11 Objects Reflecting the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans

Here, we look at some of the objects in the collections of Bristol Museums and Bristol Archives that are linked to the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. Objects that we should show, and talk about, but not celebrate.

In a BBC documentary made in 2018, ‘Civilisations – the remains of slavery’, Miles Chambers looked at objects linked to the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans and asked what we should do with them.

Chambers was Bristol’s first Poet Laureate, and he wrote a poem about all the museum objects he had seen and discussed with people. This is the last part of ‘The Remains of Slavery’:

Show them, but don’t celebrate them
To remind us of what we did in the past,
How we treated each other, in pursuit of wealth,
Lest we forget, lest history repeat itself.

small chevron bead

Chevron trade bead

This small glass bead sums up the complex web that was the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. It has six layers of different coloured glasses, ground away to show the layers. It probably came from Venice and was found in 18** when the Floating Harbour was drained to clear the mud.

Glass beads were amongst the trade goods used to barter for enslaved Africans. This one may have been to Africa, the Americas and back, unsold and returned to Bristol. It represents the network of trade that supplied the ‘triangular’ trade, with goods from India and Europe as well as local manufactures, traded through individual merchants and through huge monopoly trading companies such as the East India Company.

[Object number: F940]

Plantation inventory

Plantation owners and managers made regular inventories of the ‘stock’ they held. These usually included the enslaved workforce with the cattle and horses. We can trace individuals through these lists. The Spring Plantation in Jamaica was part-owned by Rebecca Woolnough, who married John Hugh Smyth of Ashton Court. On the lists from the Spring Plantation, one man, Polydore or Pollodore, first appears on a list of about 1730 as a newly purchased enslaved worker, aged about 13. In later inventories he is down as a field worker. By October 1782 he is noted as a ‘Watchman old & weak’. Later he disappears from the lists altogether. Such inventories are often the only way we know of enslaved men, women and children. We know nothing more about Polydore than is in these lists. We don’t know what his story would be if he could tell it.

[Bristol Archives AC/WO/16/27/113a-f]

Teacup and saucer

Tea, coffee and chocolate came to Britain in the 1650s, and drinking tea became fashionable after 1662, when Charles II’s new wife Catherine of Braganza brought the habit from Portugal. Men tended to drink coffee in the coffee houses, women drank tea at home. The tea came from China.  It was heavily taxed until 1785, so only the rich could afford it (their servants reused or sold the used tea leaves as a perk). All these drinks are naturally bitter: sugar was vital to sweeten the taste. The sugar was produced by enslaved workers on the plantations in the Caribbean.  There were 20 sugar refineries in Bristol by 1760, converting the imported semi-processed sugar into cones of pure white sugar.

Sugar was a target for the Abolition movement, many people refused to use it, and Bristol poet Robert Southey took aim at those ‘…who at your ease / Sip the blood-sweeten’d beverage!’

Wedgwood’s abolition plaque

The potter Josiah Wedgwood was a supporter of the Abolition movement. The seal of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade showed an enslaved man in chains. Wedgwood used the image to make small ‘jasperware’ plaques, made by the thousand and slotted in to a firing wherever there was space. Wedgwood gave these away, and Abolitionists had them made into hatpins, tiepins, brooches, pictures – something that showed their support and maybe started a conversation with others.

Today, many people object to the abject, passive figure as it ignores the active role that enslaved people played in making slavery unworkable. But the aim was to spur white people into campaigning, and the image was designed to tug at their heartstrings and their conscience. And maybe Abolitionists did think that they were the ones to save the enslaved…

Stirring @ The International Festival of the Sea

The International Festival of the Sea, held in Bristol in 1996, celebrated Bristol’s maritime history whilst ignoring the hundred-odd years of slave trading out of the port. One of the few references to it was by the artist Annie Lovejoy. She designed and printed a sugar packet, which had a triangle and a circle in reference to the ‘triangular trade’ and ‘great circuit’ of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. In 1785, Bristol merchants imported about six million kilos of raw sugar for processing in the many sugar houses in the city.

The artist placed 40,000 of these sugar packets in cafés and bars within the fenced-off festival site. She called it Stirring @ the International Festival of the Sea: a reference that could mean both stirring the sugar into the tea or coffee, and drawing attention to the history the festival ignored. 

Sold Down the River

I saw Tony Forbes’ work at his Bower Ashton Dip Show in the late 1990s, when Bristol Museum was working on the slavery exhibition. The museum commissioned Tony to paint a picture for the Legacies section of the exhibition. His brief was to paint what it was like for him growing up as a young black man in Bristol. His painting is very relevant today: he showed himself chained to Edward Colston’s statue. Tony wrote ‘When I look at Colston’s statue I just think of dead babies. I can handle the fact that the statue is there, but there’s nothing to say that he was a slave trader…’. He also referenced the International Festival of the Sea: ‘This festival, encouraged by the Council, funded by big business and hyped by our media, was a slap in the face to the black community and an insult to the intelligence and sensitivity of many Bristolians. It was the weekend that Bristol broke my heart.’ 

