Bristol Celebrating Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1808

When I lived in Bristol there were a lot of stories of how the bells of St Mary Redcliffe rang merrily when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was defeated. I’ve not been able to find that, but the press seems to have been silent when the Act was finally passed. But this is a small article from the Bristol Mirror of Saturday 2 April 1808:

The anniversary of the day on which the Royal Assent was given to the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was last night celebrated at the Freemason’s Tavern by a numerous and most respectable meeting: the Duke of Gloucester, in the Chair.

Not dancing in the streets, but it looks like some rather important locals were celebrating the abolition, which had largely died out in the city by then. This is from ‘Annals of Bristol Nineteenth Century’ by John Latimer:

The short-lived Whig Ministry of 1806 succeeded in passing through Parliament a bill for the suppression of the inhuman slave-trade between Africa and the West India colonies. The measure was opposed by Mr. Bathurst, one of he members for Bristol, where the trade had flourished during the previous century. Public opinion, however, had nearly brought about its extinction, a paper in the Monthly Magazine for May, 1799, observing that it was “just expiring” in bristol; and Mr.Protheroe, M.P., stated that when the Act passed not a single slaver hailed from the port. A reference to Clarkson’s work on the subject will prove that the conversion of the local merchants had been remarkably rapid. Slavery was even recognised in England. In Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal for Jan. 9 1768 was the following advertisement:- “To be sold, a healthy Negro Slave, named Prince, 17 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches high, and extremely well grown. Enquire of Joshua Springer, in St. Stephen’s Lane.” So late as Dec. 8, 1792, a local journal reported that a wealthy citizen had just sold a “black servant girl, who had been many years in his service,” into perpetual bondage, and that the price of the unhappy woman, who was shipped to Jamaica, was £80, colonial currency. when she “put her feet into the fatal boat at Lamplighters’ Hall, her tears ran down her face like a shower of rain.”

The reasons for the early extinction in Bristol were many. In the 1750s a sailor was on record saying how unpopular the trade was, but so much money was tied up in it, so viable alternatives needed to be found. The city shifted from transporting slaves – a high risk and expensive business, as well as the sailors having much higher mortality than on other routes – to servicing the plantations instead. The city had lots of small businesses to supply food, clothes, building materials etc which replaced the vile trade. There were also a lot of Non Conformists – about half the population of the city-  and they were famously opposed to the trade. Though they had no voting rights, they had a big impact in shifting the city away from slave trading.

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