Bristol and the slave trade

This week we tackled a more difficult subject for our walk in the past walk – the Bristol slave trade.

It is an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that much of Bristol’s prosperity came from the slave trade. Slavery is thousands of years old. The Romans brought slaves to Britain and Celtic tribes  traded slaves. However with the discovery of America  in 1492 new opportunities for the trade were created.

Europeans found the hot humid conditions of the south difficult to work in but loved crops like cotton, tobacco and sugar that could be grown there.  One solution was to take people from Africa who were used to a hot climate and transport them to America

A triangular trade was started. Manufactured goods and guns were traded along the coast of Africa for slaves who were taken to America and the West Indies and sold for goods like sugar and tobacco which were brought back to Europe.

The numbers involved are staggering. It has been estimated that about 13 million people may have left African ports as slaves. Portugal has the dubious honour of being the most important slave trading nation with Britain second.

Because of its position on the West coast of England Bristol became one of the major slave trading ports. It is estimated that Bristol ships may have transported up to half a million slaves. Conditions on board the slave ships were horrifying and mortality was high.

St Mary Redcliffe church
St. Mary Redcliffe Church

We started our walk at St. Mary Redcliffe the magnificent parish church close to Bristol Harbour. The church owes much of its elaborate decoration to gifts from Bristol merchants and its graveyard contains the tombs of many Bristol slave traders. They obviously were able to reconcile their Christian faith with slave trading.

The Georgian House museum

There is a campaign to open a slavery museum in Bristol but until it happens you can see the legacy of slavery in many of the buildings of the city.

We visited the Georgian House, number 7 Great George Street. This was owned by a slave trader called Mr. Pinney. It has been turned into a museum and is furnished to show the lavish lifestyle the Pinneys would have led. it is free to enter. Click here to find out more.

Guide in a posh Georgian dress
A guide dressed as Mrs. Pinney. (Georgian house museum)

As was fashionable at the time the family kept a black servant.

A picture of Mr Pinney with his slave.
An information board about Pero Jones

Another reminder of the slave trade in Bristol is the fact that many of the fashionable houses in Queen Square were owned by Slave traders.

Slave trader’s house in fashionable Queens square

You can also see the customs house where profits on cargoes from America would have been collected.

The Abolition of Slavery.

Towards the end of the 18th century there were growing demands for the end of slavery. In Bristol John Wesley   who had worked in Savannah in America preached against it and was banned from many local churches. Thomas Cottle published pamphlets against slavery.  Perhaps the most important figure in Bristol was Thomas Clarkson a journalist who visited pubs like the Seven Stars and listened to the testimony of sailors. His findings provided Wilberforce with much of the ammunition to fight for the abolition of slavery in Parliament.

Slave trading by British ships was banned in 1807 and in 1834 slave ownership was banned in British overseas territories. This bill was only passed after slave owners were offered large sums in compensation. They were able to invest much of the money in Bristol industry and property.

One of the most famous Bristol slave traders was Edward Colston. He gave away much of his fortune establishing schools and almshouses in the city.

The legacy today

Bristol is very uncomfortable with its past. There is a move to rename the Colston Hall which is one of the main concert Halls in the centre of the city and to remove the statue of Edward Colston from the centre. My own view is that we should acknowledge our past but not celebrate it.  I welcome a move to give prominence to other figures in the story. I chose the image at the top of the post as it is Pero’s bridge named for the slave Pero Jones.


As the organiser of our walking group did not want to profit from the slave trade himself, our fees went to support Papyrus a charity which was set up to help prevent suicide by young people. It is a sobering fact that suicide is the single biggest killer of people under 35 in the U.K.

If you want to find out more about the Bristol slave trade I recommend

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandmothers. As always I love to read your comments.

Author: Anne Fraser

Hi, I am Anne, I am a retired nurse from Bristol in South West England. I am married with five grown up children, four boys and a girl , a grandson and a cat. I like History, travel and reading. I hope to connect with other people with similar interests.

24 thoughts on “Bristol and the slave trade”

  1. Very interesting history. I just did a prompt story about the Underground Railroad and fugitive slaves. Its a sad past for Uk and USA. Thanks for linking up to our #WednesdayAIMLinkParty 39

    1. I loved your story and recommend people search it out and read it. It is strange we both did posts on slavery this week. We definitely need to remember the past.

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this. It’s so easy for people today to forget where the fortunes that built those big, beautiful houses came from. And your mention of John Wesley reminds me that even today, as people tell me regularly (I’m an American living in Cornwall, so people are always cluing me into the history), Methodists in Cornwall won’t put sugar in their tea–they boycotted sugar because it was produced by slave labor.

  3. This is fascinating thank you for sharing. I never realised that bristol had such an impact on the slave trade – so shocking! The life of Pedro is really interesting too. It’s crazy to think he was bought and lived in captivity. Thanks for the book recommendation. I love Philippa Greggory’s Books so I will check this out.

  4. I’m a little disappointed in myself for not knowing pretty much any of this. It certainly made for eye-opening, and very saddening, reading, like with many of the slaves having tombs at the St. Mary Redcliffe. Absolutely shocking stuff, thank you so much for sharing it as such history is incredibly important to acknowledge and remember.
    Caz xx

  5. This history is obvious all over Glasgow too – we have Virginia Street and Jamaica Street, for example, and many streets named after individuals, the “Tobacco Lords”. It’s difficult to know what to do for the best, but I agree on remembering the past but not celebrating it. Mind you, i’m not sure if some of our politicians have ever moved out of it …

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