Bristol and the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans

What was the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans? Who benefitted from it? What was Bristol’s involvement and what are its legacies today?

What was the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans?

The slave trade was part of the network of trade which existed between Britain, West Africa and the Caribbean. This trade also serviced Virginia and other slave-holding British colonies in North America. Although Spain and Portugal had originally dominated the trade, by the eighteenth century Britain had become the most important slave-trading nation in the world.

Between 1501 and 1866, over 12 million Africans are estimated to have been exported to the New World, around 2 million of whom probably died en route. Although slavery has existed in various forms for centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was unique in its almost exclusive enslavement of Africans.

The use of enslaved labour

Virginian and West Indian plantations run by British landowners profited from cheap, reliable labour to produce sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton and other lucrative commodities.

In the West Indies the forced labour of local people led to their wholesale destruction from disease and overwork. When Britain began to gain control of the Caribbean from the Spanish in the seventeenth century (Barbados was captured in 1625, Jamaica in 1655), attempts were made to obtain labour from Ireland and England. English servants could gain free passage to the New World by agreeing to be bound to an employer for a set number of years.

When not enough servants opted for this scheme, more sinister methods were used. Kidnapping of children and young people became common, and political prisoners and religious dissidents were transported to Caribbean plantations in lieu of execution. Bristol became particularly notorious for the summary transportation of its criminals to hard labour in sugar and tobacco plantations owned by the city’s elite.

Enslaved Africans were deemed to be the most suitable workers. They could be readily bought from traders on the West African coast and were more immune to European diseases than indigenous Americans. Despite the tens of thousands of Africans brought over each year, however, the Caribbean slave population failed to reproduce itself and replacements were continually needed. Without the slave trade from Africa, the British-owned economies in the West Indies would have collapsed.

Image: The Southwell Frigate Trading on the Coast of Africa by Nicholas Pocock

Bristol’s involvement

Bristol’s participation in the trade in enslaved Africans stretches at least as far back as the eleventh century. Irish and English slaves were routinely sold in the port from this time until the 1100s.

Bristol’s official involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans started in 1698 when the London-based Royal African Company’s monopoly on the trade was ended. It’s worth noting that one member of the Royal African Company was the merchant Edward Colston, an Anglican Tory, famed for his generosity to Bristol charities. The Royal African Company had been trading since 1672 and had itself taken over the monopoly from an earlier company established by King Charles II in 1662.

A few Bristol ships had been licensed to engage in trading in enslaved Africans, in what is now West Africa, as early as 1690, and there is little doubt that Bristol ships traded illegally in slaves well before then.

Why was Bristol involved?

The trade, though risky, was dazzlingly profitable, and Bristol, as an international port since medieval times, was well placed to exploit it.

Bristol had had direct contact with the West Indies since at least the sixteenth century. Up to this point the slave trade had not been a major factor in either of these trading relationships. But by the mid-seventeenth century, the growth of sugar cultivation in the Caribbean, and tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, ensured the demand for enslaved Africans.

Bristol merchants vied with those in London to supply it. By the late 1730s Bristol had become Britain’s premier slaving port. In 1750 alone, Bristol ships transported some 8,000 of the 20,000 enslaved Africans sent that year to the British Caribbean and North America.

Image: Tobacco trade card

By the latter half of the century, Bristol’s position had been overtaken by Liverpool. But even as late as 1789, the trade to Africa and the West Indies was estimated to have comprised over 80 per cent of the total value of Bristol’s trade abroad.

Who benefitted?

Many Bristolians profited from the trade in enslaved Africans, not only shipbuilders and slavers but also merchants, tradespeople and manufacturers. Small investors could buy a share in a slaving voyage and profits could be made at every point of the ‘triangular trade’ between England, the ‘Guinea’ (West African) coast and the Caribbean.

Bristol merchandise, specially aimed at the ‘Guinea trade’ – including ‘guinea guns’, brassware, alcohol, cloth, hats and fancy goods – could profitably be sold to local African traders. The Warmley Brass Company, for example, owned by the Goldney and Champion families, exported ‘Guinea’ cooking pots. Copper currency bracelets made for export to West African customers have been found in Bristol’s King Street.

Once Africans were enslaved through trade or capture they were sold to European traders on the coast of the lands that now comprise Ghana, The Gambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin and Angola. The European traders sold them on at a profit to the plantation owners of the British Caribbean or the North American colonies such as Virginia and South Carolina.

Bristol ships also supplied these British colonies with a wide range of goods for the plantations, including guns, agricultural implements, foodstuffs, soap, candles, ladies’ boots and ‘Negro cloaths’ for the enslaved.

Finally, slave-produced Caribbean produce such as sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa were brought to Bristol where sugar refining, tobacco processing and chocolate manufacturing were important local industries. Thousands of working people were employed in these processing industries.

The profits from the slave trade formed the basis of Bristol’s first banks and literally laid the foundations for some of the city’s finest Georgian architecture (such as Queen Square).

Image: Queen Square by Thomas Leeson Rowbotham, 1827

Famous Bristol names such as Colston, Tyndall and Farr were directly involved in the trade whilst the Brights, Smyths and Pinneys owned West Indian plantations. Street names such as Guinea Street, Jamaica Street, Codrington Place, Tyndall’s Park, Worral and Stapleton Roads recall the city’s involvement with Africa and the West Indies.

Enslaved Africans in Bristol

There do not seem to have been large numbers of enslaved Africans in Bristol itself, since most were transported directly from West Africa to the West Indies. Some Africans were sold as servants to aristocratic families in Britain; the Earl of Suffolk, for example, was master of the young Scipio Africanus whose tombstone is in Henbury Churchyard. An unknown number, some free, some technically still enslaved (the law was not clear and frequently ignored), served as domestic servants, musicians and seamen. By the mid-nineteenth century they had merged into the wider Bristol population.

