Bristol, Colston and Colonial Trade, 1580-1780

Foreground: The ‘Drowning’ of Edward Colston, 2020

Above: Edward Colston’s statue towards Bristol harbour. Photograph from The Guardian Weekly, 12 June 2020, by Giulia Spadafora, Getty.

The heart-breaking, public and blatant murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 has fuelled a storm of protests across the world. ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests have broken out across Britain and other European countries, where the reckoning has reopened questions about the legacies of empire, including the nature of the enslavement, brutalisation, and exploitation of African people. In many of these protests, statues in public squares have acted as focal points for public outrage. The most iconic moment in the British protests thus far has been the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, a prominent slave-trader who died in 1721. To understand the true historical contexts of the Colston statue which was erected in 1895, 175 years after his death, we first need to consider what the City of Bristol was like when Colston was born into an established local merchant family there. Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol (most of his adult life had been spent in London) as a result not of a campaign from the ‘people of Bristol’, but rather because of the efforts of one businessman, James Arrowsmith. Fearing strikes and socialist agitation amongst the working poor in the 1890s, and anxious about the future of the British Empire at the time of the Boer Wars, he sought to proclaim the city’s imperial deeds through the commemoration of one of its seventeenth-century patrician class.

The Growth of Bristol & Atlantic Trade, 1580-1630:

In a petition of 25 May 1584, citizens of Bristol described their city as in an angle, between Somerset and Gloucestershire, and maynteyned onlie by the trade of merchandizes. It was mainly dependent, they said, upon the manufacture and export of coloured cloth, some of which was made in the city and some in Somerset. In addition, it served all the towns and creeks of the Severn valley as far upstream as Shrewsbury. The city was a great centre of trade where raw materials and foodstuffs from the whole of the West country were manufactured and exchanged for imported commodities, either luxuries like wine, fruit, sugar and spices or the goods used in its industries, such as dyestuffs, oil and iron.

Visitors found it an attractive city, the castle and the old town on high ground between the Avon and the Frome, surrounded inside its ring of water by a double line of walls within its towers and gates. Its buildings, both public and private, were fine and there were many beautiful churches. The streets were clean, as a raker was employed to keep them tidy and there was no dunghill in all the cittie, but all convaid under the ground. Camden, in his Brittania, explained that fear of fracturing these underground drains, or ‘gouts’, was the reason for the use of sleds rather than heavy carts within the town, but it was often said that this was to avoid shaking the wine in the cellars beneath. Possession of a good cellar must have been quite valuable as they were frequently leased to merchants for extra storage. By the sixteenth century, the water supply seems to have been quite good, with St. Edith’s well in the centre of the town and several conduits bringing water from the surrounding hills. The Council frequently employed a plumber to maintain these conduits, particularly the Quay pipe which supplied the ships in the harbour.

Inside the gates, the population was not divided into districts for each trade or social class, though there is no doubt that some streets were more fashionable than others. But throughout the city there was no absolute division; in Broad Street, the gardener lived next to the wax chandler, whose other neighbour was the skinner, while houses further along the road were occupied by tailors, weavers, a baker and a vintner. In some streets, tall houses belonging to merchants overshadowed small cottages interspersed with stables and open ground. Outside the walls to the north and west, around Broadmead and St. James’, a number of tanners and brewers used the water of the River Frome in their workshops. To the south-west, near the Cathedral, on the west bank of the Frome, in the parish of St. Augustine-the-less, were the homes of some gentry and Cathedral dignatories and also many sailors, lightermen and ships’ carpenters. It was generally a poorer area with a shifting population including, by the end of the century, immigrant Irish and other transient labourers.

On the south-eastern side of Bristol, in the great bend in the River Avon, the Port Wall enclosed the suburbs of Redcliffe and Temple. This was mainly an industrial area of smaller craftsmen, an important cloth-making and finishing area, where many of the houses had closes or yards with tentering racks and where dyers had their evil-smelling vats or ‘settings’ of woad. Many kinds of textile workers lived in this area, including glovers and saddlers, and a number of other craftsmen made metal goods, such as pewterers, wire drawers and cutlers. This proto-industrialisation was accelerated by the mining of lead in the Mendips and, later in the century, the import of considerable amounts of iron from South Wales. As the cloth industry declined or began to specialise more in dyeing and finishing, these ‘newer’ industries began to take its place, including bell-founding, pin-making, soap-making and sugar-refining. Rope-making and the manufacture of leather goods remained important.

The merchants formed the richest, though not the largest group. In the period 1532-1552, 428 ‘lads’ were apprenticed as merchants, or to the distributive trades, such as haberdashers, drapers and mercers. Of these, 111 paid subsidies in 1545, three-quarters of them paying on ten pounds or over. Nicholas Thorne, the richest, paid on three hundred pounds. The various textile workers seem to have been the most numerous group, taking 879 apprentices in the twenty-year period. The leather trades took 605 and their workers were much more prosperous than the textile workers, although the industry employed fewer of them. Of the 304 metal workers, only eight appeared in the subsidy rolls. It is clear from these figures that, although the merchants were a strong and wealthy group, yet the industrial workers were very numerous and the leaders of their guilds were substantial men, so that Bristol’s dependence on overseas trade did not in the sixteenth century, permit the merchants entirely to dominate the town to the exclusion of other interests as seems to have happened, for example, in Exeter. It was probably the increasing difficulties in trade during the latter decades of the century, including the war with France and Spain, combined with the problem of continual inflation, which caused the Bristol merchants to become more self-conscious as a group.

The grants of a monopoly of trade in various goods, of which there were a great many in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign, were very much hated by the other merchants, who evaded them whenever they could. A description of the provincial merchant as the straggler, shipping his Clothe and other commoditie in covert maner, hugger-mugger, and at obscure ports. Making false entries in the customs books, importing aliens’ goods and corrupting the Customs men were all clever pieces of London propaganda, but these accusations were not far from the truth. The men involved in ‘smuggling’ were not an obscure group of disreputable characters; they were the leading merchants in the City, very few of them not mentioned in the records of the Exchequer Court. They were Mayors and Aldermen, Masters of the Merchants’ Company and this was true throughout the sixteenth century but certainly, after 1570 when trade was uncertain, voyages to France and Spain were hazardous but necessary, and customs duties were very high. The Crown could not afford to offend these men as it relied on them, not only for the taxes that were paid but also for ships and men in time of war and for the unpaid administration, not only of the City but also of a considerable area of the local countryside, since many of them held country properties. By the end of the century, they had become alienated from the Crown by the pressure of wartime embargoes, high taxation and the monopolistic ‘selfishness’ of the Londoners. Only London and Norwich paid more in subsidy to the Crown and it is probable that while Bristol’s population was around ten thousand, while that of Norwich was over twelve thousand and that of London, then experiencing its own population ‘explosion’, was approaching sixty thousand.

Many of the Bristol merchants lived very comfortably. Their stone-built houses were three, four or even five storeys high, often with stables and courtyards backing onto another road or lane. Their inventories frequently showed more than a dozen rooms, often in two sections, one behind the other with a courtyard between and a covered gallery joining the two at first-floor level. The shop with its ‘beem of iron’ and weights, the counting-house, cupboards and table full of books and bills might be at the front of the ground floor; the kitchen and buttery, with their shining brass and pewter vessels, were at the back. Hall and parlour occupied the first floor with a deep bay window overlooking the street. Towards the end of the century, the rooms were often panelled and had huge ornate plaster fireplaces, a few of which still exist in Bristol, as well as in other ports. The several bedrooms, even those at the top of the house which were for apprentices and servants, were well provided with furniture and linen. Compared with this, the house of a craftsman would seem small and bare, but not necessarily squalid. When the house of a tiler was being repaired, six-foot oaken boards were used for the kitchen floor and there were several glaziers at work in the city so probably many houses had glass windows.

Most of these people were in some degree literate – merchants, their wives, craftsmen, town officials, even the official brokers of merchandise at the Back Hall, who were required to wrytt in a fair book, every bargayne and the names of the parties, the date, the price and the quantitie of all the merchandise and wares that shall pass through any of your handes. The later years of the century, however, were marked by increasing poverty and insecurity. Craftsmen, like masons and carpenters, were paid by the day, smiths and paviours and glaziers by the yard or foot of work done. There were no pension or insurance schemes, just the new ‘Poor Law’ providing a minimal level of ‘outdoor relief’, and the death of the ‘bread-winner’ could mean disaster for his family. Ships’ masters and mariners were paid perhaps eighteen to twenty-five shillings for the voyage to Spain or the Mediterranean, with the right to load some cargo for their own profit and ‘food’ and ‘clothes’ – of a kind – provided. In 1580, carpenters were paid one shilling a day, as were masons and plumbers, almost twice as much as in the 1530s. There seem to have always been poor labourers available to carry wheat to the granary, to stack timber, to help plant trees, to clean out ditches and to help mend the river banks. In the 1580s more homeless vagrants flocked to the city; poor women who sold nails or tile-pins, or rough tiles. In November and December 1587, the poor and homeless were sent to the House of Correction where they had food and shelter. In later years, bedding and sheets and coal were sent to the poor prisoners in Newgate in the cold weather.

In spite of the dangers, the Bristol merchants continued to trade in the Atlantic Islands and on the coasts of Barbary and Guinea. The Mediterranean coasts of France, Italy, North Africa and the Levant became a winter voyage where they ran the gauntlet of the Barbary pirates and the Spanish fleets, relying on their superior speed and firepower, and trading their fish, lead and cloth for fruit, dyestuffs, alum and spices. When, on Friday 29 July 1588, Howard and Drake had heard that the Spanish fleet was off the Lizard Point in Cornwall, they had some ninety ships; nineteen of the Queen’s ships and the rest armed merchantmen from the West Country ports including Bristol. Medina Sidonia, watching them emerge from Plymouth, wrote that these ships were very nimble and of such good steerage, as they did with them whatsoever they desired.

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Following the defeat of the Armada, the war with Spain continued for another fifteen years, however, during which the Privy Council received innumerable complaints of loss of trade, bankruptcies and attacks on shipping. The Devon ports blamed the patents to search ships for prohibited goods and the dangers from pirates for the decrease in their trade and even Londoners grumbled at the increased cost of Bordeaux wine. English goods had become dear and of poor quality, so were difficult to market. An edict of 1591 forbade English merchants to deal in Spanish goods and the merchants seem to have tried to share what trade there was. A series of petitions from Bristol to Lord Burghley gave a graphic description of the plight …

… of diers, weavers and cloth workers here which did keepe one with another at least sixe or eight men at work (who) are now goers from dore to dore to begg their bread.

