Non Slave Tales

When I was researching for the 2007 celebrations of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, this notion came very much to the forefront. I tracked down reliable written sources, I cited them, I kept impeccable records of what I was using.

But I came up against people claiming to be the descendants of slaves who claimed things without any sources. When challenged, they claimed someone – unnamed – had told them. Or that they just ’knew’ . A classic example was an artist who took a photo of what looked like tombstones at the top of Blackboy Hill. He was told a slave market had been where some stones were, so he just assumed this was it. The stones he found were parish boundary markers, which were miles outside the original city limits. I explained to him that Bristol had not had a slave market, that the slaves had gone direct from Africa to the colonies where they were needed. There was no way they would be tracked miles into the middle of sheep fields to be sold. He claimed I was suggesting that Africans were not fit enough to climb a hill, when I was arguing that the whole notion was nonsense.

I found an early Ordnance survey map which showed the ruins of an old chapel near the top of the hill. Locals must have just assumed that the name had some link with slavery and invented their own story, but he was having none of it. He asked what was on the nearby High Street, I told him shops, so he then claimed that maybe the slaves were sold in the shops. AAARGH!!

I went to a performance of songs from slaves in the deep south; they were beautiful, sad, tragic and beautifully sung. But their leader told stories about the underground railroad and Britain’s involvement in the trade which were at odds with documents I had read from that time.

Where is the truth here? The oral tradition of slave descendants, or the white official version? Well, probably both, but for different reasons. Neither can be trusted as wholly reliable. Human memories are not totally reliable, and just because something is written down, doesn’t ensure it is true.Documents can tell selective facts, or they can be outright lies. But there is a truth in the fact that people believe something. Because if enough people believe something, then it can become a new kind of truth.

But a cry I kept hearing throughout the commemorations was, that slave descendants could not trace their ancestors. The implication seems to be that the white population can, which is often far from the truth. Most people leave no trace of their passing. Many of us never bother to go looking. But if you know something has been taken from you, it becomes more important than if it was sitting in your attic, ignored.

Which comes back to how history is presented. With issues about the slave trade, those involved in the infamous trade were perceived as slavering monsters. In Bristol, the wealthy merchant Edward Colston made money from the trade, was a member of the Royal Africa Company which had a monopoly on it, but he also made money from lots of other things.  He was probably sent abroad for his education, to Spain or Portugal, probably as young as 7 so may have been mistreated or just lonely.

But a really interesting story is that he was very High Church, and leant money to the very low church council. When he wanted the money back they refused, so was strangely reimbursed by his solicitor. He then closed his business in the city, but when he died his funeral procession was huge, and he left lots of money to the city, for schools and hospitals, so is commemorated with a statue, a street, and a major entertainment venue. His motto was that of the Good Damaritan, ie ‘Go thou and Do Likewise’. His generosity was held up as a landmark for others to follow, and they often did so. It is generally considered that he was fond of the city of his birth, but I would argue quite the opposite.  I think it was more an act of revenge against the city that mistreated him. He is widely commemorated, whislt those who annoyed him are all forgotten. Who won?

There have long been calls for the hall to be renamed, threats of boycotts by the likes of Massive Attack, but what would that achieve? We need to understand what happened in the past in order to understand it and learn from it. Erasing someone from the record leaves a hole in the story which will confuse later people. And it is also a practice that totalitarian regimes seem keen on, either from stupidity or being control freaks, neither of which we should sign up for.

For more information on this topic, please refer to my kindle books:
Bristol’s Slavery & Abolition: Overview, context & Walking Trail which includes a map and colour photographs
Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade: A Source Book which provides and extended overview of the topic, details of people involved, and an extended timeline.

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