6Music and Bristol History

Last weekend the extraordinarily wonderful 6music festival took place in my former home town of Bristol. I didn’t go but I was intrigued by how the various DJs responded to the city.

Radcliffe and Maconi seemed pretty well informed about the place and were, like most of their colleagues, keen to visit the boat-venue The Thekla, originally owned by Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Dooh Dah Band, and were keen to test run the bacon butties down on the Harbourside. Gideon Coe grew up in the city, but still managed to get himself and others lost on the way to one of the venues, which was a great way to impress them.

Yesterday Cerys gave a rundown on the history of the city, claiming that slavery lasted into the 19th century which it didn’t, and that a pirate named Beard lived in a house in Redcliffe which is still there, all of which is nonsense. I think she may be referring to Blackbeard, but there is no evidence of Bristol links. I think the building she may refer to was formerly the home of a slave trader, Edmond Saunders on Guinea St.

Guy Garvey fared better. He mentioned Edward Colston, after which the Colston Hall, main venue for the festival, is named. He called him controversial, which is fair enough. He traded in slaves, but on his death gave large legacies to charities in Bristol and London. His statue was funded by the public; it is surrounded by his symbol the dolphins, but they look more like cod, and have his motto, that of the Good Samaritan, ‘Go Thou and Do Likewise’, so inspired many others to give to charity.

People like Massive Attack want the venue renamed because of the man’s links with the slave trade, so here we are in the same territory as the Oxford debate on Rhodes. But Garvey has spoken to a lot of locals on the subject, and was told there were cages for slaves in the basement of the hall. He got someone to show him down there, and sure enough found cages, but for a tv show on cage fighting.

When I lived in Bristol I got so fed up with the obsession with slave related sites. Every underground passage was said to be for smuggling them, every cellar for storing them. But when I questioned people how they knew, they just ‘knew’. No dates, no names. If I asked for documents, they would say there were none, because they had been destroyed by the slave owners. Some of the buildings with such associations did not even exist at the time, but this didn’t seem to matter to these true believers.

Next to Colston Hall is the Red Lodge Museum; both sites had been part of a religious house closed at the Reformation. Slave cells were said to be under the museum, and someone I knew investigated it. He did find cells there, and there were manacles in them, but they had been cells for monks, and when the riots of 1831 happened, the prisoners had to be kept somewhere safe, so were taken in by people with a stone cellar who could be trusted. This explains the many stories I heard of manacles in basements that were too recent to have housed slaves.

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