Bristol Radical History Group

Our group formed in around 2005-6, I was reading The Many Headed Hydra – by Peter Linebaugh, and Marcus Rediker –which was a revolutionary history of the Atlantic, talking about the 18th centrury.

One moment in history that a lot of historians were not able to able to explain, a rebellion in New York in 1741. What was interesting it was a rebellion against the British Empire that contained 3 or 4 different groups of people. The actual rebellion was organised by a black slave who worked on the sea front, an Irish publican and the black slave’s girlfriend who was a Irish prostitute. Between the three of them they organised and became part of a conspiracy to overthrow British control over New York.

They united three groups of people West African slaves, Irish indentured labourers , who were also forced labourers, Spanish sailors who were in the port, who had either been captured or ended up trapped there after the war and with the British and mutinous British soldiers. The burned down the biggest port in the Americas and thirteen other targets. The conspiracy was actually crushed before it got going. Though the question the historian asked is – how is it these different groups of people ended up fighting together?

What you uncover is that in the early 18th century things weren’t the same. Once West African slavery got sorted out, they divided all these groups but when they started off in the early 18th century all they wanted was labour. They wanted labour working the plantations to clear land, cut wood and evenutally grow these crops. They just took anybody they could get hold of so in Britain they were shipping people like orphans prisoners of war, prisoners in general,. They would set up laws in Somerset where they would take vagrants off the streets and they would be transported to Virginia. Then in the 17th century they find the West African slave market.

Plantations in Virginia would have West Africans, Irish indentured labourers, British ‘criminals’. They made some mistakes, they put all these people together. The Irish in New York used to call the British , ‘white people’. That was how the relationship was. They were all the lowest and these forced labourers was treated pretty much the same. So there were all these rebellions so they started to suppress them. And one of the ways they suppressed them was to divide the settlers. They put West Africans in one place and they used to mix crews on the ships.

They improved their strategies of dealing with slaves. So when they went to West Africa rather than sticking one whole group of slaves on the one ship who might all come from the same place, and much more likely to revolt, because they spoke the same language, they would mix them up so they didn’t speak the same language. So there were all these tactics. But that’s not what I was told. I was told slavery was purely about West Africa. Nobody talks about indentured labour, nobody talks about forced labour, nobody talks about revolts.

So we put on history events in 2006.

In a general sense, one of the big problems we had with the way that slavery was being understood in 2007 was that it was purely talking about race, which is important, but we felt it lost sight of the fact that the actual trade was about making money. They wanted labour to process their crops and that’s what they went for. What’s interesting about West African slavery is that once they found that market, it massively impacts on that trade which was already going on, it becomes huge and extends into the central parts of Africa – it stimulates it effectively.

Though if you lose the sight of the fact that they were trying to make money then you lose sight of what is going on today. We had a debate with the Merchant Venturers. They were trying to say mercantilism and business is good, that’s the way they were trying to present the city – business, merchants, seafarers, mercantile trade, the harbour festival and all those things. The problem with that is that they were able to say, yeah racism is really bad but business is really good. But you can’t have it both ways because the trade itself wasn’t based on racism, it was based initially on business.

The bit that’s been cut out is that we live in a world today where we don’t know where they are making our chairs and tables. We don’t know what the population was like, we had no idea. That’s what it was like for the British population in the 18th century. They had no idea what was going on with the Atlantic trade, they had no idea about the plantations. The people who knew about it were the people who ran it. The merchants, the sea captains, the major bankers, NatWest, Barclays, Barings bank, they were all investing in the slave trade – all the major banks. If you turn it into purely into a race thing then you lose the context of what was driving it.  It wasn’t driven by people going down to Africa going ‘well we are going to exploit the people because we think they are sub-human’. The definition of West Africans becoming sub-human really comes into play when the trade is going.  Funny enough, when Abolition starts. When abolition starts in Britain they start having to justify why they are doing it and that’s when they start saying that black people are sub-human. Prior to that they were just treating it as a business. So race becomes a very important part of it.