The Bristol merchants wished to be allowed to trade to Venice and Turkey which the London merchants had monopolised with not onelie the greatest parte of forrayn places of commerce, but the iron of Wales, the leadde of Mendipp and the calamyne stone being the commodities of these partes. The Privy Council had noted in October 1596 that Bristol claimed to have lost twelve thousand pounds ‘by sea’ in the last three years if the report of the petitioners for the cittie of Bristoll be true. Some seamen turned to privateering but it is doubtful that this was as profitable as normal trade as in 1597, the Lord Admiral agreed that the existing restraints on trade were to the great hinderaunce of Her Majesties Customs and the decay of the general state of the Citie, this hard time of dearth considered. In 1598, Lord Burghley considered the desirability of peace with Spain, listing the port towns which were ‘manifestly decayed’, which included Bristol. The merchants were therefore permitted to go ahead with their voyages, leaving bonds in the Customs House to return to within a month or six weeks. However, in 1600, the customs men in Bristol received instructions from Lord Buckhurst to forbid six ships preparing in Bristol from sailing to the Levant. When, in the same year, the owners of the Exchange began a suit in the Court of Requests, the City Fathers pleaded that Bristol was exceedinglie decayed and ympoverished through the longe restraynte of trade.

Against this economic background, by 1598, Bristol ships were making regular voyages not only to the Mediterranean ports but also to the Guinea Coast of Africa, the Atlantic Islands and North America. By 1605, the Bristol merchants felt strong enough to leave the London Company and petition for their own Charter which bore the names of over a hundred of them. It was many years before Bristol recovered fully from the effects of the war with Spain and those who had taken part in the action or suffered its consequences were long dead. One of the longer-term effects was the growth of the Atlantic trading system of which the Slave Trade and the institution of slavery in the Caribbean islands and North America formed an integral part. Perhaps ironically, given current controversies, Britain came late to the European Atlantic seabord’s imperial project. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while Spain and Portugal founded great empires spanning America, Africa and Asia, Britain’s rulers watched from the sidelines. John Cabot, Martin Frobisher and others with English sponsorship, in search of a northwest passage to the Indies, played a part in mapping what became Canada and helped open up abundant new fishing grounds in Newfoundland and the North Atlantic; further south, raiders and traders such as John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake attacked the rich Spanish Indies. Yet, on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, Britain had no permanent settlements outside Europe.

Western Colonial Expansion to 1707

At the end of the sixteenth century, various pressures combined to arouse fresh interest in overseas expansion. War in Europe, as seen in the case of Bristol, disrupted the trade networks that supplied profitable Eastern goods, and English merchants took an increased interest in securing direct access to Asian markets. Colonies were established in the Americas, some in North America founded by those seeking to escape religious persecution. The West Indies gained most settlers, many of whom moved there hoping for quick wealth through raiding Spanish America. Others became involved in the highly profitable slave plantation economy that developed there and in parts of North America. Large-scale emigration began, and the sheer volume of settlers crossing the Atlantic proved crucial to the growth of the empire. In the late sixteenth century, the writer and exponent of exploration. Richard Hakluyt and others viewed an increasingly commercial Britain, in which land ownership was becoming more concentrated and agricultural production more geared to the market. This left many of the rising population landless and jobless: improvements in agriculture meant they were no longer needed on the land. It was argued that the surplus population should be sent to the abundant lands in America to produce valuable primary products for sale in England. These products would then be exchanged for goods manufactured in Britain, providing a new market for domestic industry, which was facing stagnation or declining demand in Europe. The trade would also employ large numbers of English ships and seamen and generate a spiralling improvement in national wealth, health and security.

The slave ships began crossing the Atlantic to the West Indies and to the ports of the plantation colonies at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was clear that by the mid-eighteenth century Black pidgin English had been established across the plantations. It was also known, but not quite as fixed, wherever else in North America the slaves were brought, including Nova Scotia, New York and Massachusetts. At the same time, down in the islands of the Caribbean, the arrival of the first white settlers, followed by thousands of Black slaves caused an extraordinary transformation of the region’s social and linguistic geography: the making of Caribbean Creole. The tiny Carib and Arawak Indian populations, the original natives of the region, were savagely obliterated. In their place, creolised forms of the invading European languages have emerged. Into the fertile and sugar-rich islands came Whites and Blacks in unequal proportions to exploit their potential. From this merger of European and African tongues emerged a Caribbean English that makes up an important link in the family of Black Englishes. The most anglophone of the islands are Antigua, Jamaica and, most of all, Barbados, sometimes called ‘Little England’.

The two attempts of sir Walter Raleigh (in 1584 and 1587) to found a colony called ‘Virginia’ failed: permanent settlement began in 1606 when the London Company was formed. King James I may have published tracts against the filthy weed Nicotiana tabacum, but the first settlement the Virginia Company established to grow it still bore his name – Jamestown. Given the chance, the Jamestown settlers would have preferred to discover the gold and silver that had seemed to fall into the lap of the Spanish empire of the south. But there was no gold in the Chesapeake Bay and the settlers had to make do with their dependably prolific flop-leaved plant. The establishment of the tobacco trade in Virginia by the 1620s proved the feasibility of this ‘mercantilist’ project and unleashed a wave of emigration to New World territories. Many times, during the first half of the seventeenth century, the English tobacco colonies seemed close to obliteration: victims of disease, vicious wars with the Native Americans and their own profligate, unrealistic expectations. More than half the migrants were indentured servants who mortgaged their labour for a term of years in return for the payment of their passage. Though six thousand immigrants had moved to Virginia between 1607 and 1625, in the latter year a census found the population of the colony to be just 1,200. The climate, the insects and the unwelcome gifts they carried literally devoured the settlers. Of those who survived, most had moved to the West Indies, to the Leeward Islands (1623), especially St. Kitts, which they developed along the lines of the plantation colonies and where tobacco products could be combined with more predatory activities targeted against the Spanish empire. However, the tropical climate and the diseases it generated ensured a high mortality rate, as can be seen on the maps below, showing the difficulties of early settlers in these islands.

Above left: The Difficulties of Early Settlers/ Right: English, Spanish and French ‘Spheres’ in Early Colonial Period. . This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 001-8.jpg

Above: The Chesapeake Bay settlements in North America, 1607-1658.

The Establishment of the Slave Trade, 1620-1720:

Slavery was introduced into the English colony of Virginia when the first Africans were transported to Point Comfort in 1619 (pictured in the engraving above). Those who accepted Christianity became “Christian servants” with time-limited servitude, or even freed, but this mechanism for ending bondage was gradually shut down. As the tobacco habit became ingrained in European culture and Virginia leaf was established as the marker of quality, demand boomed, prices rose and the settlements in Lord Baltimore’s Maryland and in Virginia itself hung on, consolidated and pushed inland. Attracted by the possibility of owning hundreds of acres on their ‘manors’, the younger sons of English gentry and tradesmen arrived and established themselves as ‘tobacco barons’. Supplying the labour, alongside a limited number of African slaves, were ‘boys’ of a median age of sixteen, seldom over nineteen, in their tens of thousands, out from the tenements of London and Bristol, about seventy to eighty per cent of whom were ‘indentured’ to work for three to five years for room and board before being freed to claim a small plot of ‘promised land’, to hire out their labour or to set up shop. By the 1640s the output of tobacco from the southern plantation colonies (see the map above) had expanded to levels where, despite greatly increased consumption in Europe, supply exceeded demand, and prices collapsed. After these early misfortunes, tobacco cultivation began to bring prosperity to the colony of Virginia, based on the labour of West African slaves. The planters became a rich aristocracy.

In 1667, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that barred baptism as a means of conferring freedom. Africans who had been baptised before arriving in Virginia could be granted the status of indentured servants until 1682 when another law declared them to be slaves. In 1671, Virginia counted 6,000 white indentured servants among its 40,000 population but only 2,000 people of African descent, up to a third of whom in some counties were free. Whites and people of African descent in the lowest stratum of Virginian society shared common disadvantages and a common lifestyle, which included intermarriage until the Assembly made such unions punishable by banishment in 1691. Towards the end of the 17th century, English policy shifted in favour of retaining cheap labour rather than shipping it to the colonies, and the supply of indentured servants in Virginia began to dry up; by 1715, annual immigration was in the hundreds, compared with 1,500–2,000 in the 1680s. As tobacco planters put more land under cultivation, they made up the shortfall in labour with increasing numbers of slaves. The institution was rooted in racialism with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, and from around 1710 the growth in the slave population was fueled by natural increase.

The introduction of sugar into Barbados the 1640s and the phenomenally high profits earned from it opened up the prospects of great wealth to those who could command a sufficient labour supply. The move towards a slave plantation system followed swiftly. Barbados had first been settled in 1624 and attracted many wealthy ‘cavaliers’ after the Civil War in England, who set up large sugar plantations on the island. The island owed its prosperity to this development in the 1640s and the settlement of slaves from the west coast of Africa to work on them: it was the first main port of call for the slave ships. It is said that the most unruly slaves from the least domesticated tribes were progressively shipped up the ‘claw’ of the West Indies until they finally reached Jamaica. In any case, the Barbadians, or ‘Bajans’, still have a reputation for well-spoken respectability, and Bajan creole is much closer to Standard English than Jamaican creole.

The transition to sugar production had begun in the 1680s when tobacco prices began to decline and then went into free-fall, bankrupting the smaller planters, brokers and processors. The shock was not enough to abort the Chesapeake experiment altogether, however. There were upwards of fifty thousand settlers in Maryland and Virginia, and they managed to find a more diversified range of crops to farm; indigo and wheat in particular. The colony would survive, and the tobacco market revived in the next century, but for the time being the bonanza was over. Meanwhile, the British sweet tooth had arrived with a vengeance in the national diet. Sugar had been widely known and consumed in medieval Europe, but its high price and exotic origin meant that it was considered either as a spice or a drug. The most common sweetener, conveniently produced close to home, was honey. But as the Portuguese shippers and growers of sugar cane moved further west, along the Tropic of Cancer, they searched for places with the ideal combination of heat and rain in which to cultivate it. Brazil, their own former colony, was one such place.

