to the time when one notorious Judge Jeffreys comes to Bristol to get the ‘great’ and the ‘good’ back for support the Monmouth Rebellion . This guy is notorious for enjoying cruelty and using his power as a judge to revel in it. But then even he comes to Bristol in the 1680’s to tell the Bristol rich and powerful off for their their cruel habits. The Bristol courts (where the judiciary were also planters and investors in the colonisation project) were conning unfortunate Bristolians who found themselves up for trial for the most meagre of offences,  into taking an alternative sentence in the West Indies .

But then, Jeffreys telling them off was really a politically motivated thing because the Bristol rich were supporting the rebels against the current monarchy. Because clearly he didn’t care either. Those same bloody assizes (courts / trials)  he held did exactly the same thing.

The subsequent Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys were a series of trials of Monmouth’s supporters in which 320 people were condemned to death and around 800 sentenced to be transported to the West Indies.
Wikipedia (Monmouth Rebellion)

However the times were thus. Those new and emerging colonies not, yet 150 years after Columbus and Cabot, needed labour to generate the wealth required for those investors back home in empire-building ventures.  So as the Taino, Caribs, Arawaks and Native Americans, Amerindians as we know them began to die , from European diseases and just pure genocide, the transported European convicts and ‘volunteers’  also withered in the tropical sun.  With the whole UK /European investment and venture under threat there was a voracious demand for labour.  Hence the Africans were increasingly captured, transported, worked, tortured, bred and belitted for the wealth of Great Britain and Bristol. This was already happening with Portugal and Spain but the British streamlined it.

Africentric timelines?

Guardian – Black History Timeline – at least it doesn’t start at 1619… see next

biography.com – Black History Timeline –  ‘coca-cola’ version that starts in 1619 with Obama prominent in the present.

Smithsonian Institute – Timeline – Mali, Ethiopia, Nile Valley

Paul Obinna’s Timeline


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Myths and Facts


Facts and Feelings?

This working title for this book project is a bit problematic.

The idea of myths suggests something that is not ‘true’. Something that is a part of folklore, usually involving supernatural and celestial beings.  The kind of ‘myth’ we are supposed to be dealing with here though is like:

Slaves were kept in caves in Redcliffe.


Blacks were sold on Blackboy Hill.

Blackboy Hill on Port Cities website

Blackboy Hill on Port Cities website

While I could not say that this is absolutely untrue, I am aware that established historical orthodoxy on the subjects suggest that such things were certainly not the norm.

The other kind of ‘myth’ we are dealing with is

‘That’s such a long time ago, let’s move on’.

Usually that comes from a feeling that we should change the subject and not talk about this anymore.  We’ve learned over the last few years that it’s important to acknowledge these feelings. It’s not a ‘myth’, it’s an opinion and since it’s accompanied by an emotional charge, then there is a reality to it.   Any book on Bristol and transatlantic slavery,  published now, addressing popular prominent ideas about the subject should touch on such common feelings and ideas too we feel.

How long is ‘too long’ and what is meant my ‘move on’ are some arguable points right there. But such ideas are common. It’s difficult for people not get agitated or uncomfortable when exploring this subject.  Is it like talking about the Nazi implemented Holocaust in Germany?   It would be great to see our capacity for such conversation in Bristol to mature. And it is completely possible But first there is the need for the alleviation of much ignorance.

Knowledge will lead to understanding and hopefully some shifts in feeling. Like it or not our thoughts and feelings do impact on our realities today. Even when something has come out of nothing like Tracy thought that Brian said some stuff about her.  It’s still going to affect how Tracy and Brian relate to each other.

This book, if anything is to be added to the dialogue in the city must address FEELINGS.  It must enhance the dialogue. Especially after all the fireworks from the Abolition 200 moment has long sizzled out, gone soggy and got stamped into the streets of yesterday.

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Rumour has it that Sir Trevor the Younger (i.e.Phillips , not McDonald) has some funds to use for Legacy of the slave trade abolition.

Sir Trevor

Did this money come from banks? from the corporate sector?

And how much? Was it really for reparations? And what will it be used for?

And does that mean it was in the trillions as calculated by Dr Robert Beckford when researching the issue of back pay for Africans building up the British empire? Or something less?