Across the world they were trying to impose work disciplines in everybody, either by forced labour or coercion. So the workhouse system was part of that forced labour system – which is not equal.  People say, ‘How can you equate that to slavery?’  Well no it’s not, I’m just saying that they are all different forms of forced labour. And the most brutal form of forced labour is the slavery imposed on West African, I would argue, but there are all different forms of it. There’s a famous quote by a historian called Seymour Drescher, in response to a comment about the ‘peculiar business of slavery’ where he said the peculiar thing in the 18th century was being a free labourer. That was the peculiar thing. It wasn’t like slavery was peculiar, forced labour was normal. Whether you were working on ships, indentured labourers in the colonies, convicts or transportees, or West African slaves, there was a huge about of forced labour if you were from the working classes.

They didn’t want ‘idlers’. That was one of the ideas and prejudices we had against people in the colonies or anybody who’s not white, and it was applied to the Irish as well, is that they are idle, lazy and didn’t want to work. That was the ruling classes’ way of trying to deal with the fact that people did not want to work for them. Say if you were a native American in the colonies who’d been invaded. Those people had their bit of land and didn’t want to work for the British so the British imposed taxation and forced labour because they wouldn’t work for them. And said that the were idle because they didn’t want to work down the mines.  So the whole thrust of British ideology in the 18th century was that anyone who wasn’t working for them were idle and a waste of space.

Slave Revolts were very important but they don’t fit into the narrative that was created at the end of slavery. Even the abolition movement was completely distorted by British history. You get Wilberforce and that’s it. After a 100 years the main abolitionists were written out of the story. You get Clarkson and the landlord, Thompson of the Seven Stars pub (Bristol), Cugoano, Equiano. Equiano is really important because he’s authentic, or least his story is real and he becomes really popular amongst the British working class. When he talks, people are interested in hearing his story. He also was a republican. The other thing about the Abolition movement is that it’s full of republicans, people who want to bring democracy to Britain. They see that unless you get democracy in Britain, a republic or even a revolution. The French abolished it in 1794…like that, the whole thing, because there was a revolution, the slave trade and slavery in one shot. None of this mucking about slaves being able to support themselves or compensation.

The interesting thing to look at his how the slave revolts impacted on the slave trade in Bristol. The British establishment are never going to admit that slave revolts ended slavery because that’s a dangerous idea. It’s very dangerous idea. Trying to do deals, popularising the struggle with millions and millions of people signing petitions , protesting and sugar boycotts isn’t actually what finished it off. What actually finished it off in 1833 is a huge slave revolt in Jamaica by Sam Sharpe. It’s ironic that people know who William Wilberforce is but nobody knows who Sam Sharpe is. That rebellion was absolutely vital. Richard Hart is very clear about it. He says slavery would not have been abolished for a very long time. Slavery would not have been abolished for a very long time. It would have taken 50 or 100 years before the whole thing would have ended . That’s what they were lobbying parliament for, the lobby of merchants and the ruling classes.

In Bristol, opposition to the trade is where Clarkson comes in. There were people who were against it. The Quakers, while there were some involved in supplying the trade for example with the Brassworks, making brass bars and trinkets to be traded for Africans, they were historically against it. The other groups were the radicals in Bristol who were fighting for democracy. The key thing is that without the camera, without television, who are the people who knows what’s going on in the Atlantic? They are the one group of people who had no interest in actually protecting the trade . They were forced labourers themselves. They were pressed, they were crimped. Crimping is how they forced labour onto the ships because nobody wanted to work for the trade because it was dangerous. All shipping work was dangerous, all shipping work was brutal to the sailors. They were brutally treated themselves and the slave trade was particularly brutal and horrible. One because you had to go down to Africa and spend months of the coast, where people got Yellow Fever and died. Secondly, obviously there was the danger of the slave revolts on board. Thirdly the actual treatment of the sailors, because they were crimped and were forced – slavers was even worse than a lot of normal merchant ships. Because no-one wanted to work they always had a labour shortage for slavers so in Bristol they would have to force sailors onto the ships. So one of the ways you could do that was straight forward press-ganging but that wasn’t that common. What they did was, a lot of the pubs would be connected in with the slave captains and merchants. And what they would do was they would assist the sailors in getting into debt. They would tell them they could stay here and you can get this then they would run up a bill and then take them to debtors’ prison. Then they would go to them and say you can stay in debtors prison or you can come and work. So soon as they were out they would go on the ship. … It was sort of forced labour. They would promise that they would get paid at the end but after they were on the ship they would get food and that would be it. Maybe a tot of rum or whatever.  But often the sailors would be dumped off in Jamaica because they didn’t need them for the trip back. What were they going to do? They had no boat. They were often people without papers. They were often multi-national crews. Most ships were using all sorts of different kinds of sailors, wherever they could get sailors from they would take them. In the British navy, in the late 18th century about a quarter of the crews were West African. They would be free men or ‘freed slaves’ but they would still be forced labourers. They would become sailors because they had worked on ships, or had been taken on ships. They were hugely involved the West Africans in shipping in general. This is why you get a huge population of West Africans in London as well. There was something like ten thousand West Africans living in London in the 1770s.