Sugar cane needed one other precondition if it was to pay off, and that was intensive, highly-concentrated applications of manpower. It could not be farmed and harvested in a single growing season since it took fourteen months to ripen. Once it had reached maturity, the cumbersome crop needed to be harvested quickly to prevent the sugar from going starchy. Once stripped and cut, the cane, in turn, had to be speedily taken to the ox-powered vertical crushing rollers before the sucrose concentration of the juice self-degraded. Every subsequent stage of production – boiling the juice, the arrest of the boiling process at the precise moment of optimum crystallisation, its partial refining in clay-stopped inverted cone moulds, the lengthy drying process – demanded the kind of strength, speed and stamina in tropical climatic conditions that indentured white Europeans or captive Amerindians were ill-equipped to provide. Both populations proved themselves hard to discipline, prone to drink and rebellious. They died like flies from the stew of water-borne diseases that simmered away in the humid conditions. What happened next has occupied the thoughts of historians, like Simon Schama, over decades:

So, where to turn for a labour supply that was strong, disease-resistant but obedient, like the cattle that turned the crushers? Where else, of course, but where the Portuguese were already making money from the commerce in ivory, gold and humans – West and Central Africa.

The Jesuits in Brazil condemned as the grossest blasphemy any equation between men and animals. Other, equally honourable Church fathers, wrote fortnightly to Philip II on the unspeakable, unchristian, evil of enslavement. But in 1630, there were probably over sixty thousand African slaves working in the estates of Brazil, by then under Spanish control, and the investment was paying off handsomely for all concerned except its traumatised, brutalised victims. English interlopers, since the reign of Elizabeth, competing with the Dutch, had been buying slaves on the coast of West Africa and selling them to Hispanic America. The English were aware that, even if it were highly volatile in the early stages of production, sugar was extremely stable in shipping and warehousing. It was also versatile and market-adaptable, yielding not just two qualities of sugar (raw and refined) but also molasses, treacle and rum. As a commodity in long-distance trade, it was impossible to beat.

The English made early attempts to grow sugar in Bermuda, but the tiny island off the coast of South Carolina was too dry, too cool and too remote. Barbados, on the other hand, seemed the answer to their prayers. Hanging out in the ocean, on the extreme windward edge of the Antilles, the annual rainfall averaged sixty inches a year, all the moisture the sugar cane needed, and its breezes could be harnessed to turn the sails of windmills to crush the cane. But the colonial product of choice in the 1620s was tobacco, and for a generation or so efforts were made to grow a crop on Barbados. Competing with Virginia and Maryland, however, was hard work. The island was covered with a dense copy of rainforest which took twenty years to clear for adequate growing space. Even then, the leaf never managed to achieve the quality of Virginia tobacco. There were also the same labour troubles that plagued the Chesapeake Bay plantations. In addition, neither the Irish indentured labourers nor the English apprentice boys could cope with the tropical heat and in 1649, the year the British Republic was established, there was a slave rebellion on Barbados, suppressed with characteristically ‘Cromwellian’ ruthlessness. The slave-sugar nexus seemed a better bet to the planters than the ongoing struggle with tobacco. With the help of the input of Dutch capital for milling equipment, the cane crop took off. As early as 1647, an owner of fifty acres reported that …

… provisions for the belly … at present is very scarce (since) men are so intent upon planting sugar that they had rather buy foode at very dear, rather than produce it by labour, soe infinite is the profitt of sugar workes.

Barbados itself, barely twenty-one miles long, and, besides tourism, it is still almost wholly devoted to sugar production. The plantation boundaries remain almost the same as they always have. To the north of the capital Bridgetown, there stretches a long plain on which there are many plantations dating back to the 1640s. Much of the fertile ground is devoted to growing sugar cane. One of the plantations, called ‘Dukes’, about ten miles from Bridgetown, appeared on the earliest map of Barbados, published in 1657 (see below), and is still worked today for sugar by a white family who can trace their ancestry back to the settlement of the island. As early as 1655, Barbados was shipping 7,787 tons of sugar back to England, and there were already twenty thousand slaves on the island against twenty-three thousand whites, well over half of whom were indentured servants. When Richard Ligon arrived two years later, the well-founded reputation of Barbados as a ‘gold mine’ had already been established and he wrote of how …

… as we passed along the shoar, the Plantations appeared to us one above the other like several stories in stately buildings which afforded us a large proportion of delight.

It was common knowledge that an up-front outlay of a thousand pounds, advanced by the Dutch, invested in two hundred acres, a windmill, a distillery to make rum and a hundred slaves would yield, within a few years, an annual income of two thousand pounds. The English gentry lived far better than they had done in England and were by far the richest men in the British American colonies. The Puritan Earl of Warwick had been among the most enthusiastic pioneers of settlement and slavery in the Caribbean in the 1620s. So Barbados soon filled up with shackled Africans while, under its white Assembly, it became a self-governing little Commonwealth, divided into parishes, each run by a ‘vestry’ and its manorial gentry, in their magisterial role, adjudicated the common law much as the did in Berkshire or Cheshire. But they also adjudicated the slave code, which declared the punishment for running away to be mutilation and the penalty for theft of any article worth more than a shilling, death. Wilfully killing a ‘negro’ might incur an inconvenient fine, but it was virtually impossible to prove it. And with Bridgetown and its other harbours made it easily defensible, the island was safe from the Spanish Catholic ‘scourge’.

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It was Oliver Cromwell (right) who first sought the right to trade with Spanish America. In return for this privilege, he offered Spain help in its war against France. When Spain rejected this offer, the Protector attacked Spain and made an alliance with Mazarin. In 1654 Oliver Cromwell dispatched a great fleet to gain an interest in the Spanish Indies and, after a humiliating defeat at Hispaniola, the leaders turned on the thinly settled, and ill-defended, island of Jamaica as a consolation prize. Jamaica was captured and annexed by Penn and Venables in 1655 and during the war which followed, from 1656 to 1660, English seamen revived the Elizabethan ‘policy’ of raiding Spanish treasure ships. Admiral Blake carried out the first-ever blockade attempted by the British Navy in 1656 and 1657 when he blockaded the Spanish coast. The ease of the initial seizure proved deceptive, however, as runaway Spanish slaves in the mountainous interior sustained years of guerilla war with Spanish support which, together with disease, took a heavy toll on the army, in terms of both lives and morale.

At the Restoration, peace was made with Spain and it was widely expected that Charles II would return Cromwell’s prize. In the event, the king decided to retain Jamaica and established a civil government designed to encourage private investors and secure the island’s future. However, in Jamaica, the English inherited little from the Spanish. As one early settler remarked, …

The Spaniard doth call it the garden of the Indies. But this I will say: the Gardeners have been verie bad for here is verie little more than that which groweth naturallie.

The struggle to turn a territory acquired through an adventure into a profitable colony is well illustrated by Jamaica, as Britain’s first state-sponsored colonial venture. The island was ten times the size of other ‘British’ islands in the Caribbean and promised to provide a valuable extension of the sugar and slave system developed in Barbados. Clearing the land and planting cash crops required time and great capital investment which, despite the king’s hopes, were not forthcoming from outsiders. Although the first settlers took out patents for vast tracts of land, it was many years before the resources necessary to convert Jamaica into a thriving plantation economy were accumulated. Meanwhile, the colonists exploited the island’s strategic location. Unlike the earlier successful English settlements, Jamaica was in the heart of the Spanish Indies, well placed for both plunder and trade, with the additional advantage of a superb natural harbour protected by a long sand spit, at the end of which the settlers built the town of Port Royal. However, the soldiers proved incompetent colonists, and the settlement was a failure until sugar-planting was introduced in the eighteenth century.

Jamaica in 1685

Meanwhile, privateering required little capital and provided the funds needed to ensure the infant colony’s survival. In the long run, peaceful contraband trade (especially a slave re-export trade), which also got underway in the 1660s, proved more important and more rewarding. Despite the treaty of Madrid in 1670, which promised peace and friendship between England and Spain in the Indies, privateers continued to refit their ships and sell their prizes at Port Royal throughout the late seventeenth century. The town, Henry Morgan and other famous adventurers, and notorious for its rowdy, dissolute, high-spending social life, acquired the reputation of being the wickedest city on earth. In 1692 a dramatic earthquake plunged most of its buildings underwater, beneath the harbour (see the contemporary newspaper below).

Many saw the disaster as well-deserved punishment from God. As Port Royal prospered, the island merchants who profited from trade and plunder accumulated the capital to purchase a slave labour force, which increased from ten thousand in 1673 to forty-five thousand in 1703, and planted cash crops in the interior. Cocoa dominated in the 1660s but was destroyed by blight in the 1670s and superseded by sugar. By 1684 the island had 246 sugar plantations (see the map below) and exports were approaching the level of those from Barbados. Although the size of the plantations on Jamaica was to exceed those of elsewhere in the anglophone Caribbean, the island also maintained production of a wider range of staples than the smaller islands (including indigo, cotton, ginger and pimento) and a small-holding sector geared to the internal exchange of food and cattle. The earthquake of 1692, the ensuing disease and the war of the 1690s, during which Jamaica was invaded by the French, took a heavy toll on the island’s population, trade and prosperity. The rapid progress made in the 1670s and ’80s was halted and even reversed, with the white settler population declining from around nine thousand to seven thousand between 1680 and 1700. The lost ground was regained in the eighteenth century, however, when Jamaica became the brightest jewel in Britain’s imperial crown. By the end of the century, while the slave population on Barbados numbered seventy thousand, that on Jamaica had swelled to four hundred thousand.

The restoration of the monarchy in England had only made things better for the slavers. Prince Rupert of the Rhine went slaving up the Gambia in West Africa and made a tidy profit on it. British colonial commerce in North America had taken two important new turns. The first was the formation of the Royal African Company by Charles II in 1663. This heralded wholehearted entry into the African slave trade, in which English ports dominated by the end of the eighteenth century. When Charles II became king, he was instrumental in founding the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa in 1660. Initially chartered with a thousand-year monopoly of trading rights in western Africa, it was re-chartered in 1663 as the Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa, becoming commonly known as ‘the Royal African Company’. In the same year, Lord Clarendon, Monck and other leading politicians obtained a charter from Charles II making them proprietors of the lands south of Virginia. The area was so large that two settlements were made, North Carolina and South Carolina. But the proprietors took little interest in them and few fresh settlers moved there, so the lands were offered to inhabitants of other colonies. North Carolina became a centre of piracy, but South Carolina developed into a more successful colony. It was there, to Charleston, a city that was known as the slave capital of the South, that many of the slaves were brought.

