Bristol and the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans

Anti-slavery feeling developed as early as the 1650s but it was in the late 18th century, when the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans was at its height, that enough people in Britain felt strongly enough to develop a campaign to end it.


The imagery used by the Abolition movement, such as on this Abolition medallion by Josiah Wedgwood, showed enslaved Africans as passive figures, asking for help from their White brothers. This was not the case. Enslaved Africans were not victims of slavery who accepted their situation. Instead they proved their strength and determination in fighting for their freedom. They resisted, or rebelled, against their enslavement in many different ways. It was both immediate and continuous; it could be individual or collective, spontaneous or planned, passive or active.

Each expression of resistance by enslaved individuals or groups counted as acts of rebellion against the system of slavery. They helped to make slavery an uneconomic system of production, and to turn public opinion against the trafficking of enslaved men and women.

Uprising, or rebellion, was the most dramatic and bloody way that slaves could resist their enslavement. Less obvious methods of resistance also occurred on the plantations. For example, enslaved people could steal from their owner, robbing him of his property and profit. They could damage machinery, so that it was put out of action and needed either lengthy repairs or costly replacement. They could also avoid work, by working as slowly as they dared, or by pretending to be sick. All these acts of resistance carried the threat of punishment if they were found out.

Another way of resisting slavery was to run away, and although some were hunted down with dogs, and severely punished, others managed to remain free.

Local Caribbean newspapers were used by plantation owners to advertise for the runaway workers. Advertisements for runaways were also placed in British Newspapers. A St Kitts plantation owner put one in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal for 23rd January 1762, offering a reward. This owner assumed that his runaway had managed to get to Britain. Ten guineas (about £500 today) was a large reward.

Enslaved Africans also fought against slavery by keeping their African cultures and traditions alive in words, names, music and beliefs. Plantation owners often tried to control this. Drumming was banned on the Caribbean island of St Kitts (except at Christmas time). Such activity was seen as a threat by the owners. They knew that if the enslaved Africans developed a common sense of identity through African culture and traditions, they would be more likely to join together and rebel against them. Drumming was an important part of many African musical and religious traditions. So, even playing the drums, or continuing to practice their religious beliefs were methods by which the enslaved men and women could resist and challenge slavery.

Abolitionists in Britain

From the late 18th century, there was growing concern in Europe and America over the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. Violent slave rebellions were one reason for the change in attitude but a growing humanitarian movement in Europe also contributed. This movement campaigned for better human rights for those such as enslaved people, the poor and women (who also had few rights).

The campaign to end the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans, called Abolition, took many years. A Committee was formed in 1787 with the aim of getting the law changed to ban the enslavement of Africans, their transportation from Africa, and their sale in the Caribbean plantations. Thomas Clarkson, from Wisbeach in Cambridgeshire, was the driving force behind this campaign. He collected evidence by going to the ports of Liverpool and Bristol and talking to sailors about the conditions on board the slaving ships. William Wilberforce was the public face of the campaign. He was MP for Yorkshire in the north east of England, and used his position to speak out in Parliament, to push legislation and to campaign for Abolition. Wilberforce had a model made of a Liverpool slave ship the Brookes. He used it at meetings to demonstrate how enslaved Africans were packed into the ships during the ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Caribbean. Pictured here is an image of the slave ship the Brookes.

The Brookes, ref 17562, Bristol Archives

In 1788 Bristol was the first city outside of London to set up a committee for the abolition of transatlantic slavery. This was one of the first political campaigns in which women were allowed to be involved. They played an active role – especially in the boycott of sugar. Hannah More became one of the leading figures in the Abolition movement, and one of the few women involved in running the national campaign. She used her writing talents to support the movement, inspired by her new-found Evangelical Christian faith and friends such as the William Wilberforce.

Related objects

Against Abolition

The Abolition movement was challenged by a pro-slavery campaign. By the 1780s and 1790s, the number of slaving voyages out of Bristol was past its peak, but still an important part of the trade of the city. Of equal or more importance was the Caribbean trade, whereby the local manufacturers supplied the needs of the islands and the islands supplied sugar to the growing refining industry of Bristol.

The Bristol West India Association was founded in 1789 to counter the local Abolition committee formed the previous year. The West India Committee, organised by the Society of Merchant Venturers, organised petitions in support of slavery. The members were all men with a direct financial interest. They argued that the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans was of vital importance to the trade and wealth of Britain, not just Bristol, and worked with committees of merchants in other cities to campaign against Abolition.

James Tobin, a plantation owner and business partner of Bristol sugar trader John Pinney, was an active campaigner. He worked with both the Bristol and London branches of the West India Committee, and was a national spokesman for the pro-slavery campaign. As the owner of a plantation and enslaved Africans, he felt that he had a better understanding of the issues than the Abolitionists, few of whom had been to the Caribbean. In 1790 Tobin gave evidence to a parliamentary committee. He compared the position of enslaved Africans in the West Indies, with that of the labouring poor in Britain:

“From the observations that I have made, I have no doubt that the situation of the West India slaves is preferable to that of the labouring poor in Europe.”

James Tobin, 1790

The end of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans

In 1807 a Bill was passed in Parliament making it illegal to purchase, transport and sell enslaved people from Africa, but slavery still existed. It was still legal to buy, sell and keep enslaved people already in the British colonies. Enslaved men and women continued to resist their enslavement in large numbers. This encouraged campaigners in Britain to continue their anti-slavery committees until, finally, the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833. Slavery was now illegal in all British colonies but enslaved people were not freed straight away as Parliament felt they need to training in how to be free. Everyone over the age of six years had to complete an apprenticeship of seven years (later reduced to four) to earn their freedom.

Plantation owners and anyone who held enslaved Africans were compensated or paid money for the loss of their ‘property’. This has been estimated at around £20 million (£2.3 billion today). The freed men, women and children were not compensated for their enslavement at all.