[Object number: K5894]

close up of a old, gold coin

Five guinea piece

The guinea coin was first minted in 1663 and was named after the coast of Guinea in Africa. The first traders to the African coast were more interested in gold (and ivory) than in enslaved Africans, but this changed as Europe’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas grew and the demand for labour increased.

Guinea coins were often marked with the source of the gold: a plume of feathers for Welsh gold; the letters EIC for the East India Company; and an elephant and ‘castle’ or howdah, as on this coin, meant the gold came from the Royal African Company. One guinea was roughly 8gms of gold (originally ¼oz) and a five guinea coin was 41gms. In today’s terms, five guineas was worth almost £800 in terms of what it would buy. Most people would never have seen one, let alone owned one.

[Object number: O.4232]

Flintlock musket

The slave trading merchants bought a mixture of goods for their trade cargo. On the coast of Africa, the ship’s captain bargained with African merchants, and paid for each person bought with a selection of goods equivalent to the agreed price: perhaps a flintlock musket, a keg of gunpowder, three lengths of Indian cotton cloth, or two brass pans, five lengths of cloth, four strings of glass beads.

Textiles were always the biggest part of the trade cargo, with brassware and guns a close second. Most of the guns were made in Birmingham. Trading in guns started an arms race, and every group felt the need to acquire guns for protection. The only way was by trading with Europeans, who wanted to buy people.

By the end of the 18th century, the British were trading over 150,000 guns per year to their African trading partners.

Brass pan

Brass making was an important industry in Bristol from the 1690s to about 1900. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Copper, calamine for zinc and coal were locally available, and the River Avon supplied water power for the machinery.

The brass industry was linked to the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. Brassware made up a large part of a trade cargo, in the form of pans, wire and manillas (a form of currency). In 1760, all the battery ware (literally, pots and pans hammered or battered into shape from flat sheets) made at the Warmley works was exported to the Guinea coast, and a lot of the brassware made at Keynsham was ‘sent to the Guinea slave trade’. Factory stock lists included ‘Guinea kettles’ and ‘Guinea neptunes’, types of pans. The Africa in 1774 had 200 Guinea neptunes on board, worth just over £1 each.

Most of the men involved in the brass works were Quakers. The Quakers are always seen as the leaders of the Abolition movement, yet these men were happy to adapt their products to the needs of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and sell them to the city’s traders in enslaved men, women and children.

Account book of the Snow Africa

The Africa made two slaving voyages, in 1774 and 1776. The 1774 voyage was owned by eight investors who each put in £711.12s.0d – equivalent in purchasing power to £91,540 today.  That paid for the ship and preparing her for the voyage and buying a trade cargo worth £4,648.1s.1d – or almost £600,000 today.

The accounts show the huge number of interested parties.  There were 30 crew under the captain John Matthews. 31 suppliers fitted out the ship, including shipwrights, rope makers, butchers and candlemakers. 28 businesses supplied the trade goods. Every supplier bought materials and goods from others and employed people. Each person’s wages might support an extended family. 

The ‘web of interest’ involved in one slaving voyage ranged from local to international. Cottons might come from India, beads from Venice, guns from Birmingham, brassware from Warmley, bread from the next street. It was this network that prompted a petition to Parliament against Abolition in 1789, as the decline in Bristol’s trade would lead ‘to the ruin of thousands of individuals’. The fate of those enslaved was not considered.

[Bristol Archives 45039]

Logbook of the Black Prince

The captain, William Miller, kept a daily log of the slaving voyage made in 1762. The ship left Bristol on 24 April and arrived at the Gold Coast on 26 June. It took eight months to move along the coast buying enslaved people from many African merchants. Whilst still at the coast, the enslaved planned a revolt, but this was discovered and the men put in chains. A few days later some of the men broke their chains ready for another attempt, but again the plan was discovered and the two leaders ‘was well Flogged’. 

The ship sailed on 1 March 1763 with 488 enslaved Africans on board. Within days another planned revolt was discovered. Miller had the 10 ringleaders whipped. One died a few days later, whether from the flogging or from disease is not recorded.  

Bad weather meant that the enslaved Africans could not go on deck for exercise and washing, and the ‘Rooms and Platforms’ could not be cleaned. Sickness spread, and Miller recorded on several different days that the enslaved ‘falls away’. The ship arrived in Antigua on 7 May, with 394 men, women and children to sell.