Of all the people involved in the slave trade, bankers, merchants, ships captains, sailors, the only group other than the enslaved, who had no interest in protecting it was the sailors.

So Clarkson came to Bristol, looking to find out about the slave trade. He goes to the Quakers, they may be selling brass bars but they don’t really know about it. He finds his way to Thompson in the Seven Stars pub. He was an abolitionist. We don’t know much about Thompson. He was poor person and their lives are not documented. We know he doesn’t support the way the sailors are treated.

In his [Clarkson’s] diary  he says, they all know that he’s here. The captains, the merchants. Nobody would talk to Clarkson. They are warned off. He said, ‘they looked at me like I was a wolf in the street’. But Thompson works it out. He says this is what’s going on. These sailors are forced into the trade, they hate it. They don’t want to go. He finds out about a black sailor named John Dee.  Thompson takes him to all the dodgy pubs down Marsh Street where all the sailors go and get crimped. He does about 17 visits over about 3 or 4 months. For Clarkson, he’s like a Cambridge graduate, 6’2″ with red hair, he sticks out, it’s clearly not his manor. With Thompson, he clearly gets the confidence of the sailors and it’s because he shows an interest in their lives as well. He realises these people are treated really badly, the death rates among the sailors are almost as high as the percentages among the slaves. It’s sometimes higher. And they talk. They start coming to him with their grievances. He hears about John Dee, a black sailor who’s been tortured on this ship. And makes up his mind that this fight is about exploitation. This whole trade is exploitative. It exploits the slaves, it exploits the sailors who work in it. It exploits the people in the colonies who are involved in it as well. And all this information comes out. And that’s how the Seven Stars is important. It’s a meeting point for abolitionists through Thompson.

Abolition or Revolution?

Not Wilberforce. Clarkson traveled 30,000 miles on a horse Landlord Thompson. The sailors – we’ve got some names – a lot wanted to remain anonymous. They had to be careful. It’s one thing being a Cambridge graduate like Clarkson, who they did actually try to kill in Liverpool, so it wasn’t safe for him. Imagine what it was like for an ordinary sailor spilling the beans on the slave trade, if anyone found out that they were the one who grassed up about conditions on board the ship. They had a 1 in 5 chance of survival.

If you read CLR James you’ll realise why Haiti is such a big deal. Haiti was the most important colony in the world at the end of the 18th century. It produced more wealth than all of the Americas. It produced twice as much wealth than the whole of the British Caribbean put together. The French economy was propped up by it. They had something like 25% of all the French empire’s worth was coming out from this one island. It produced more than all the British colonies put together.

There was a huge population on the island. So what was happening as CLR James points out in his introduction to The Black Jacobins is that the British were running their slave empire of of West Africa. What they worked out in Parliament – you can see these from the debates in Hansard – is that they were on the wrong end of the trade.