Those that survived the terrible ordeal of the Middle Passage would have been unloaded on Sullivan island, a swampy, low-lying strip of land opposite the man harbour of Charleston, a place that has been called the “Ellis Island for Blacks”, from where they would be sold off and shipped inland to the big plantations. But some remained, and still, on the sea islands of the South Carolina coast a kind of Black English creole known as ‘Gullah’, is preserved to this day. It is probably the closest form of Black American English to the original creole English of the New World and the pidgin English of the slave ships and is still spoken by a quarter of a million Blacks. Lying close to Charleston, they were near a slave port that ‘flourished’ well into the nineteenth century. They lived self-sufficient lives on these islands, growing their own crops in fertile soil and fishing for crabs and oysters out of the thousands of creeks and inlets. Constantly resupplied with new arrivals, they were also cut off from the mainland. Theirs was a self-contained language community whose speech patterns became partially ossified.

By the time the Royal African Company’s ships deposited their first human cargoes at Bridgetown there were already well over thirty thousand slaves on Barbados, twice as many blacks as whites on the island. By 1700 the number had risen to around fifty thousand. Barbados had become the forcing house of high-end, fast-profit, industrially organised slave capitalism. The patchwork landscape of relatively small farms, ten acres or so on average, worked by racially mixed gangs of indentured servants and slaves had gone forever. In its place were 350 large estates of more than two hundred acres and scores more of about a hundred acres, all of them worked almost exclusively with African slave labour. Quakers like George Fox visited Barbados, preached that all blacks, whites and tawnies were equally God’s creatures and asked the Quaker planters in America to preach the gospel to all Negroes and other servants if you be true Christians. He urged them to use the slaves gently and to free them after a period, though he stopped short of demanding abolition. The indefatigable old Puritan Richard Baxter, though, was more damning in 1673 when he chastised, …

How cursed a crime is it to equal men to beasts. Is this not your practice? Do you not buy them and use them merely as you do horses to labour for your commodity … Do you not see how you reproach and condemn yourselves while you vilify them all as savages?

In 1688, German Quaker settlers in Pennsylvania first urged the inconsistency of Quakerism and slavery and the ‘Quaker state’ showed the application of its principles in practice, against the general view that principles were best kept pure and spiritual, as the earliest Friends, including Fox, had advocated. When the German Friends in Pennsylvania went against Fox’s paternalistic attitude towards the slaves and questioned the whole moral basis of slavery, they began a shared witness which was the mainspring of Friends’ activity for nearly a hundred and fifty years in the British Empire and even longer in the North American mainland. The concern arose first in the American colonies, where the evil was most apparent, but slavery was increasingly censored in Britain too, as Baxter’s chastising demonstrates. From the early eighteenth century, Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic were actively involved in the movement against slavery. John Woolman, one of the most saintly of American Quakers, had been brought to a crisis of decision by being asked to write a bill of sale for a Negro woman. He wrote the bill but raised his objection to the principle, and from this grew his writing and preaching against slavery which was a keystone of the Quaker protest in America. Yet it was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that this protest led to a collective rejection of slavery by the Friends and other churches. Even then, when they were occasionally shamed into conceding the human cost they relied on, both the planters and the merchants at home who supplied them shrugged their shoulders and asked what a Negro would do with liberty. The bottom line, always, was money. Daniel Defoe, as usual, was shockingly blunt:

No African Trade, no Negroes; no Negroes, no sugars … no sugars … no Islands; no Islands, no Continent; no Continent, no Trade; that says farewell to all your American Trade, your West Indian Trade.

The second new development of the latter half of the seventeenth century was the provision of a lifeline for the struggling settlements of the North American mainland: although they did not find a profitable cash crop, they were now able to earn export credits by providing food, timber and shipping services to the plantations. These were used to pay for imported goods from English ports. Demand for sugar, more than tobacco, proved insatiable. As the production of sugar increased and the price fell, what had been a luxury available to a few became one that was available to all, albeit in small quantities. People began to use sugar in a greater variety of ways. From soon after its introduction in Barbados until the end of the eighteenth century, sugar accounted for over half the value of plantation imports. Sugar raised the stakes in the imperial project, with English merchants and their European rivals anxious to amass the profits and those in power keen to tap them, paying more careful attention to colonisation, which they had previously left to private enterprise. The English Navigation Act of 1651, directed above all at Dutch competitors, attempted to reserve the colonial carrying trade for English and colonial ships, excluding the Scots. This legislation was refined and improved after the Restoration, remaining in place until 1859. Resentment at their exclusion was a major factor in the Scots’ ill-fated attempt at settlement in Darien, a swampy region of the Panama isthmus in the 1690s, and in Scottish lobbying for Union with England and Wales in the years before the Act of 1707.

In the decades following the Restoration, England’s empire was consolidated and expanded. By 1700 England had settled seventeen colonies in America, with a narrow strip of continuous settlement along the coast of North America from Maine to South Carolina, together with six islands in the Caribbean, alongside France’s eight colonies and the three belonging to the Dutch. As territory expanded, the English population of America grew, increasing threefold between 1660 and 1700, reaching around 400,000, adding to the five million at home. By comparison, France with its ‘home’ population approaching twenty million in 1700, had a mere seventy thousand colonial subjects. Trade with Europe became less important as British involvement with the world beyond. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, trade with the plantations and India accounted for over thirty per cent of imports and fifteen per cent of exports. Britain had acquired a major share in Europe’s imperial growth, which was to come to full fruition by the end of the century. Nevertheless, in 1700 by far the greater part of Britain’s trade was still with Europe. This was not the case a hundred years later, by which time foreign trade had not simply grown, but had also completely changed direction.

Four hundred years ago, the ancestors of the black English-speakers of the southern American states and the Caribbean islands lived in the hinterland of what is now Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, in West Africa. They would have spoken one of several hundred local languages, including Hausa, Wolof, Bulu, Bamoun, Temne, Akan and Twi. The first English they would have heard – and it has become the basis of Black English to this day – would have been from the sailors of the slave ships, many of whom started their journey from the old English trading ports like Liverpool and Bristol.

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Bristol at the beginning of the eighteenth century

From the 1620s and for the next 150 years, Bristol was the apex of a trading triangle that was one of the most ruthless in the history of capitalism. British ships laden with cheap cotton goods, trinkets and Bibles sailed from Bristol and Liverpool for the west coast of Africa. They exchanged their cargo for a shipload of Black slaves who were then transported on the notorious ‘Middle Passage’, the second leg of the journey, to the sugar-bowl of the Caribbean.

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Thomas Clarkson and other supporters of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade prepared this diagram of a slave ship in 1789.

The master of the Royal African Company’s slave ship Hannibal, Thomas Phillips, who wrote an account of the typical voyage of the 1690s, described the degrading procedures imposed on the abductees when inspecting the shipment supplied by the African dealers at Ouidah: Searching for signs of the ‘yaws’ that discovers itself by almost the same symptoms … as clap does for us … our surgeon is forced to examine the privities of both men and women with the nicest scrutiny, which is great slavery but what can’t be omitted. Once purchased, the slave was branded on the breast or shoulder with the letter of the ship’s name, the place before being anointed with a little palm oil which caused but little pain, the mark being usually well in four or five days, appearing very plain and white. The loading process was repeatedly held up by captives so wilful and loth to leave their own country leaping out of the canoes, boats and from the deck of the ship and remaining underwater until drowned Once onboard there were further suicide attempts, especially since the slavers frequently prowled the coast looking for extra cargo: the Africans would jump overboard, even when shackled. Phillips wrote:

We have … seen divers of them eaten by the sharks, of which a prodigious number kept about the ships in this place … and I have been told will follow her to Barbadoes for the dead negroes that are thrown overboard in the passage. … I am certain in our voyage there we did not want the sight of some every day … we had about twelve negroes did wilfully drown themselves and others starv’d themselves to death for ’tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends.

‘The Atlantic Trade Triangle’ from a recent school text-book.

Other accounts register the ‘inconsiderateness’ of negroes who went ‘raving mad’, or mutilated themselves during the passage, or who had the audacity to refuse to eat, thereby jeopardising the value of the cargo. But what the slavers and their surgeons described as ‘melancholy’ was almost certainly the semi-catatonic state characterised by sunken eyes, swollen tongue and extreme torpor that is induced by extreme, potentially fatal, dehydration. Rather than the four pints of water required by the average man, he received only a pint every day for up to seventy days. If on this long journey, they lost just ten per cent of their body’s water content, they would certainly die. Between ten and twenty per cent of slaves on board died in this way and fluid loss from extreme perspiration was the primary cause of this. When the ships were out on the open ocean, the slaves were taken up on deck twice a day for air, water and soup. If the sea were too rough, however, they would be kept in the stifling heat of the cramped holds, shackled in pairs and given less space (according to the Royal African Company specifications) than for a European pauper’s coffin.

How then does the controversial legacy of Edward Colston fit into this tragic narrative?

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1722 portrait of Edward Colston by George Vertue
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The statue of Edward Colston in central Bristol

Colston (2 November 1636 – 11 October 1721) was a merchant, in Bristol and London, briefly a Tory Member of Parliament, and latterly a philanthropist. Born to a family of merchants that had lived in the city since the 1340s, he became a merchant, initially trading in wine, fruits and cloth, mainly in Spain, Portugal and other European ports. Colston was apprenticed to the Mercers’ Company for eight years and by 1672 was shipping goods from London. He built up a lucrative business, trading cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit with Spain, Portugal, Italy and North Africa. In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the west coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1663. He rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became deputy governor, the company’s most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692. Both the length and the depth of Colston’s role in the Company have been exaggerated by David Olusoga, a Professor in ‘Public History’ at the University of Manchester and a ‘broadcaster’ who has claimed that Colston personally oversaw the transportation of Africans across the Atlantic and into slavery.

Above: John Locke

The company, founded by Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later King James II), who was the governor of the company, together with London merchants, had many notable investors, including John Locke from 1671. In addition, while secretary to Shaftesbury, Locke participated in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which established a feudal aristocracy and gave masters absolute power over their slaves. Of course, the English philosopher and physician was widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, commonly known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’.

But some historians have noted that Locke, as a secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations (1673–1674) and a member of the Board of Trade (1696–1700), was in fact, one of just half a dozen men who created and supervised both the colonies and their iniquitous systems of servitude. Though some claim that he later changed his stance on the slave trade, his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings have led to accusations of hypocrisy and racism, and/or of his caring only for the liberty of British capitalists. Another of these early colonialists and slave traders was the diarist Samuel Pepys.

