Bristol’s merchants shipped more than 500,000 people into slavery, with this terrible time in our city’s history set to be brought into sharp focus on Tuesday with the first episode of A House Through Time on BBC Two.
10 Guinea Street in Redcliffe is the house featured in the third series of the show, with the road itself named after the Guinea Coast in West Africa, a hub of the international slave trade.
The house was built in 1718 at a time when Bristol was becoming Britain’s premier slaving port.
The man who built the house, Captain Edmund Saunders, was a prolific slave trader himself, trafficking men, women and children from Africa to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean – and the same is true of the first full-time resident, Joseph Smith.
Much of Bristol’s fortune was built on the slave trade. And yet we still seem unable to know how to confront our slavery past, with the most recent slip-up happening in 2019 when a new plaque due to be placed on the statue of Edward Colston in the centre was scrapped because of a row over the wording.
The remains of Colston’s hair and fingernails were still kept at Merchants’ Hall in Clifton, the headquarters of the Merchant Venturers, until as recently as 2016.
It was only this year that the first ever black person was admitted as a member of the organisation that was founded in 1552.
The Merchant Venturers do not shy away from the fact that their former member was a wealthy slave trader.
Their website says that “there is no doubt that Edward Colston profited, directly or indirectly, from the slave trading conducted by the Royal African Company”.
Today, the society continues to manage three organisations that bear his name: Colston’s Almshouse on St Michael’s Hill, Colston’s School in Stapleton and Colston’s Girls’ School on Cheltenham Road.
It was in 2012 that a Year 7 pupil from Colston’s Girls’ School wrote in her school newsletter about a visit to Merchants’ Hall, where children were shown Colston’s fingernails and hair:
Merchant Venturers spokesperson Caroline Chambers told Bristol24/7: “Until four years ago, what is believed to be a sample of Edward Colston’s hair and nails was kept at Merchants’ Hall.
“To my knowledge, these have never been used in any form of ceremony. They were removed because it was felt that the presence of such items was inappropriate and they are currently being held in storage.”
When she was lord mayor in 2018, former Colston’s Girls’ School pupil, Cleo Lake, removed a painting of Colston from the lord mayor’s parlour in City Hall, where it had hung since at least 1953.
The year before, Colston’s Girls’ School changed the focus of their annual Commemoration Day ceremony from paying respect to Colston to raising awareness of slavery.
Lake said that she wanted the painting to be placed in a museum that tells the story of Bristol’s role in the slave trade. But despite her best efforts, that museum is yet to be built.
Campaigners would like to see some Welsh Back warehouses currently earmarked for restaurants and bars to be turned into an ‘Abolition Shed’, telling the story of Bristol’s role in the slave trade and how the city joined the movement to abolish it.
Read more: Blood on the bricks: more than Colston?
Currently, The Georgian House Museum gives an idea of what a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home might have looked like around 1790.
Built by sugar trader John Pinney, the townhouse was where the enslaved servant Pero worked – after who Pero’s Bridge is named, with a small plaque telling his story.
Other unofficial plaques have appeared across Bristol, including on Colston’s statue. Sitting just below the original inscription celebrating the ‘virtues’ of the notorious slave trader, the gold-embossed sign commemorated the millions of people who were enslaved and lost their lives.
An official plaque was unveiled on the side of the M Shed in 1997, the European Year Against Racism.
It reads: “In memory of the countless African men, women and children whose enslavement and exploitation brought so much prosperity to Bristol through the African slave trade.”
And yet there remains no one single place that adequately confronts slavery in Bristol, despite a proliferation of places across the city still bearing Colston’s name.
Christine Townsend from campaign group Countering Colston said: “Bristol needs a dedicated slave trade memorial and Abolition Shed located in the vacant O and M Shed on Welsh Back.
“Colston’s actions in the 17th century enabled a small merchant class in Bristol to accumulate immense wealth from a trade previous banished from our city in 1090 by St Wulfstan.
“Whilst the origin of the people enslaved and the geographical location of their labour differed, the motivation of those enslaving fellow humans unite these historically separated periods of Bristol’s history.
“Bristolians and visitors alike need a dedicated space where a fuller reflection of the city’s involvement in human enslavement can be explored to help aid a better understanding of how the legacy plays out for us all in the present.”
Main photo by Martin Booth