Is it true? Initial searches on the net reveal little, even though it is said he announced this windfall. (Gee it’s hard to find kind things being said about this man, with his head so far above the parapet – being hated on by black and white in equal measure)

Well seems like some more research needed here?

So what do YOU know? Any comments?

Is this just a rumour??


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Black & White

One noticeable thing about this year and the open debate about the suffering of black people, has been the increased irritation of some white-folk.

Mainly because they can’t see why all the attention should be placed on people who, to them, have have only just arrived. Especially if they have similar basic needs too. A decent life and liberation from their social-economic prisons.

They have heard the same thing from black people since they started coming to this country (in recent memory), and despite loads of money and laws and quangos and newsreaders, and childrens television presenters and MPs and so on, ‘the blacks’ are still banging on about it. But the white folk don’t really see that for black folk in some ways little has changed underneath the cosmetic face of race relations.

With immigration getting ‘out of control’ and governments creating more asylum seekers, fearful statistics, and the terrorist threat. Where are they to turn? And they are many who would jump to answer that call. So the last thing they really want to hear is how their ancestors were so evil. Especially as they themselves, have been so accommodating of late!

So how this year has been? It could be said that there has been much genuine interest from white Bristol to get to know more about their history. There are of course those who still subscribe to racial hierarchy, and think that blacks should be in bondage today.

Most white folk in England would like to think themselves as fair-minded and just. They would of course say ‘ There’s good and bad in everybody’, and such wisdoms. They might disagree with apologising for slavery and changing street names, but still agree with equal pay and equal justice for all. Some might not see how the African is denigrated in the European cultural and economic consciousness.

Since this year has only scratched the surface with these discussions, it may be that there is more to be had. There are lots of white children not getting anything out of their education, addicted to drugs, stuck in poor housing, and suffering just like black folk, some of them resent the charge that they all benefited from slavery. And it’s likely, they didn’t.

Marvin Rees argued in a BBC Inside Out that Bristol was ‘racially fractured’. But the fracture is not understood by all. He contunues to argue that race has to be discussed openly and frankly in safe spaces, so that it is better understood. And easier to live with.

Children growing up in Bristol schools think it’s racist to use the terms ‘Black’ and ‘White’. They don’t understand why, but have been taught that it’s charged with bad stuff, fearfulness and confusion.

One speaker at the Malcolm X centre that night(12 Nov 07) told of how her white friends when walking though areas with black people in, was unsure ‘what to call them’. I have sympathy. It’s hard to keep up with the speak. And one may be African, Caribbean, Somali, Nigerian, Bengali, and a whole host of things, but essentially in England, you are non-white. Though we are not ‘coloured’ anymore. However we are still subject to this thing called : Racism.

It takes so many forms. Though for many white people today, with race such a senstive and hot issue, and one which they feel so confused about, it’s hard to negotiate all this ‘stuff’. They think it’s all gone away. They don’t see riots on streets any more. And there’s all those black people on the telly. But many of them did not notice it go underground.

Of course white-folk, black-folk cannot be described in homogeneous clumps. Since people, regardless of colour, occupy various places on the streams of thought and belief. But this block mentality is something has characterised many of the discussions that have been had so far. As Marvin states, Black and White have proven inaccurate and imprecise definitions. This year has shown that the division is not so ‘black’ and ‘white’, but Rich and Poor.

Still, African people, and those in its diaspora have a very particular story around this slave trade and its legacy. They have looked at themselves through British eyes as being at the bottom of the racial hierachy, having just graduated to human status. So this won’t go away so easily. It’s been a few centuries in coming. And the call is now for Africans to look at themselves through African eyes.

Cultural Representation is the third of three priorities identified by the Abolition 200 report. Great, as long as it is not just African drumming. (Though it would be nice to have a bit of Kora!) There’s a whole range of Diaspora stories to tell in a whole range of media.

As we get through these first big broad triangular strokes of acknowledging, explaining, and understanding the African-European story, there are many smaller stories that will emerge to demonstate the complexities and contradictions of our human story.

So as the discussions continue, (and we’ll see what Action follows), it remains to be seen what value and understanding we place on race. Is it still a valid concept?

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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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