The end of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans

The British trade in enslaved Africans ended in 1807 by an Act of Parliament. Slavery itself was formally outlawed in British territories in 1834.

The issue of exactly why slavery was abolished continues to be intensely debated. The tireless campaigning by anti-slavery groups in Britain has long been acknowledged as important. But other factors played a part, economic and social as well as philosophical. The economic attractiveness of cane sugar and other slave-produced crops declined with the development of the new industrial economy, based on ‘free’ waged labour and dynamic new production methods.

Historical research has recently emphasised the importance of the role enslaved Africans played in ending slavery. Resistance to enslavement took many forms. Enslaved Africans took covert guerrilla action against their masters in the form of poisoning, arson and refusal to work at full capacity.

The many slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean made slavery seem increasingly untenable to the British establishment, especially after the successful slave revolt in Saint-Dominique (Haiti) that culminated in 1803 in a victory against thousands of French and British troops.

Image: Leonard Parkinson, Captain of the Maroons, by H Smith

Why was it accepted for so long?

During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the idea that human beings were born equal and had the right to freedom and decent treatment was not widely held. It was assumed by many that inequality, suffering and slavery were part of the natural order of things ordained by God and justified in the Christian Bible.

Slavery had long existed in both Africa and Europe. But by the late seventeenth century the rise of the capitalist system, based on trading for profit, had transformed the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans into something different from traditional slavery.

The trade in enslaved Africans to the Americas, begun by the Portuguese and taken up by other European states, was on a new scale. It was vast and impersonal, treating people as if they were cash goods and transporting them in huge numbers over long distances. The trade directly stimulated the growth of racialist theory in order to justify the enslavement of Africans.

The English had the protection of the ‘British Constitution’ of 1688. In theory at least, this afforded all Protestant males some protection against arbitrary arrest and enslavement, and gave them the status of ‘free-born Englishmen’. This engendered a sense of superiority over other people who were not like them. Africans, who were neither Christian nor white, were dehumanised.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a series of wars through which the British established their control over the Atlantic trade and much of the Caribbean and North America. In this era of military and economic ‘adventuring’, ethical questions were often brushed aside or condemned as unpatriotic.


By the 1740s, ideas of equality and natural human rights were gaining popularity amongst British intellectuals. Slavery was beginning to be seen as an offence against ‘natural law’.

Some groups, notably the Society of Friends (Quakers), took up an anti-slavery stance on religious grounds as early as 1760. John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, declared themselves against the slave trade in the late 1770s.

Within ten years, the Anglican Dean of Bristol, Josiah Tucker, and the Evangelical writer Hannah More had become active abolitionists. Christian support for abolition was not necessarily because they believed in racial equality: many Evangelicals were abolitionists because they thought that slavery promoted sexual immorality, cruelty and irreligion.

The Bristolian Ann Yearsley (‘the milkmaid poet’) who was from a poorer and more radical background wrote against slavery from a human rights perspective.

More personal arguments for abolition came from Olaudah Equiano, who planned to visit Bristol in 1793. Once enslaved and now free, Equiano was the first black African to publish attacks against the slave trade. In 1795, the poet William Coleridge gave an anti-slavery lecture in the city, and Bristol-born radical Anna Maria Falconbridge argued for racial equality.

Although the tide of public opinion was turning against slavery, there were still many with powerful vested interests in its favour. In 1767, the captains of three Bristol slave ships who masterminded an attack on their African trade partners, to control the price they had to pay for their cargo of enslaved Africans, were given a bonus by the city’s slave-trading merchants.

A person could condemn slavery without supporting abolition. Jobs and the prosperity of the city were tied up with the trade, a point the city’s powerful commercial lobby, the Society of Merchant Venturers, made again and again. Many Merchant Venturers were members of the Corporation of Bristol and had allies in the Church of England. When a bill for abolition failed in Parliament in 1791, local myth says that St Mary Redcliffe Church rang its bells in celebration.

The legacy of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans

Until the 1960s, the British Caribbean was dominated by the descendants of the white plantation owners and their overseers. Black people (as opposed to white people and those of mixed race) were largely excluded from political power, and the wealth of the islands was not used to develop the local economies.

On the eve of the Second World War, secondary schools on the islands were a rarity, and average real wages for the free descendants of enslaved Africans in the British West Indies had not risen in real terms since slavery ended over a century before. It was because job and educational opportunities were so limited that many black men and women from the West Indies were attracted to post-war Britain.

During the slavery period, rebellions, runaway enslaved people and attacks on plantation owners caused the white establishment real anxiety and concern. As a result, black people were characterised in the British press almost exclusively as unreasoning, violent and dangerous – rather than as people with their own hopes and aspirations. This racialist tradition survived after slavery ended and endures in some quarters into the present day.

In Bristol, in the early 1960s, the Bristol Omnibus Company openly employed only white drivers and conductors. A black-led bus boycott in 1963 challenged this (legal) discrimination, and helped to change the law. The Race Relations Act of 1968 made discrimination on grounds of race illegal in jobs and housing.

The legacy of slavery continues in a more tangible form in Bristol. Look around you. Many of the city’s public buildings, educational and economic institutions (such as the Theatre Royal, Colston’s School, the Old Bank and the tobacco and sugar industries), owe their origins to the wealth created by the trade in enslaved Africans and slave-produced commodities.

Image: King Street, Bristol by Parkman Brother

Our contributors

This overview was written by Madge Dresser, Hon. Prof of History at University of Bristol. Academic, writer and public historian.

With contributions from the Bristol Museums Black History Steering Group.