Bristol and the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans

The transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans had an enormous effect on Bristol. Between 1698 and 1807, a known 2,108 ships left Bristol for Africa to exchange goods for enslaved Africans and take them to the Caribbean.

From Bristol to West Africa

In order to make profit, merchants would send ships of goods to Africa to trade for enslaved Africans, and take those African men and women to be sold in the Caribbean and North America. Slaving voyages were considered to be very high risk, however the possible profits to be gained were also high and many were willing to take the chance. Isaac Hobhouse was a typical Bristol merchant who saw the profits to be made from the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans.

His firm of Isaac Hobhouse & Co organised 44 slaving voyages and Hobhouse also invested in slaving voyages run by other merchants in the city. In 1725, understanding the risks in the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans, Hobhouse instructed William Barry, master of the ship Dispatch:

“We hope [the cargo] will purchase you 240 Choice slave, besides a Quantity of ivory, the latter of which you are always to embrace … seeing in that commodity there’s no Mortality to be feared.”

The involvement of Bristol in the Africa trade boosted industry in and around the city. Gunpowder, glass, pottery, woollen cloth, iron and brass went to Africa and all were produced locally. Brass manillas, brass moulded into a bracelet shape, became a form of money in West Africa.

There were other goods that African buyers wanted but that Bristol manufacturers didn’t produce such as cotton and guns. Traders in Bristol had to buy these products from elsewhere such as the East India Company in London, or from traders in Manchester. Guns were mostly bought from the makers in Birmingham.

From West Africa to the Caribbean

Goods from Africa had made their way to Europe since the 3rd century. Gold was the main product, traded from West Africa through North Africa by Muslim traders. European merchants began trading directly with West Africa in around the late 1500s. Traders from Bristol were amongst the Europeans who made the long voyage to the west coast of Africa with their goods. These were sold or exchanged for gold, spices and ivory from the local traders.

Slavery as an institution existed in Africa before the European traders came. The Europeans, however, created a new transatlantic market for the enslaved and a new form of ‘chattel’ slavery. The partnership between European and African was a delicate one. Yet despite the trade relying on trust between traders, there are many accounts of African merchants being themselves enslaved and cheated or mistreated, or of the Africans playing off different traders to force up prices.

Some African leaders resisted the new trade, but those who acquired guns from their European partners became more powerful. Duke Ephraim of Old Calabar traded with the Bristol merchant James Rogers. He benefited from the wealth in trade goods he received in exchange for enslaved Africans. The African merchant often had the business advantage, being on home ground and in control of the supply of the desired enslaved people, but on at least one occasion Duke Ephraim was cheated by his partner, and complained bitterly,

“I let you know this news for the ship Jupiter I have been a very good friend of that ship…he carry off for nothing and suppose sold my people I will make Bristol ship pay for this… I done very well with Capt Leroach and he took my people off.”

Duke Ephraim, Old Calabar (now part of Nigeria) to James Rodgers, Bristol, 16 October 1769

The Middle Passage

The second leg of the triangular trade was the ‘middle passage’ for the slave ship’s crew, the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean islands or the Americas. It is estimated that around 2,018 Bristol slave ships carried over 500,000 Africans into slavery. The European total was over 11,000,000.

Few of those Africans were able to describe their physical and emotional experience as they were forcibly removed from their homeland and families. For every enslaved African landed alive in the Americas, historians estimate that at least one died in Africa, and that 10% or 20% died on board the ships. The figures show the scale of the trafficking, the loss to Africa, and the workings of a trade that meant the death of so many people whether ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ packed into the hold of a ship. This image of the slave ship the Brookes has become an icon of the largest forced migration of people ever known.

The Brookes, ref 17562, Bristol Archives

‘Eve’ was a young woman sold to the captain of the Ruby. We do not know her real name – it was traditional to name the first woman bought, Eve. We rarely hear the voice of the enslaved themselves – we only hear her story second-hand. It is clear that Eve was enslaved by deceit, and that her options were limited: compliance, take her own life or revolt. We do not know if she died, or survived to be sold in Barbados or Grenada,

‘A Goat had been found in her Father’s Garden, which, she said, had been purposely put there: That one of the Traders … charged her Father with having stolen it, and said moreover, that nothing less would satisfy him for the Offence than One of his Daughters as a Slave.’

James Arnold, surgeon on the Ruby, in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, 1789

From the Caribbean to Bristol

The last leg of a slaving voyage was the return back to Bristol or the ‘return passage’. The slave ships would have left Bristol many months before for West Africa. Once the enslaved men and women had been sold in the Caribbean and the Americas, the ship’s captain used the money to buy goods produced by the enslaved workers on the plantations. Sailing back across the Atlantic to Bristol, the ships’ holds were filled, not with human beings, but with barrels of sugar, rum or tobacco. These were brought back to Bristol to be processed in factories and then sold in shops.

Ships sailed back from different places in the Caribbean and America, where they would have bought other goods (depending on where they traded) such as rice, indigo dye, timber, pimento (a type of pepper), ginger, cocoa, coffee or bales of cotton. Sometimes a ship picked up other cargoes whilst in Africa, as well as enslaved Africans, and brought it all the way back to Bristol via the Caribbean. These were items such as wood, gold, palm oil and ivory, which all got a good price back at home.

When the ship arrived in Bristol, various local and national taxes were payable on the cargoes. Careful accounts were kept of the various items on each ship. Some of these accounts, kept in Port Books and Wharfage Books, still exist today and provide a useful record of the goods which entered Bristol. The accounts book of the slave ship the Africa also lists some of the goods brought into Bristol in 1774. The Africa’s owners paid £2.1s.4d (£2.6p) in duty (tax) and fees on four elephant tusks from Africa.