Cabot

So what was all that fuss about Merchant’s Quarter about?

In 2006 Bristol’s ity central shopping area generally known as Broadmead was being redeveloped and expanded by the Bristol Alliance. They had chosen the name Merchant’s Quarter for the new centre as a recognition of the role that merchants played in the history of the city. The name was also a reflection of the fact that the development was to create a new commercial, or mercantile district in the city.

A debate raged when some people thought that the name glorified the Merchant Venturers, an organisation established in the 16th century to promote the interests of on behalf of Bristol traders including slave-traders. This organisation, which still exists today, lobbied the government before 1698 for the Africa trade to be opened up beyond the monopoly granted to the London based Royal Africa Company.

After months of local debate in 2006 and intervention from national politicians, the Bristol Alliance reluctantly decided to change the name. They offered three options , “All Saints”, “Great Western” and “Cabot”. The Bristol public, in a straw poll, chose the name Cabot after the 15th century explorer who sailed from Bristol in 1497 to ‘discover’ Newfoundland. However, Cabot’s, like Columbus’ voyage signalled the New World expansion, which over the years that followed, led to the destruction of Native Americans and fuelled the demand for slave labour. Yet no further resistance to the new name, arguably because the steam that fuelled the campaign against Merchant’s Quarter was now spent. Today the new city centre is called Cabot Circus.

Cabot was just an explorer, so what’s the problem?

Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) had solicited a licence from the King Henry VII to explore and take over any lands he discovered. According to C. M. MacInnes he was given “free and full facility to sail ‘to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern western, and northern sea’ … They were to explore the lands of the heathen in those regions, and, provided that these had not been previously explored by a Christian prince, they were to annex them. The Patentees were licensed to hoist the English flag in whatever towns they might discover, and they were to hold such towns or other places that they might be able to conquer for the King.”

Cabot was amongst the first Europeans to so-called New World or ‘the Americas’. The Portuguese and Spanish had gone to extract resources rather than farm. That is– they came to plunder the riches of the new land – gold, salt. Some had gone with African slaves in tow but these were used as domestics. When they turned to farming the Portuguese and Spanish settlers first used the Amerindian – Incas, Aztec – groups. But the Amerindian population of the Americas was decimated by the diseases brought by the Europeans and by the sheer brutality of the early settlers. For example, in 1519 Mexico had an estimated Amerindian population of 11 million but by the end of the century this had fallen to less than 1 million. Beyond plunder colonial powers began to consider ways in which they could exploit available land in the Americas but they lacked a pool of labour. The Portuguese and Spanish then turned to African slavery. Portugal established a monopoly in the trade in slaves in the 16th century. New British colonies were being established throughout the 17th century and by the 18th century with colonial developments well underway, Britain became Europe’s leading slave trading nation.

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