The British slave traders were selling a lot of slaves to the French who were then taking them and making incredible wealth out of Haiti. So there was a moment where there was a lobby from the section of the ruling classes in parliament who thought – We’d like to have Haiti but we can’t get it otherwise they’d be a war; We’re selling slaves to them and they’re making a fortune; our islands are not anywhere near as productive as theirs are so why don’t we ban the slave trade! If we ban the slave trade we will cut off their resource in slaves which will affect our colonies but it will affect them worse. And then we can also use the abolition as a military tool so we can then take hold of any ships who are carrying slaves. But then before that can happen the Haitian Revolution kicks off. That happens because the French Revolution happens and republican ideas infuse into the island.

The island is split into those who are pro-revolution and those who are against it and the pro-revolutionaries side with Toussaint and the slave revolt which occurs. They basically defeat the French on the island. The French plantation owners are cheering when the British invade. Why do the British invade? To re-enslave the rebels slaves and the French plantation owners are cheering them on.

We know that it was the biggest amphibious invasion in British history up to that point. They committed like 100 thousand troops by sea and something like 40 – 50 thousand sailors. They fight for 5 or 6 years and they are still defeated. The losses are appalling as a result of the guerilla war that goes on there on the island. It’s a massive disaster in the Caribbean but it doesn’t appear on any major British military battles which is why no-one knows about it. It’s kind of suppressed out of British military history.

Bristol Merchants

One of the things that’s taboo here and a common misconception is that the money can’t be traced. We know the names of the families, the Pinneys , the Caves, the Ackermans, we also know where they invested the compensation. For example the Barton Hill Cotton Works. Amazing, when they got the compensation in the 1830s for slavery , they open Barton Hill Cotton Works with 2000 child labourers. It’s not shocking, these people were slave traders and plantation owners they don’t care about people. One of our researchers does a talk, which first of all looks first at slavery and then he goes into another section about Bristol industry in the 1830s and you suddenly see all the same names popping up, the same families. Some of them would have been involved in the Merchant Venturers. The Pinney family had a reunion a couple of years ago and they still own property. It wouldn’t be a major job to find out which property they invested in from their wealth, whether it came from African slave labour of English child labour.

The thing is – were they doing it because they were racist? – or were they doing it because they were mercantile entrepeneurs? – who if they could exploit labour they would. Whether it was children or slaves, they don’t care. That’s the bit that the Merchant Venturers definitely don’t want to talk about because that brings into question how the city is presented. And is it good to present the city as a being a great mercantile centre or is it good to present a city where ordinary working class people actually were part of a movement which said no we are not having this any more.

They keep wanting to say the story is over. Colston is not someone to be proud of in my opinion. He exploited people made money then gave some of it back to the city. They all done it, all around the country. Big business men made money exploited people then put some money back into the city to improve their public image. Whenever you have a go at Colston it causes the Evening Post readers to have a backlash. When we tried to popularise Clarkson for instance there was a significant about of vitriol. And the Merchant Venturers also do not want to popularise Clarkson, they want to popularise their mercantile image. This is why you have the Harbour Festival and all the controversy around that.

The merchants here got about a millions pounds worth of the twenty million pounds of compensation at the time. When the discussion remains purely in the realm of race, you don’t talk about class and it allows them to say ‘things are better now’. Bristol is the only city which has a surviving merchant’s guild from that time. They still have political power. When we ask people in Bristol if they should apologise for the slave trade, they always say NO. When you ask the same people if the Merchant Venturers should apologise, the answer is flipped.

Fitting Commemorations?

2007 was a disgrace that there was no physical memorial in Bristol. They only named Pero’s bridge a few weeks after they built it. Yeh name it after a slave – great,  what I’d like to see is three of four things. I’d like to see Thomas Clarkson and Clarkson Square, and Landlord Thomspson of the Seven Stars pub. I’d like to see a statue to the sailors who blew the whistle and a statue to Sam Sharpe. So our connection to Jamaican chains and the fact that it was West African slaves who overthrew slavery effectively. Twenty thousand armed slaves kind of concentrated the British goverment’s mind at the time. They had already seen Haiti and were worried they’d lose the whole lot. Maybe we should have something about the Bristol abolitionists as well, and the women’s groups in the city. Something that brings all that together as a positive part of Bristol’s history.