I was made aware of the Finzel’s Reach development, like most Bristol citizens, about a year or so ago. The banners, hoardings and scaffolding went up, and the builders went in to one of the older parts of the City near Castle Park, on the site of the former Courage Brewery.
Fast forward a few months and I am sitting in an evening course at the University of Bristol, Ways into history, Bristol and the Slave Trade, when my ears prick up. Discussing sugar merchants, the name Finzel crops up, and I go off on a researching tangent to to see if there are any dots linking to the new development.
The particular Finzel in this case is one Conrad Finzel, who, I noted, like many others, had given a large portion of his wealth to various local charities – including the Muller orphanage – and thus has been written into Bristol’s history as a philanthropist as well as a businessman.
His business was sugar refining, and he acquired a 17th century sugar house on the new Finzel’s Reach development site in 1839. With innovative engineering, Finzel transformed the sugar refinery into one of the most successful operations in the country – if not in Europe.
This was a major source of the wealth that filtered into the city and besides being the means to feed, house and clothe poor orphans, it also provided employment to hundreds of Bristolians. But, the sugar came from the Caribbean from islands such as Jamaica and Cuba.
Back to my history course. I know that the practice of enslaving African people, overseen by British merchants, plantation owners and endorsed by the Church and the Crown, ended in 1807. However, that legal act only prevented the taking of any more African people legally from West Africa – it did not free those already enslaved nor did it stop enslavement by other European powers.
Emancipation from British enslavement came in 1838. Then what followed was a period of ‘apprenticeships’, and extra labour was also imported by way of ‘indentured servants’ from India. Former enslaved workers, on the whole, were not given land or rights – in fact, those who went on to farm on abandoned land were arrested and punished, which led to many bloody clashes. Many former enslaved people were left destitute and had to continue working for nothing, or very little, in return.
In terms of abolition and emancipation, Britain was ahead of the pack: under Spanish and Portuguese rule, Cuba abolished in the practice in 1886 and Brazil was the last colony to do so, as late as 1888.
The sugar that created Finzel’s albeit shared wealth came off the back of absolute misery, and represents another element in Bristol’s long, controversial and unresolved chapter in ‘world affairs’. But it isn’t about hiding, denying or guilt-tripping about the past. We can debate about whether we should rename old monuments with new perspectives and values, but why should we be naming new civic infrastructure, such as the new bridge across the river to Finzel’s Reach, so insensitively?
All it does is hark back to such episodes in Bristol’s history, and adds, however unintentionally, reverence to these periods or the people that benefited from them. Bridges are particularly symbolic of connecting past, present, and even future, so any name should be carefully considered.
Former Green Party mayoral candidate and Bristolian, Tony Dyer, introduced me to the developers behind Finzel’s Reach, and I was encouraged by their willingness to have a conversation about this. They listened to my perspective and decided to put the bridge name out to public suggestion and vote. I have also been invited to sit on the judging panel which is very exciting.
I have heard a few great suggestions so far, ranging from Black Bristolian heroes, such as Carmen Beckford MBE, Princess Campbell MBE and Dr Paul Stevenson, to female abolitionists Hannah Moore and Elizabeth Blackwell, and popular figures including Derek Morris, AKA DJ Derek.
For me, it’s not necessarily about gender or race if the bridge is to be named after a person, but rather about being creative and thoughtful about the message that the very naming of the bridge sends to us now and to future generations. Do we really need to be harking back to that episode of Bristol’s history, when it feels that we have more inclusive and relevant people and events to champion?
And further, as a Sugar Smart city, with rising levels of obesity and diabetes, maybe we have to ask the question of what sugar ever did for most of us anyway, and whether Finzel, the city’s biggest sugar merchant, has something to answer for.
Answers on a postcard if you like, but in any case do submit your name suggestions for the new bridge by Friday 17th March.
Cleo Lake is deputy Green group leader and a councillor for Cotham.
Read more: What would you call Bristol’s new bridge?