Bristol’s slave ships
Bristol Slave Ships - the human cargo was packed in tight empty space cost money.
Many slaves died during the journey from Africa to the new world, known as the “middle passage”, so slavers packed as many slaves as possible into the holds of their ships to compensate for those that would die. There was no sanitation on board the ships, you just had to shit or piss over the person next to you.. .
The slaves were so tightly packed together that they could not turn, and they were given barely enough food, drink or air to keep them alive. Disease spread rapidly through the slaves and the dead often remained alongside the living for days. It has been estimated that 10% of slaves died on each crossing, and as many as thirty percent on a bad voyage.
On board, the ship slaves were kept in ankle fetters to prevent rebellion, escape or from committing suicide. Outnumbered by their cargo, the crew of the slave ships lived in fear of a revolt. Any rebellions were savagely repressed, but there was little chance of escaping from the slave ships. They had more chance of freedom if they tried to escape from the plantation.
This horrific trade saw between seven million and ten million (although no accurate records were kept) Africans shipped across the Atlantic to colonies in the Americas. It was commonplace for a slaveship to lose a quarter of her cargo before reaching port (doing the mathematics means around two million Africans died on English slave-ships), the corpses would have been thrown overboard.
Bristol along with Liverpool was a main centre with more than two thousand slaving ships being fitted out in Bristol during its peak. Much of Bristol's wealth was tied in to the trading of slaves which provided the money to purchase goods to bring back into Britain such as sugar, coffee and tobacco.
Between 1697 and 1807, 2,108 known ships left Bristol to make the trip to Africa and onwards across the Atlantic with slaves. Profits from the slave trade ranged from 50% to 100% during the early 18th century. Bristol was already a comparatively wealthy city prior to this trade; as one of the three points of the slave triangle (the others being Africa and the West Indies), the city prospered. This triangle was called the Triangular Trade.
Bristol slaving ships ranged from tiny ships of 27 tons (roughly the size of an articulated lorry) to giants of 420 tons (about 16 times larger). The wooden sailing ships used for the slave trade usually had two or three masts with many sails and complex rigging. They required skilful deck hands to look after them, especially in the changeable weather conditions that could be expected in the Atlantic Ocean. Slaving ships had large hulls, which would have been used for carrying the goods to be traded, as well as equipment and food for the journey. The hull was also expected to hold up to 600 enslaved Africans on the journey from Africa to the Caribbean islands.
Half of the twenty Bristol slavers that sailed in 1710 were lost.
The round trip, from Bristol to Africa and the Americas and back to Bristol, normally took about 12 months. Conditions on the ships were hard and dangerous, and sailors were often reluctant to sail on them. They were often forced on board the ship when drunk or through debt. Captains of slave ships had a reputation for cruelty, and both crew and African slaves suffered.
Once the sea was reached, the time taken in sailing to Africa was dependant on the weather and on the skills of the crew. The ship the Scipio in 1734 reached the coast of Gambia, West Africa, in 25 days. The Amelia in 1759 took 54 days to reach the nearby Cape Coast.
Some 2,108 slaving voyages set out from Bristol between 1698 and 1807. The number of voyages varied, from over 50 each year in the 1730s, to less than 8 a year in the 1800s. As the number of slaving voyages decreased due to competition from Liverpool and London, the other cities involved in the slave trade, more Bristol ships became involved instead in trading directly with the Caribbean and America. Eventually in the 1800s Bristol’s trade in slaves stopped altogether when the slave trade was made illegal. However, some British merchants continued to invest in the slave trade through Spanish, Portuguese and American traders. The slave trade was still legal in those countries, and British merchants supplied trade goods and banking capital to foreign slave traders.
The slave trade worked on the triangular model, making a profit on each stage of the voyage. Ships left Bristol with a cargo of cotton, brass, copper, gin or muskets, which were bartered for slaves with the West African traders. The ships then embarked on the Middle Passage to the West Indies or America where the surviving slaves were sold at a profit, often to plantation owners originally from Bristol.
The ships then returned home with a cargo of sugar or tobacco which was again sold for profit. During the 18th Century, 32 of the cities leading slave traders became members of the Merchant Venturers and 16 went on to become Master.
Naturally, the Africans fought the traders sent to capture them and many committed suicide when they were captured; thousands more were killed in mutinies or died in the dreadful conditions at sea. Perhaps most shocking of all, there is evidence of Bristol captains drowning their entire cargo of diseased slaves so that the loss could be claimed on the owners’ insurance as legal jettison’.
Slaving voyages from Bristol were organised by businessmen who invested in the transatlantic slave trade . In order to make a profit they would send ships to Africa to trade for enslaved Africans, and take those Africans to be sold in the Caribbean and North America. To make a profit on their investment, those involved would have to organise the slaving voyages carefully as many disasters could affect a ship, such as bad weather, sickness of crew and slaves, not to mention slave rebellion.