During Colston’s involvement with the Royal African Company (1680 to 1692), it is estimated that the company transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, of whom 19,000 died on their journey. Due to the conditions on many of the vessels, the extended journeys also affected the ship’s crew mortality rates, which were often similar and sometimes greater than those of the slaves. The slaves were sold for cheap labour on tobacco, and, increasingly, sugar plantations, whose planters considered Africans would be more suited to the conditions than British workers, as the climate resembled the climate of their homeland in West Africa. Enslaved Africans were also much less expensive to maintain than indentured servants or paid wage labourers from Britain and Ireland. Colston’s parents had resettled in Bristol and in 1682 he made a loan to the Bristol Corporation, the following year becoming a member of the Society of Merchant Adventurers and a burgess of the City. In 1684 he inherited his brother’s mercantile business in Small Street and was a partner in a sugar refinery in St Peter’s Churchyard, shipping sugar produced by slaves from St Kitts. However, Colston was never resident in Bristol as an adult, carrying on his London business from Mortlake in Surrey until he retired in 1708.

The proportion of his wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture unless further evidence is unearthed. As well as this income, he made money from his trade in the other commodities mentioned above, interest from money lending, and, most likely, from other careful financial dealings. Colston used his wealth to support and endow schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere (see below).

The Dominance of the Slave Trade, 1720-1750:

Underpinned by the slave trade with West Africa, and reinforced by the commercial and maritime regulations embodied in the Navigation Acts, Britain’s Atlantic empire was of great importance to the domestic economy. Sugar, tobacco, coffee, rice and timber were supplied to Britain in steadily increasing quantities, and demand from expanding overseas population provided an important outlet for British manufactured products and re-exported goods derived from other parts of the world. By 1700, more and more of the British merchants’ dealings were with the colonies. Trade with the West Indies and North America increased at a spectacular rate. This brought prosperity to all the west coast ports of Glasgow, Whitehaven, Liverpool and Bristol, which were better placed than London and the East Anglian ports for the Atlantic trade. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, west-coast ports such as Bristol had benefited greatly from the expanding transatlantic trade in slaves, sugar and tobacco. Beginning with the laying out of Queen Square in 1699, Bristol far outgrew its medieval boundaries to become the second-largest city in Britain after London.

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By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bristol was a crowded port, teeming with vessels, all shipshape and Bristol fashion as the phrase goes and as can be seen from the contemporary picture above. Visiting Bristol today, the great merchants’ houses and Regency crescents are splendid reminders of the City’s former prosperity. However, the large tidal range of the River Avon was a disadvantage and, despite building a new merchant dock downriver in 1762, by 1800 Bristol had been overtaken by Liverpool as Britain’s second city.

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Liverpool became an even more important trading centre, its population increasing from around six thousand in 1700 to over eighty thousand by the end of the century. Unlike Bristol, Liverpool had deep-water access for ships and had invested more heavily in new dock facilities. The famous Bristol ‘nails’ on which so much business was transacted (giving us cash on the nail) still stand, but there has never been a monument to the human cargo on which the riches were based. For a memorial to the City’s slaving past, we have to go to the village of Henbury. There, in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church, is the 1720 tomb of one Scipio Africanus, a young slave who died in Bristol at the age of eighteen. The epitaph on the gravestone is a poignant memorial to the mingling of English and African culture:

I who was Born a Pagan and a Slave

Now sweetly Sleep a Christian in my Grave
What tho my hue was dark my Saviour’s sight
Shall change this darkness into radiant light.

Nothing further is known of Scipio Africanus, whose name is a witty classical allusion that suggested the gulf between Blacks and Whites. As his name and the inscription tell us, he, or his family, came from Africa and spoke an African language. In England, handsomely buried by an affectionate white ‘owner’, he would have spoken English, probably with the Bristolian accent of his master. The making of Black, or ‘pidgin’ English probably began even before the slave ships arrived on the west coast of Africa. The kind of English spoken on the ships at that time would have been highly idiosyncratic and even if the captain was English, many of his crew would have been foreign. The sailors, who would have worked on many ships for many masters, would almost certainly have been familiar with the Mediterranean sea-going lingua franca, Sabir, a language that evolved to cope with multi-ethnic crews. It dated from the time of the Crusades and survived into the nineteenth century, having strong Iberian roots. This may well explain why West African pidgin English contains words like pikaninny (derived from the Portuguese word for “small”) and savvy (from the French “savez-vous”). Of course, the Portuguese had already been trading in West Africa for two hundred years. The mixture of European languages from which the West Africans themselves formed a means of communication with the traders and intruders was described by one contemporary, who wrote of Sierra Leone that, …

Most of the Blacks about the bay speak either Portuguese or ‘lingua franca’ (‘Sabir’) which is a great convenience to the Europeans who come hither, and some understand a little English or Dutch.

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As the eighteenth century progressed, the prosperity of the western ports was based increasingly on the slave trade. Slavers continued to set out laden with rum, trinkets and guns. At the West African trading posts which had grown up along what had become known as the ‘Slave Coast’, these goods were exchanged for Negro slaves provided by native rulers and suppliers. When the slave ships arrived in West Africa, the need for ‘pidgin’ occurred immediately. The slaves, from many different language backgrounds, had to communicate with each other and with their overseers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the slavers broke up the various tribes to minimise the risk of rebellions on board. Raiding parties were moving well north of the Niger and deep into western Sudan. A region already suffering from repeated plagues of locusts and droughts was now made even more insecure. In some of the worst-hit areas, it was not uncommon for desperate villagers to sell their children or even themselves. Those who survived the ‘middle passage’ were sold to plantation owners and set to work as house servants or in the fields. Meanwhile, the same ships, laden with sugar, rum and molasses, returned to their homeport, registering substantial profit for their merchant-owners.

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In the century and a half of the slave trade, from the 1650s to 1807, between three and four million Africans were transported out of their homelands to the New World in British ships. Between nine and twelve million were abducted and sold as chattel property by the traders of all the European nations involved; it was the single largest mass abduction in human history. A million and a half of those transported to the Caribbean and the plantation colonies on the American continent died in transit. Of course, it was not only the white Europeans and Americans who were responsible for this enormous atrocity. It had been the Portuguese discovery of a thriving trans-Saharan slave trade, harvested and delivered by African warrior dealers, which had made the traffic possible in the first place. But the demand for slaves trans-shipped to the New World became so voracious in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it created incentives for the raiders, usually native or Portuguese, to reach far beyond their traditional catchment areas, to make opportunistic descents on stricken and defenceless villages.

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Above: A view Taken Near Bain on the West Coast of Guinea in Africa, engraved after Richard Westhall, c. 1789. A contemporary print illustrating a native slave raid on an African village.

As Captain William Smith wrote in A New Voyage to Guinea in 1744, by having some of every sort onboard, there will be no more Likelihood of their succeeding in a Plot, than of finishing the Tower of Babel. The captured Africans were brought to the coast in columns, loaded with heavy stones to prevent escape, and forced to march sometimes hundreds of miles to the sea. At the trading posts, they were penned into ‘trunks’ for inspection by buyers. Here, the death rate was one in five. Outside in the harbour, the slave captains waited to ferry their purchases on board. One of them, Captain Newton, who later became active in the anti-slavery movement, passed the time composing his famous hymn, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!

The transatlantic slave trade was qualitatively more inhuman than the norms of slavery prevailing in North and West Africa. Previously, such slaves had been attached to the households, courts and retinues of their owners. Never before, though, had masses of one particular African ethnic group been treated as forced labour, as mere units of production. By definition, slaves had always been seen as ‘property’, but now they were also ‘inventory’, as ‘nothing more than beasts of burden’ as Richard Baxter had put it. Perhaps the most shaming aspect of that dehumanisation was the adoption of a set of racial stereotypes claiming that black Africans were animal-like in their incapacity to feel pain or even emotion in the same manner experienced by white ‘Europeans’. By the time they had reached their first ‘selling point’ from the holding pens at trading posts like Cape Coast Castle, the abducted Africans had already endured a succession of traumas. Olaudah Equiano, the Ibo who wrote his memoirs in the mid-eighteenth century, had been well aware of the dangers of abduction as a child. When the adults of his village were away at work in the fields he would climb trees to sound the alarm when suspicious persons made an appearance. One day, nonetheless, he and his sister were taken. It was when separated that misery first took hold:

I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually and for several days did not eat anything but what they forced in my mouth.

When he continued to refuse his gruel of horse beans and vegetables, he was flogged until he changed his mind. Though he was to see his sister again, it was a moment of false hope, for Equiano, like countless others, was deliberately uprooted from any kind of familiarity – country, customs, language, kin. When a ‘pidgin’ English, French or Portuguese became the common language on a slave ship, it evolved into a creole. The children of pidgin-speaking slaves who met on board a ship then developed it into a creole (from a Portuguese word for a slave born into a master’s household, a ‘house-slave’) which formed their native language. In these ways, the English creoles of Barbados, Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands developed, just as Haitian creole developed from the pidgin of the French slave trade. The roots of pidgin English are controversial among historical-linguists and etymologists, but few dispute that the idea of pidgin-like English expressions like ‘sicky-sicky’ and ‘workee’ were recognised from the middle of the sixteenth century, with both Marlowe and Shakespeare using forms of pidgin in their plays. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the concept was sufficiently well-established for Daniel Defoe to put it in the mouth of ‘Man Friday’ in Robinson Crusoe without any explanation.

Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in the interior of what is now Nigeria. He was kidnapped by local raiders at the age of ten, taken to the coast and sold to white slave traders bound for the West Indies. After eleven years of slavery in the Caribbean and mainland America, he purchased his freedom and subsequently described his experiences of the slave trade and slavery in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a book published in 1789; this was called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano … the African. Here he describes how he felt when he was first taken on board the slave ship:

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea and a slave ship that was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. … When I looked around the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

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Onboard, the slaves were packed like animals. The ships then sailed across the Atlantic, many of the slaves dying on the journey. They could not sit upright or lie full length. Once a day, they were brought up for exercise and to the sailors a chance to “clean the pails”. When the weather was bad, they remained incarcerated. No place on earth, as one writer observed, concentrated so much misery as the hold of a slave ship. As the ship continued to sail the West African coast, one of the hottest and dampest regions of the world to pick up more cargo, and Equiano recalled how dangerous the climate below decks became:

The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, being so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call, of their purchasers. This deplorable situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of necessary tubs into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and groans of the dying rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

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African slaves onboard ship – from a painting of about 1750
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Equiano was describing a perfect environment for faecal contamination, in which both shigellosis or bacillary dysentery, the ‘red flux’ and, more ominously, amoebic dysentery, the ‘white flux’, could rage. Commonly chronicled by surgeons aboard the slavers, both triggered violent spasms of vomiting and diarrhoea, which would induce further fluid loss. No wonder that when he was taken below decks for the first time, even before the ship had set sail, Equiano received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life. Amoebic dysentery, which had a longer incubation period, attacked the victim in mid-voyage and was the more serious of the two infections since it lasted for weeks rather than days, with its victims suffering around twenty evacuations a day. Fluid losses would have been massive, triggering rapid sodium depletion and the excretion of potassium, which in turn would have affected brain function. Under the circumstances, it is almost unbelievable that the mortality rate on slave ships was only around twelve to fifteen per cent, though it could be as high as twenty per cent for children, who were more vulnerable to acute dehydration than adults.

