Debunking Myths on Bristol Slavery – updated

I have just published a book which fits well with this theme. The Midas of Manumission: Samuel Gist and his Virginian Slaves is a fascinating glimpse of the Transatlantic world. Gist is little known in the UK, but in the states, he left a huge legacy to free and care for his slaves. The book describes what happened to the money and tries to understand how an orphan at Bristol’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital rose to such wealth and how he distributed it at his death. It is available in ebook, from bookshops in paperback or hard cover, or as kindle ebook or paperback.

MM ibook cover copy

This post has been attracting reasonable levels of attention over the years since I wrote it. The downside is that most of the comments have been hostile and at times offensive. A few simply do not understand the purpose of the post. It is is to clarify certain aspects of Bristol’s history and the unfounded claims I have heard over the years. It does not deal with wider issues of slave ownership, compensation etc. Hence they do not appear here.

Since writing the post, Edward Colston’s statue in the central roundabout of Bristol has acquired a plaque.

Colston statue shrink

colston plaque

I am not an expert on the Royal Africa Company. I have never delved into their records at the National Archives and it seems whoever is responsible for this plaque has either. As such, I cannot claim to know how many slaves were taken, nor how many died, though even one would  have been too many.

The first line is accurate, that Bristol dominated the trade between 1730 -45. But records from this period cannot be counted with complete accuracy. It’s far too long ago. More importantly, the numbers themselves are extremely dubious. The numbers are far too neat to be true, and claiming that exactly half of them died is also not credible.

The purpose of this plaque seems to be to demonise a former slave trader, but the use of such unbelievable numbers is unhelpful to say the least.

Now here’s the original post:

It never ceased to amaze me how many stupid stories I came across that people swore were all true, yet could never cite sources or even give a logical reason for. These are some of them:

Whiteladies Road/Blackboy Hill

 This combination of apparently slavery related names is coincidence, not loaded with hidden significance.

The origins of Blackboy Hill’s name are unknown. The region about a mile up a hill beyond the old city limits, a stopping point for farmers en route to Bristol markets, so easy targets for highwaymen on their way home.

 One possibility is that, as Blackboy Inn would have been used to try such criminals, who were often executed and their remains put on display in a gibbet to deter others, they may have had tarred corpses hung there, hence black boys.

More likely, according to the Wills  tobacco archives, is that a black boy was often used on pub signs where tobacco was sold in the 17th century when tobacco was very expensive. Tobacco was sold in many outlets, and an isolated pub would have sold all manner of items.

 Whiteladies Road was a muddy track with sewage running down it until the mid 19th century when the area was developed for housing, so did not actually link with the above until well after the slave trade ended. The White ladies had nothing to do with slavery – ladies were by definition white, so this would have been a tautology. They were Carmelite nuns who dressed in white. Their nunnery was on St Michael’s Hill, opposite the now redundant parish church. The surrounding land was leased to fund their house and Whiteladies Gate, the start of a turnpike, was where Clifton Down shopping centre now stands.

 Slave Market

 This was said to be at the top of Blackboy Hill. The ‘evidence’ for this is a local rumour that a pile of stones was once there. A Jamaican born artist even took a photo of some stones he found and claimed they were the remains of the market, but when challenged could not recall where they were. The stones in question are the tombstone- like parish boundary markers and can be seen near the café in the middle of the Downs.

 If Bristol ever had a slave market, it would have been held on the quay, to dispose of the slaves as soon as possible after their long journey. It would have made no sense to march them miles out of town to a site where the potential buyers would have been sheep.

An old ordnance survey map shows the ruins of a chapel at the top of the hill. This was probably an old pilgrim’s chapel/resting place, so probably the source of this muddled myth. After the reformation, information on such sites was largely forgotten.

 Slaves in Redcliffe Caves

 Many people believe that slaves were brought direct from Africa to Bristol and held in Redcliffe caves before being sold to the many wealthy locals requiring exotic servants. This is utter nonsense and there is no evidence for it at all.

The origins of this myth probably originate from when the railway tunnel was built under Redcliffe Hill, and the network of underground cellars were exposed. A resident on Redcliffe Pde – Mr King of the shippng firm – suggested the tunnels had been used for holding slaves. It seems that in time this guess has, in the absence of evidence, become accepted as fact. 

 Bristol was a city of small business people; the few wealthy magnates lived on the surrounding hills in houses such as the Royal Fort, Goldney House and Clifton Hill House. There is no evidence any of them had slave servants.

 In the 18th century, about half the population of Bristol was either Quaker or the various Non Conformists such as Baptists who were from the mid 18th century turning against slavery if not actively campaigning against it, so again, unlikely clients to buy slaves. They would have been more likely to have taken up collections to buy and then free them as it was held by many that any slave setting foot on English soil was automatically free.

 Slaves were shipped to Australia

 A local claimed that he was told in school that the ramp leading to the water’s edge opposite the old gaol on Cumberland Road was where slaves were loaded onto ships to Australia.

 This one is stupid on so many levels, I cannot begin to comment.

 Clifton was built by slave money

 Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade peaked in the 1730s. By the 1750s Clifton was still a rural hamlet with a few large houses – residents complained they could not find enough neighbours to have a card evening.

 The big terraces such as Cornwallis and Royal York were built decades later and crippled by the collapse of the economy of 1792 from the Napoleonic wars. The area was described as looking as if a plague had gone through it. These houses were not completed till well into the 19th century, i.e. after the trade had been abolished.

 Slave Cells beneath Big Houses

 This is one of the most pervasive local myths and claimed of many houses across the city, especially in Clifton. Claims are made there is still a house on Royal York Crescent where shackles are attached to the wall of a kitchen.

 The first problem with this is that, as above, these houses were built after the abolition of the slave trade, in a city where sightings of black people are rare, and generally either sailors or servants brought back from the colonies by their owners.

 Residents of Clifton tended to be affluent, and included doctors and surgeons, so one possibility for the shackles, given the primitive state of mental health, was to constrain violent patients, as with Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre.

 But a more feasible suggestion was offered by a member of the Bristol Savages whose wigwam is in the grounds of the Red Lodge Museum. He claimed that the former monks’ cells under the museum still hold shackles which were used following the famous Bristol Riots of 1831. The riots caused the destruction of all the city’s places of detention, and it is unclear where the criminals were placed when they were re-arrested. It makes sense that the great and the good of the city – many of whom would have been involved in governing the city- would have been imposed upon to house some of these miscreants. By taking in a few each, the burden was shared, and as most lived in houses with secure stone cellars, they could provide secure accomodation. The dates for this are more  feasible.

 Slave Tunnels

 These are claimed to have been beneath Clifton, to allow slaves to be smuggled in and out of the great houses. Once again, there is no evidence to back these up and no real reason why they would be built, at great expense and risk. What did exist was a doctor up on the hill dug a well down to try to access the water from the Hotwell. As this was owned by the Merchant Venturers, this seems to have been illicit, so would have  been secretive, hence its later existence misunderstood.

For further information on this topic, please refer to my books:
‘Britain’s Abolition of hte slave Trade: A Source Book’
‘Bristol’s Slavery & Abolition: Overview, Context & Walking Trail’ both on kindle.
Other books can be found on Amazon by searching ‘Barb Drummond
or visit my homepage

7 thoughts on “Debunking Myths on Bristol Slavery – updated

  1. Come on Bristolians, — The savages is just the name they have always used, they do not dance around wit feathers and axes. The Red Lodge is their perfectly repectable meeting place. Nice, not a remote tent somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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