Early Black Presence in Bristol

Allie Dillon


Black people have lived in Bristol for over four centuries. We don’t know much about Black residents before the period when the city’s merchants began trading enslaved African people overseas in 1698. However, records at Bristol Archives and elsewhere show that Black people lived and worked here least a century before then.

To explore these records, visit our early black presence index.

Evidence in the Archives

Most of the documents that tell us about the first Black people in Bristol are church records of baptisms, marriages and burials. We know about these people because the writers sometimes chose to mention their skin colour or race. Some of descriptions used are not acceptable today: words and spellings vary but include ‘blackamoor’, ‘dark’ or ‘negro’ as well as ‘black’.

Sometimes, we can guess that people were of African descent from their place of birth or their name – for example, the Coromantee people on Africa’s Gold Coast named their children after days of the week. However, most records are brief entries that don’t say much about each person and we probably don’t know about all the Black people who lived here in previous centuries.

Often, we don’t know how Black people came to Bristol. Many arrived through trade, firstly through trade routes with Africa and later because of Bristol’s role in the slave economy. Some arrived as free people and others came as slaves.

Earliest records

The earliest known record of a black person in Bristol appears in court records held at The National Archives. These mention that Sir John Young employed a ‘blacke moore’ as a gardener or guard around 1560, although we don’t know his name. Young’s home was the Great House, which stood on the site that is now the Bristol Beacon. (ref. STAC 5/S14/26).

The earliest known record of a person of African descent at Bristol Archives is the baptism entry for Gylman Ivie in 1575. The register of St Peter’s church in Dyrham reads ‘A negro of the age of 30 years was here baptised the 15th day of August and was called to name Gylman Ivie’ (ref. P.Dy/R/1/a).

From the parish register of Christ Church, we know about Katherine, ‘a blacke negra servante’ who worked at the Horsehead Tavern in Christmas Street. She was buried at the church in 1612 (ref. P.Xch/R/1/a).

A man called Phillip White [alias Haumath] was baptised at Temple church in 1619/20. He was described as ‘a Barbarian Moore’, which meant that he was known or assumed to come from the Barbary Coast of north Africa (ref. P.Tem/R/1/a).

Free women and men

an old document showing cattallena's inventory

There are other sources that also identify Black people but few records say whether a person was free or enslaved.

A Black woman who was probably free was Cattellena, who died in Almondsbury, near Bristol, in 1625. An inventory of her belongings shows that she had her own cow and other possessions, so it is unlikely that she was enslaved (ref. Probate Inventories 1625/18).

Image: Section of Catellena’s will, 1625

There were more Black people in the city in the 18th century, the era of the slave trade – perhaps several hundred people. Free Black sailors from West Africa and the Caribbean lived in Bristol or sailed on Bristol ships, including vessels which transported slaves.

Enslaved servants

Although enslaved Africans didn’t come to Bristol in large numbers, some merchants and ships’ captains brought one or two people as servants.

Parish registers record servants who were baptised here as Christians. John Glocester, ‘A Negro Servant to Captn Edmond Saunders’, was baptised at St Mary Redcliffe in 1722 (ref. P.St MR/R/1/7).

Image: St Mary Redcliffe church, date unknown (PicBox/7/StMR/9)

Others were house servants who came with their owners, such as Pero Jones (enslaved) and Fanny Coker (free). They were brought from Nevis in the West Indies by the Pinney family, who lived at the Georgian House.

Some servants were still children. Hannah, baptised in 1715, was ‘A nigro servt. to Mr Richard Lathrop about 8 yrs old’ (ref. P.St T/R/1/c).

The language of these records tells us about attitudes at that time towards Black people: John Bristol and William Werow were described in 1745 as ‘t[w]o black boys adult both the property of… Mrs Jane Jones’ (ref. P.St J/R/1/g).

an old document with baptisms written on it
Baptism of John Bristol & William Werow, 1745
scipio's gravestone in henbury

A well-known black servant in Bristol was Scipio Africanus. He worked for Charles Williams, the Earl of Suffolk, at the Great House at Henbury. Scipio died aged 18 in 1720 and he was buried nearby at St Mary’s church. For some reason, his burial was not recorded in the parish register. However, his grave is marked by ornate gravestones which describe his conversion to Christianity.

Enslaved Africans were usually given new names, often their owners’ surnames. Some were given grand names which in fact emphasised their lower status: Scipio was named after the noted Roman general.

Later Africans educated in Bristol

There are fewer records of black people coming to Bristol after the slave trade was abolished in 1807, although Bristol merchants continued to trade with West Africa in goods such as palm oil.

An unusual record from St Mary Redcliffe church shows that West African trading partners sometimes sent their sons to be educated in Britain. Augustine Manga Bell was baptised in 1868 and described as ‘Augustine Manga Bell son of King Bell of Cameron [Cameroon] River, Native Chief’ (ref. P.St MR/R/2/4).

Baptism entry
Baptism entry for Augustine Manga Bell, 1867

As people of African descent married into Bristol families, it is possible that the mixed heritage of their descendants became less visible. For example, Henry Parker came to Bristol after escaping from slavery in Florida. His grandson Bertie Head looked more Irish than African, so his ancestry was less likely to be noted in records.

Further reading