Above: Conditions on board the slave ships were very poor. Many slaves died on the Atlantic crossing, some of them thrown overboard when they became sick. When they finally got to the American colonies, the slaves were sold to the plantation and mine owners. They would be oiled to make them look healthier. Slaves had no rights and could not marry. Children were separated from their parents and often sold separately.

What happened to them next, if they survived to landfall, may have made the young slaves wish they had perished on board. When they reached the West Indies or the American colonies, the survivors were brought up on deck to be sold. Naked except for loincloths, they were paraded, poked and inspected all over again like livestock. Their purchasers examined them for defects, pinched their skin, and sometimes tasted their perspiration to see if their blood was pure. Their jaws were clamped open for the inspection of teeth. At Bridgetown in Barbados, Equiano described the prospective buyers on a signal given, such as the beat of a drum, rushing into the yard like bargain-hunters at a sale, sprinting towards the chained slaves and laying hands on them to secure their purchase. The most desirable job lots were young boys like Olaudah, between twelve and fifteen, for as David Stalker, a planter’s buyer on the island of Nevis, explained, …

… they are fully seasoned by eighteen and is full as handy as them that is born in the country, but them full-grown fellers think its hard work never being brought up to it … or are never good for anything.

Above: an eighteenth-century advertisement for a cargo of slaves to be sold in South Carolina.

If they were too ‘meagre’, Equiano wrote, they would be put in scales, weighed and sold a threepence or sixpence the pound like cabbages. Finally, the slave was branded again on the chest with a hot iron. They were then delivered, or sold on, to the owners of plantations. At least eighty per cent of the slave population worked, in some form or other, on the plantations for seventy to eighty hours per week. As a slave, Equiano appears to have been relatively fortunate with his masters, escaping the brutal treatment inflicted on many of his brethren:

It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains, and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumbscrews, etc., are so well known as not to need a description and were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a Negro beaten till some of his bones were broken for even letting a pot boil over.

Slaves planting sugar cane.

Now they truly belonged to ‘King Sugar’ and toiled to make him rich. He was no sparer of age or sex. At least eighty per cent of the slave population worked, in some form or other, on the plantation for seventy to eighty hours per week. About twenty per cent of those born there failed to survive beyond their second birthday, but if they did they had four or five years before they joined the ‘third’ work gang of the child labourers, gleaning, weeding, cutting grass and taking care of domestic animals. The ‘second gang’ comprised adolescents from twelve to nineteen, already out in the fields as well as tending to the animal population. The work of the second gang, around eleven hours from before dawn to after dusk, was so hard that many of the girls, in particular, died before they could graduate to the even more relentlessly back-breaking routine of the ‘great gang’ of adults. About sixty per cent of the total slave force of Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua worked in the ‘great’ or ‘first’ gang drilling holes for the new canes; cutting and stripping the the harvest during the frantic ‘crop time’ between January and May; bundling and hauling the cumbersome canes at a smart-enough pace not to compromise the quality of the sugar.

Above: A sugar plantation in Barbados

Looking on to see that the work was going quickly was the overseer, as often black as white, quick to use the whip should he see any laggards. Assignment in the mill or the boiling house was hardly an improvement. The vertical rollers that crushed the cane were notorious for taking hands with them since the cane had to be fed in manually, and hatchets were kept beside the mill to sever an arm before the entire body was pulled in. Slaves in the boiling houses worked in conditions of intense heat, dirt and exhaustion and were in constant danger of being scalded by the boiling syrup as it was poured from larger to smaller copper vats.

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Above: Inside the boiling house on a sugar plantation.

By the time they left the slave ship, the Africans would have become familiar with quite a range of pidgin English, despite the conditions under which this new English emerged. There would have been every incentive for them to form a new speech community, the first step in the painful rebuilding of a shattered world. In this way, pidgin English, borrowed from the sailors, became the slave lingua franca. Resistance to their new conditions took many different forms other than violent insurrection. Among the socially traumatised slave community there were those who took it on themselves to preserve some sense of African tradition and cultural memory in a world that had been stripped of it. From the time they were put on board the slave ships, different language groups, regions and tribes had been deliberately mixed to pre-empt any kind of solidarity developing among them. But the memory of communal life and the need for retracing the scraps and shards of ancient traditions proved stronger than the institution of slavery itself. As Schama has it, …

African culture, though pulverised by terror and hardship, was reduced not fine dust that could be blown away into the wind but to small, resistant grains that could be replanted, regrown, remade. And those new growths were tended by keepers of ancestral wisdom, keepers of the knowledge of religion … healing and music.

Because the tribal and language groups – Akan, Twi, Efik, Ewe (see the map of Africa above) – could not just be transposed to St Kitts, Antigua and Barbados, the healers, drummers, singers, weavers and carvers had to create new forms from many strands of material, some inherited, others discovered, all shared. These were hard-earned and retained possessions which were not in the gift of their masters. In fact, the reluctance of the Caribbean masters in the early years to Christianise the slaves, lest literacy and religion produce a sense of presumptuous brotherhood in Christ and lest the uses of literacy turn seditious, gave the Africans a generation or two to establish their own kind of syncretic culture, free from interference. When, finally, an effort was made to convert them, the missionary gospel was inevitably grafted on to cultural roots that had already sunk deep into the West Indian soil.

Since the 1980s, most American linguists have accepted that there was a continuum in the varieties of Black English which runs from the Krio of Sierra Leone to Caribbean Creole to the Gullah of the South Carolina coast to the modern Black English of the wider Unites States. The African element in the English spokenby the slaves on the plantations, known as ‘Plantation Creole’ was sustained well into the eighteenth century, since some African languages, Wolof in particular, were spoken quite widely in the southern states. At least one or two slaves on each plantation knew and were admired for knowing an African language. Slave advertisements indicate the presence of these Wolof-speakers. Others refer to the quality of the English spoken. Phrases like “speaks English though somewhat Negroish” and “speaks rather more proper than Negroes in general” occur regularly. Slavery was a part of everyday life. Many famous Americans, other than plantation owners like George Washington, had slaves, though they didn’t always refer to them as such. One of Benjamin Franklin’s sale notices advertised:

A likely Negro wench, about fifteen years old, … been in the country above a year and talks English.

Franklin himself attempted to record a version of Black English in writing his Information for those Who Would Remove to America, his respondent using an African word for ‘white man’, “Boccararra” from ‘bukra’. By the time he was caught up in the American Revolution, there were slave communities from Massachusetts to Georgia. The majority in the South were now speaking a wide range of English. The latest arrivals from Africa knew only pidgin English, but those who had been shipped from the West Indies and those who had been born on a plantation would speak Plantation Creole. If they were house slaves they would be able to speak “very proper English”. In the North, away from the influence of the plantations, and where the black populations were heavily outnumbered, the Blacks were rapidly assimilated lingustically than in the South.

Gradually, even in the ‘deep South’, the memory of their African languages faded. The children would switch to the language of the playground, Plantation Creole, even if her mother, a first generation slave, spoke to her in her native African tongue. But By the end of the eighteenth century, the linguistic situation among the Black slave communities on the plantations had excited enough literary comment for it to be clear to us today that Gullah was not an isolated exxample, but a forerunner of Black English. One British visitor who bought a slave named Richmond from a plantation in North Carolina noted that: “Many of the others also speak a mixed dialect between Guinea and the English.” By one route or another, therefore, words and phrases from various West African languages were retained and passed into spoken American English. There were also words and phrases which emerged from nearly 250 years of slavery itself. Phrases like ‘slave driver’ and ‘to sell down the river’ come from the plantations. The latter referred to a way of punishing a slave by selling him to a sugar-cane plantation on the Lower Mississippi where, as everyone knew, the conditions were far worse than on the Virginian tobacco plantations.

Rites of passage figured heavily in the retained and re-integrated culture, none more important than funerary rites. From the beginning of mass enslavement, the slaver captains noticed that Africans invariably treated death as liberation. To die in the Caribbean was to go home and, to the bewilderment of clergymen like the Reverend Griffith Hughes, in Jamaica in the 1730s burials were occasions for joyful outbreaks as well as solemnity. The bodies were laid out in fresh white cloths and were borne to the grave in a slow procession, the women walking in pairs and dressed in white, the West African colour of mourning, both women and men singing and howling in a ‘sorrowful manner’ according to one observer.

Once the body was interred, along with it went various provisions, in order to sustain him in his journey beyond those pleasant hills in their own country whither they say he is now going to live at rest. Once the grave was filled up the dirt, the mood of the moment changed to singing, clapping and dancing,using gourd rattles, drums and baffalo, many of the mourners desiring the corpse to acquaint their their … relations of their present condition … as he passeth through their country towards the pleasant mountains. Kissing the grave was the equivalent of sending a letter home with the dead acting as courier. Also deposited in the graves and recovered through the excavation of grave cemetteries on Barbados, were ornaments appropriate to a happy homecoming, often familiar objects in African jewellery such as cowrie shells and glass beads, amulets and charms which were lovingly fashioned. Having been dispossessed of virtually everything, not least their humanity, the slaves somehow managed to create works of art which they then gave to the dead so that they might arrive back home in dignity.

In 1732, the last of the British colonies in North America, Georgia, was founded. It was originally planned as a home for imprisoned debtors by a philanthropist, General Oglethorpe. Then, slaves were introduced to work on the rice fields, and the planters became rich. In 1619, there were only a handful of slaves in the North American colonies, but by 1772 there were half a million, half of them in Virginia and South Carolina. Slavery made its own traditions of speech and vocabulary, and the memory of both is still fundamental to Black American English. The trade involved much cruelty and was also highly profitable. Slaves were sold in the West Indies for roughly five times what they had ‘cost’ on the African coast. The journey may have been long (the triangular trip took between nine and twelve months) but from the merchants’ view, it was very worthwhile.

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Successive eighteenth-century British governments took a great interest in foreign trade. They wanted Britain to become wealthier and therefore more powerful and its trading policies were designed to bring this about. The most important aim was to ensure that the goods leaving the country were worth more than the goods coming in, i.e. to create a favourable balance of trade. As a general rule, therefore, imports were discouraged by increasing import duties, while exports were encouraged by reducing export duties. Important home industries, such as the woollen cloth industry, were protected from foreign competition and encouraged to send their products overseas.

