Dear Salama

I found your piece on the slavery trail a real revelation-and a bit of a shock—as one of the authors of the original slavery trail, the impression you were getting from the walk wasn’t one I intended to convey. The trail was originally designed to prove to White Bristolians that their city’s buildings were connected at many many levels to the slave trade. But that’s no good if the trail has morphed into a ‘people-free’ trail which gives the impression that there was no Black presence in Bristol in the days of slavery.

It really does show how these trails, once published, take on a life of their own-they get copied and changed and reinterpreted, edited for reasons of space and generally messed about. So for the record, I’d like to set a few things straight.

The research on the black presence in Bristol is available—I’ve included it in my book on Bristol and the slave trade.

So you might be interested to know that:

  • The earliest documented instance of an African in Bristol dates from the 1570’s  –an unnamed ‘Blackamore’ was employed as a security guard in a merchant’s  great house and garden on the site of what is now the Colston Hall.
  • Just behind Colston Hall on Pipe Lane lived John Quaco, a free man who had been enslaved but served aboard slave ships as a free man in the 1700’s. He married an English woman Penelope Webb at St. Michael’s Church. John lived long enough to collect a seaman’s pension.
  • On the site of what is now the Royal Marriott Hotel but which was St. Augustine’s Abbey, one William Bristoll, a servant to a slave trader and Bristol mayor was baptized in 1693 and Clare Smith in 1745
  • In Bristol Cathedral Faith Danby ‘an adult Negro girl’ was baptized in 1739
  • That in 1640 a Black woman named Frances, servant to a Baptist merchant, was a highly regarded member of Broadmead Baptist Church, near what is now the Tesco Express in Broadmead.
  • And it was at the Bristol Docks in 1774 that two young kinsmen of an important Ifik slave trader (Ephraim Robin John) of Old Calabar (now in Nigeria) were discovered as stowaways having previously been tricked into slavery and taken to Virginia.
  • In Cabot’s Circus-at Quaker’s Friars a 12 year old boy known only as ‘black Ned’ was buried at the Quakers’ burial ground near Quaker’s Friars after a long and lonely illness during which we know he pined for his mother in 1778
  • That in Park Street a young Jamaican heiress whose reportedly ‘sunkissed’ complexion suggested she was of mixed- race ancestry attended a ladies school there. Other children of wealthy planters from similar backgrounds were sometimes sent to be schooled elsewhere in the city.
  • At the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in Kings Street in the 1820’s the African American actor Ira Aldridge played Othello and that Black Actors were working at St. James’s Fair which was held at St. James’s Church.
  • That at Queen’s Square Robert Claxton’s unnamed black servant reportedly defended his master’s house from the Bristol rioters in 1831.

Having said that-the fact remains that we don’t have any evidence of Black people being sold in Corn Street-though one poor man ‘described as an ‘Eithiop’ was ‘exhibited’ as a
curiosity there in the late 1700’s and that a Black man was employed as a doorman at an exhibition hall on Corn Street in 1812.

The truth is that so far as we can tell, there simply weren’t large numbers of Black people in Bristol— It’s not a case of denying there were Black slaves in Bristol—there were a few,
but Bristol’s main involvement in the slave trade consisted of sending Bristol ships to Africa to collect enslaved people and send them directly to the Americas.

In any case, Bristol was tiny in the era of slavery-only 25,000 people there in 1700 and we’ve less than a 100 documented names which we know are names of Black people.

Please don’t assume that the trail was there to suppress the truth, the opposite is true, its purpose was to expose the full extent of the city’s involvement in trans-Atlantic slavery. As historians we have to go by the written evidence we can find. Evidence of the lives of poor people is hard to find—only the rich usually had the means and education to record their lives. The stories we find aren’t always heroic or politically correct or comforting, but they all need to be acknowledged.

Your contribution has been really important –it pulled me up straight, the trail has become disconnected from its original intent and you drove home to me how crucial it is to ensure that Black People are put centre stage in this trail.

So thank you for that—and for the opportunity to begin to set the record straight.

Madge Dresser