The government was also anxious that goods should be carried in British-owned ships. The Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660, were designed to increase Britain’s share of the carrying trade. They were aimed principally against the Dutch who, as late as 1728, were described by Daniel Defoe as “the Carryers of the World”. The Acts stated that goods coming into Britain were to be carried either in British ships or in ships belonging to the country from where they came. The 1660 Act listed the goods to which this ruling applied. The list included many items from Europe, such as timber and naval stores from the Baltic, and important colonial products, such as sugar from the Caribbean and Virginian tobacco coming into Bristol, which became one of Britain’s main imports from the mid-seventeenth century, as the popularity of smoking developed (see the nineteenth-century label above). In the eyes of the government, Britain’s colonies had an important role to play in helping the mother country to prosper. They could supply Britain with raw materials she did not possess and could buy British-made goods. Many restrictions were placed on the colonies to ensure that they did not compete with the ‘home industries’ in woollen manufacture, not even by transporting and selling such goods from one colony to another. The Act proved difficult to enforce and woollen manufacturing continued in the American colonies.

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In the course of the eighteenth century, Britain became the most prosperous trading nation in the world. Its most serious commercial rival was France. At the beginning of the century, both countries had empires in North America and the West Indies and controlled trading posts in West Africa and India. For both countries, these possessions were vital to their prosperity and a bitter struggle developed between them as each country sought to ruin the other’s trading position by attacking its rival’s colonies. This struggle reached its height during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Britain emerged victorious from this, leaving it in control of the most important European overseas empire, with a population of half a million in its Thirteen colonies. Yet, emerging from the war, there was a new awareness of empire in which the effective hegemony of North America was especially entrancing. Imperial civil servants and ministers enjoyed a brief period of uninhibited inventiveness in the early 1760s as they planned a new and rosy future for the transatlantic colonies. The West Indies, firmly entrenched in a more effectively policed mercantilist system, would maximise the benefits of a ‘flourishing’ slave trade, provide a steady flow of tropical products, and form a valuable base for commercial incursions into the Spanish Empire. In contrast to those that Simon Schama calls the grovelling hacks and epicene toadies who lived off the leavings of the oligarchs there had emerged, from the 1730s,

the honest sort of the country, men who sweated for a living: ordinary country gentlemen, merchants, decent artisans, men of commerce – the ‘Heart Blood’ of the nation. It was these men who believed themselves tyrannised by the arbitrary powers of Walpole’s excise-men, and who looked to the promotion of blue-water empire to fulfil their partnership between trade and freedom. So when they spoke of liberty they meant, among other enterprises, the liberty to buy and sell slaves.

The kind of liberty they mouthed so freely was not for black Africans, whose welfare had definitely not been uppermost in the minds of those who had written ‘Magna Carta’ or ‘The Petition of Right’. It seldom occurred to those who spoke about the ’empire of liberty’ that its prosperity depended on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans since it would take another generation before ‘natural’ equality would join liberty in the radical canon. So while William Kent was erecting his memorial to the founding fathers of the free seventy-seven Akan-speaking Antiguan slaves, the leaders of an aborted rising which intended to seize the island on the anniversary of George II’s coronation in October 1736, were being publicly tortured and burnt alive. As Simon Schama has commented,

The irony that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin: a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ’empire of liberty’ was critically dependent for its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery. The sugar produced by three-quarters of a million slaves in the Caribbean had become the single most valuable import to Great Britain, and it would not be displaced from that rank until the 1820s. Huge fortunes had been made, which translated themselves into grandiose country estates and houses in Britain, or the kind of institutional bequest that, from the money of the Codringtons in Barbados and Antigua, created the great library of All Souls College, Oxford.

The profits from sugar are no longer considered by historians to have been a pre-condition of Britain’s industrial revolution, since the amounts available for reinvestment did not exceed anything like two per cent of the capital ploughed into purely industrial undertakings. But it’s indisputable that the sugar-tobacco slave economy had immensely important spin-off effects on Britain’s industrial enterprises after 1780. Much of the elegance of eighteenth-century Bristol was paid for by the sugar and tobacco trades, and therefore by the slave trade. The port of Liverpool, which in the 1740s sent three times as many triangular trade ships to Africa and the Caribbean as London, owed its expansion entirely to it. The great banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds were equally the creation of the Atlantic trade, and they were afterwards able to provide capital to the manufacturers of Britain. While Indian calicoes had once been among the exports shipped from Britain to Africa in exchange for slaves, the huge demand there for brilliant printed cottons was now supplied almost entirely by more cheaply produced British textiles. And the demand for the ancillary products of the sugar industry – molasses, rum and treacle – worked to tie together not just the West Indies and Britain but the continental American colonies and the wider Caribbean as well.

In the 1750s, the magnates who had made their fortunes in the West Indies – Christopher Codrington, Governor of the Leeward Islands, William Beckford, the Pinneys and the Lascelles – formed a powerful lobby in Westminster and the City of London and began to grumble about the difficulties it faced in preserving the sugar empire. The price of sugar was going down, it asserted, while the price of slaves was going up. Neither of these assertions was supported by any substantial evidence. Sugar prices had halved between 1713 and 1733, the lowest point, but it had recovered by the end of the 1740s. What did touch a raw nerve among Britain’s investors was the colonial rivalry offered by the French, especially in the Caribbean. They were right to worry, for although the French were comparative late-comers to the colonial theatre, at least in the boom sector of the West Indies, they more than compensated by the concentrated energy they brought to profit-making. By the 1740s, there were signs that the productivity of the French Caribbean sugar empire was beginning to outstrip that of the British. The French had their own slaver fleets built and fitted out at the dynamically growing port of Nantes at the mouth of the Loire; and they possessed their own locked-up sources of supply on the Gambia and in Senegal. The French plantations seem from the beginning to have been more productive than the British. They grew and shipped enough sugar to undercut prices in Europe, virtually taking that market away from the British. Also, the economy of the French West Indies was more diversified, exporting coffee, cotton and indigo. In St Dominique, on the western half of Spanish Hispaniola, they had an area bigger than any of the British islands.

The Demise of the Colonial Slave Trade: 1750-1780:

Black and white map showing farms at Mount Vernon
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

One of those who spoke freely of liberty, yet ‘acquired’ a large number of slaves was the future and first President of the United States. Between 1700 and 1750 the number of slaves in the colonies of Virginia had increased from 13,000 to 105,000, nearly eighty per cent of them born in Virginia. Agricultural land required labour to be productive, and in the 18th-century American south that meant slave labour. George Washington was born in 1732, the first child of his father Augustine’s second marriage. Augustine was a tobacco planter with some ten thousand acres of land and fifty slaves. On his death in 1743, he left his 2,500-acre Little Hunting Creek to George’s older half-brother Lawrence, who renamed it ‘Mount Vernon’. Washington inherited the 260-acre Ferry Farm and ten slaves. He leased Mount Vernon from Lawrence’s widow two years after his brother’s death in 1752 and inherited it in 1761. He was an aggressive land speculator, and by 1774 he had amassed some thirty-two thousand acres of land on the Ohio, on Virginia’s western frontier. At his death, he possessed over eighty thousand acres. In 1757, he began a programme of expansion at Mount Vernon that would ultimately result in an eight thousand-acre estate with five separate farms, on which he initially grew tobacco.

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Above: George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775. He was faithfully accompanied by William Lee, throughout the Revolutionary War. On his death, Lee was the only of his slaves to be emancipated.

In Washington’s lifetime, slavery was deeply ingrained in the economic and social fabric of Virginia, where some forty per cent of the population and virtually all African Americans were enslaved. Washington inherited slaves from Lawrence, acquired more as part of the terms of leasing Mount Vernon, and inherited slaves again on the death of Lawrence’s widow in 1761. On his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington gained control of eighty-four ‘dower slaves’. They belonged to the Custis estate and were held in trust by Martha for the Custis heirs, and although Washington had no legal title to them, he managed them as his own property. Between 1752 and 1773, he purchased at least seventy-one slaves ‘of his own’ – men, women and children. He scaled back significantly his purchasing of slaves after the American Revolution, but continued to acquire them, mostly through natural increase and occasionally in settlement of debts. In 1786, he listed 216 slaves – 122 men and women and 88 children – making him one of the largest slaveholders in Fairfax County. Of that total, 103 belonged to Washington, the remainder being dower slaves. By the time of Washington’s death in 1799, the slave population at Mount Vernon had increased to 317, including 143 children. Of that total, he owned 124, leased forty and controlled 153 dower slaves.

Whether Britain should continue to sanction slavery and the slave trade was, of course, one of the great issues of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those in favour of slavery stressed the commercial advantages it brought, as they had from its beginning:

The most approved Judges of the Commercial Interests of these Kingdoms have been of the opinion that our West India and African Trades are the most nationally beneficial of any that we carry on. It also allowed on all Hands that the Trade to Africa is the Branch which renders our American Colonies and Plantations so advantageous in Great Britain; that Traffic only affording our Planters a constant supply of Negro Servants for the Culture of their Lands in the Produce of Sugars, Tobacco, Rice, Rum, Cotton, Fustick (yellow dye), Pimento (Jamaica Pepper) and all other Plantation Produce. …

But ‘Economists’ such as Adam Smith began to question the long-held assumption that the plantation colonies were essential to Britain’s continued prosperity. In his book, Wealth of Nations, (1776), Smith pointed out how expensive it was for Britain to defend the American colonies during the succession of colonial wars with France, Spain and the mainland colonies themselves:

The expense of the ordinary peace establishment of the colonies amounted, before the commencement of the present disturbances (i.e. the American War of Independence), to the pay of twenty regiments of foot; … to the expense of a very considerable naval force which was constantly kept up,in order to guard, from the smuggling vessels of other nations, the immense coast of North America, and that of our West Indian islands. The whole expense of this peace establishment was a charge upon the revenue of Great Britain, and was, at the same time, the smallest part of what the dominion of the colonies has cost the mother-country. … We must add to it, in particular, the whole expense of the late war, and a great part of the war which preceded it.

In more specific economic terms, slavery as it was operated in the British Caribbean at this time was not, in any sense, a rational system. It did not mitigate the severity of labour conditions at least to the point where the planters could get full value from their investment, especially since deaths were never made up by births. Reproduction rates on the plantations were notoriously low, possibly ten to fifteen births per one thousand of the population, compared with perhaps twenty to thirty per thousand in Britain. But neither the balance of the sexes nor the way women were treated was likely to favour a home-grown slave population. Women were outnumbered by men almost two to one, and those who did become pregnant were not spared from work in the fields until they were virtually on the point of delivery. Those women were no more immune than anyone else from floggings administered by overseers if they lagged in the pace of their work. Poor nutrition, damp and vermin-infested huts, exposure to smallpox and yellow fever as well as diseases brought from Africa, like elephantiasis and ‘yaws’, further added to the toll of miscarriages and low fertility. . Yet it seems unlikely that the managers of the plantations were unduly troubled about ‘wastage’, at least until the third quarter of the eighteenth century when prices rose. For a while, it took at least forty pounds to raise a slave child to the point when child and mother could become productive, whereas a new slave could be bought from the traders for between fifteen and thirty pounds. No wonder then that, although 1.5 million slaves were imported into the British Caribbean during the eighteenth century, the population never rose above eight hundred thousand.

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Jamaican slaves being punished in a house of correction

Violence, whether threatened or delivered, was what made the system work, and it fell with special savagery on African women. In one year, 1765, the estate manager of the Egypt plantation on Jamaica, Thomas Thistlewood, administered twenty-one floggings to thirteen women, each likely to have been no less than fifty lashes. Equiano wrote that it was common to make the slaves kneel down after such a flogging and thank their masters for it. Arguably, adult women endured the hardest lot of any section of the slave population, since so much was demanded of them – cooking, caring for infants, mending and washing clothes in addition to working in the fields. And they also had to endure the habitual sexual aggression of masters and overseers who assumed they could copulate with any woman they chose whenever and wherever the mood took them. Female field-hands, like the men, worked naked but for a loincloth, and must therefore have been especially vulnerable. Thomas Thistlewood recorded having intercourse a hundred times with his slave mistress, Phibbah, during one year. But in addition to her, he had twenty-three other slave women on fifty-five separate occasions in that same year. A small number of slaves of both sexes did manage to escape the toil of the fields, either as domestic servants in the plantation house or as artisans who had brought with them from Africa the specialised skills which were much needed on the plantation.They constituted a specialist artisan class among the slaves, freer to move around and to buy and sell materials needed in their crafts. The planters knew it was in their own interests to give the slaves some respite, and on Barbados, there were sixty holidays a year.

Above: Reconstruction of a sugar baron’s house on Barbados, c. 1750.

The Sunday markets in towns like English Harbour on Antigua or Bridgetown on Barbados was where the African world remade itself. Both women and men sold all manner of things they had made themselves, legitimately bought from villages or pilfered from the plantation house, if working there as domestics. Money might change hands, or beads and shells, the medium of exchange of West Africa. The markets and craftsmen’s shops created a class of slaves who were more literate and assertive than the field hands, with broader horizons. The planters and their managers sometimes showed their naivety in assuming that this class might act as a means of mediation between themselves and the mass of field hands, but the records of rebellions almost invariably featured ‘ringleaders’ from this ‘slave élite’. Even though there was little chance of any of these revolts actually overturning the slave system, especially on islands like Barbados where sheltering forests had been cleared to make way for cane, there was a steady drum-beat of rebellion which sometimes, as in Antigua in the 1720s and ’30s, and on Jamaica in mid-century, flared into ferocious violence. ‘Tacky’s Rebellion’ on Jamaica in 1760, cost the lives of nearly a hundred whites and four hundred blacks, with a further six hundred more exiled before it was finally put down with great difficulty.

Partly in order to justify their uses of violence, the planters, slavers and sugar magnates had increasingly had to add to their defence of slavery a ‘moral’ emphasis that the system benefited the Negro slaves themselves. Yet it was not until 1761 that London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers) decided to disown Quakers involved in the slave trade. The latter half of the century saw the disentangling of American Friends from slavery. It also saw the building up of the abolitionist movement, which led to the Acts of Parliament forbidding slave trading by British subjects and ultimately to the the abolition of slavery in the British dominions which at the beginning of that decade still included the continental colonies. This was a ‘classical’ example of religious lobbying for social reform, which marked out the role of the Society among other active nonconformist groups, most notably the Wesleyan Methodists, over the next century and a half. Beginning with the consciences of individuals, then becoming a matter of conscience for the Society as a whole, it moved on to the conscience of the civilised world. The Quakers were the core of the movement, but they joined with all types of liberal and evangelical opinion. One in particular, Thomas Clarkson, came to know Quakers so well that, when the struggle was done, he wrote a Portraiture of Quakerism.

What was to become the ‘Rights of Man’ school was already visible in the writings of the early reform movement. Men such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley were, by the standards of a later age, moderate enough. But they were challenging some of the most entrenched attitudes and commonplace ideas of their day and it needed very little to force apart their fragile alliance with backwoods gentry and provincial businessmen. In addition, that flourishing product of the Enlightenment mind – Utility – was already in sight. Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical radicals were yet to achieve a significant breakthrough in practical politics, but the flavour which they imparted or perhaps adopted was everywhere, as was the religious influence of evangelicalism. The most notorious target of this ‘new sensibility’ was, of course, the slave trade. The abolitionist campaign, led by Granville Sharp in the formative years of the 1770s, and by William Wilberforce in the 1780s, was to wait many years before success. But there were victories along the way. In the case of Somerset, 1772, a negro slave brought to London by a West Indian planter, was freed on the grounds that no law of England authorised so high an act of dominion as slavery. The historian Paul Langford has seen this both as a ‘tipping point’ in the anti-slavery campaign and a ‘turning point’ in the development of a moderate programme of political reform:

The publicity value of this decision was out of all proportion to its legal significance, but the interest which it aroused caught the essence of the late eighteenth-century mind, with its emphasis on human equality, religious redemption, and political conservatism. For Wilberforce and his friends were staunch defenders of the establishment in Church and State, and utterly uninterested in radical politics. In this, they expressed the serious-minded, Evangelical enthusiasm of the business classes of the new industrial England.

The opponents of slavery and the slave trade made much of the cruelties of the slave trader and the plantation owner. They also attacked the basic inhumanity of making a man a slave, as the Jesuits and the Quakers had done over previous centuries. John Wesley, in his Thoughts upon Slavery (1775) wrote that …

It cannot be that either War or contract, can give any man such property in another as he has in his sheep and oxen. Much less is it possible, that any child of a man should ever be born a slave. Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human law can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature.

In 1787, two years before Equiano published his book, William Wilberforce and other abolitionists formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wesley wrote to Wilberforce, encouraging him in his glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy (i.e. the slave trade) which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans, he assured him that, …

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Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? Oh! Be not weary in well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.

The well-organised anti-slavery campaign led to Parliament declaring the British slave trade illegal in 1807. But die-hard planters in Parliament resisted abolition, so that the campaigners had to wait until 1833 for the system of slavery to be abolished throughout the British Empire.

Two centuries later, and until very recently, Colston’s name permeated the city in such landmarks as Colston’s Almshouses, Colston Tower and Colston Hall, among many other school names, street names and placenames. He has also been remembered, particularly by some schools, charities and the Society of Merchant Venturers, on Colston Day (13 November), which celebrates the granting of a royal charter to the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1639, at a church service.  A statue of him is on the exterior of Bristol Guildhall and a stained-glass window to his memory in the north transept of St Mary Redcliffe (1870). In April 2017, the charity that runs the Colston Hall, the Bristol Music Trust, announced that it would drop the name of Colston when it reopened after refurbishment in 2020. This happened in June of this year. There had been protests and petitions calling for a name change and some concert-goers and artists had boycotted the venue because of the Colston name. Following the decision, petitions to retain the name of Colston reached almost ten thousand signatures, though the charity confirmed that the name change would go ahead.

A statue, designed by John Cassidy, was erected in the centre of Bristol in 1895 to commemorate Colston’s philanthropy. Since at least the 1990s, campaigns have called for the removal of the statue, describing it as a disgraceful memorial considering Colston’s profiting from the slave trade. In 2018, with the involvement of the community, an official plaque was arranged for the statue to inform the public about more of Colston’s history. Conservative councillor Richard Eddy and the Society of Merchant Venturers (an organisation Colston belonged to) objected to the wording and were successful in, among other things, removing mention of Colston’s role as a Tory MP and selective nature of his philanthropy. They also disputed the exact number and ages of the thousands of children he trafficked. The plaque was rewritten with large involvement from the Society of Merchant Venturers, but the wording was then vetoed by incoming Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, who saw the Society having too much say in the process, instructing more parts of the community to be involved in producing the plaque. Frustrated by the failure of the City authorities to reach a compromise, and spurred on by the George Floyd protests instigated by ‘Black Lives Matter’, On 7 June 2020, the statue was toppled and thrown into Bristol Quay. While many disagreed with this action, few were sorry to see it go from the city centre where, arguably, it never belonged, regardless of the divergent views of Colston’s ‘legacy’.

One of the many murals of George Floyd which followed his death in Minneapolis

The following extract from a recent statement by The Decolonising Working Group Department of History, University of Exeter (and friends) is close to my own view of the toppling of the statue:

Over time societies find new heroes to honour, whose achievements and values more accurately reflect their own concerns and aspirations. And this is why, for all the voices that disagree with the removal of Colston, it is striking how few wish him to return. He was a man of his time, and one whose failures previous societies could overlook. Yet for all his wealth and his philanthropy – and knowing what we do of the current injustices he helped to create – we would not choose to celebrate him now.

I would also add that, in purely historical and contextual terms, Colston died at least forty years before there was a majority shift in contemporary attitudes to slavery. In his lifetime, he was one of many who actively participated in the slave trade and the institution of slavery, including many historical figures who, in other contexts, have been seen as liberals and ‘liberators’. Should their statues be toppled too, and their names be erased from urban landscapes across the world? Perhaps more careful and considered thought should be given to how we research, recall and remember our shared heritages. We may not choose to celebrate or commemorate these figures any longer, but should they simply be ‘expunged’ from history, or can we still learn something from learning about them and the markedly different Britain they lived in from the generally tolerant, multi-cultural one of today?


George Taylor & J. A. Morris (c. 1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain & Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

Jean Vanes (1988), Bristol at the time of the Spanish Armada. Bristol Branch of the Historical Association: The University of Bristol.

John Morrill, Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Martin Dickinson (1979), Britain, Europe and Beyond, 1700-1900. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC World.

One thought on “Bristol, Colston and Colonial Trade, 1580-1780

  1. Reblogged this on Andrew James and commented:

    Reblogged following the verdict on the damaging of the Colston statue at Bristol Crown Court on 5 January 2022. One of the acquitted defendants claimed that they had been ‘rectifying history’ and that the jury was ‘on the right side of history.’


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