The Bristol slave ship the Jason. On her one recorded slaving voyage in 1748, she carried 70 crew to look after the 600 slaves. Only 340 slaves survived the voyage to Jamaica, in the Caribbean. This could have been due to a number of reasons. Lives could have been lost due to sickness, slaves committing suicide, or poor treatment by the crew.
Slaving voyages were considered to be very high risk, however the possible profits to be gained were also high and many were willing to take the chance.
The last leg of the triangular trade was the return back to Bristol, this is known as the ‘return passage’ . The slave ships would have left Bristol many months before for West Africa. Once there they traded for enslaved Africans, whom they then took across the Atlantic Ocean to the European-owned plantations in America and the Caribbean. Once they had sold their cargo of slaves, the ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean again on their journey back to Bristol. This time the ships’ holds were filled, not with human beings, but with barrels of sugar, rum or tobacco.
These had been produced by the slaves on the plantations and were brought back to Bristol to be processed in factories and then sold in shops. Pictured here is the front page of an atlas from 1775. The illustration shows several barrels on a Caribbean beach waiting to be collected and loaded onto a ship going to Europe. The barrels would contain things such as sugar and rum.
The ships sailed back from different places in the Caribbean and America, where they would have bought other goods aside from the usual sugar, rum and tobacco. Depending where they sailed from, they might also be carrying rice, indigo dye, timber, pimento (a type of pepper), ginger, cocoa, coffee or bales of cotton. Sometimes a ship picked up other cargoes whilst in Africa, as well as enslaved Africans, and brought it all the way back to Bristol via the Caribbean. These were things such as wood, gold, palm oil and ivory, which all got a good price back at home.
Slave ships were specially converted so they could carry the maximum number of bodies. Typically, a ship would have a hold about five foot high, so the owners built two six-foot wide platforms either side of the hold to create two decks. Slaves were driven into the hold and forced to lie on the bottom in rows until it was covered.Then another layer of people were forced Onto the platforms. On some of the larger ships a second platform was added, giving a headroom of about 20 inches for the three layers of people.
The tallest slaves were put amid-ships; the smaller ones and children were wedged into the stern.A male slave was allowed a space six foot by 16 inches; a woman was allowed five foot by 16 inches; a boy five foot by 14 inches and a girl four foot by 12 inches.
They lived, and died. in these conditions on the passage from Africa to the West Indies and America - they were seasick and had no alternative but to foul themselves.
The Africans were supposed to be brought on deck every morning to be fed and cleaned, but some captains left them in the holds for the entire journey (between six weeks and three months). Bristol merchants, sea captains and crews were responsible for the most appalling and degrading treatment of human beings.
This was a crime as great as the Holocaust.
In June 1787, the Rev Thomas Clarkson arrived in Bristol to begin a fact-finding tour of the slaving ports that was to lead to the abolition of the slave trade 20 years later. However, it was not the suffering of the Africans that began to change public opinion, but the poor treatment of the Bristol slave crews. Naturally, the Society of Merchant Venturers did everything possible to halt Clarkson’s investigations, but he persevered. He interviewed 20,000 sailors and collected equipment used on the slave ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg shackles, thumbscrews, instruments for forcing open slaves’ jaws, and branding irons.
Clarkaon set himself up in the Seven Stars pub (next to the Fleece and Firkin) whose owner was sympathetic to William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery movement Pub landlords played a key role in recruiting crews for the slaving ships, and the landlord of the Seven Stars explained to Clarkson the way the business worked and introduced him to the slaving underworld that inhabited Bristols dockside taverns. He pieced together a picture of the reality of the business and discovered that crews were recruited in three ways:
(1) Lying: men were lured from the drinking dens of Marsh Street with promises of high wages and an exotic life at sea.
(2) Doping: pub landlords were bribed to spike sailors’ drinks and they were abducted.
(3) Blackmail: the landlords encouraged men to borrow money for drink and then threatened them with jail unless they joined a slaving crew.
Once on board, the crew was forced to sign Ship’s articles legalising their poor pay; often they were paid in virtually worthless foreign currencies.
Clarkson managed to gain access to the Merchant Venturers’ records. From their own Muster Rolls, he found that the mortality rates of Bristol slave ship crews were very heavy in comparison to those of other cities involved in the triangular trade. His interviews revealed that the crews were treated appallingly by slaving captains.
Some men were murdered; sometimes a quarter of the crew died at sea from disease, ill treatment and torture - their suffering was nothing compared to the African people, but Clarkson’a revelations began to disturb the Bristol public.
Clarkson managed to take the murder of two seamen on board a slaver to trial, despite two slave traders sitting on the bench at the initial hearing. His witnesses all disappeared by the time the case was due to be heard, but the word was Out and the Bristol public was shocked by the treatment of their own sailors. Is seems they cared little for the suffering of the slaves, although there was an anti-slavery movement in the city led by Quakers and Methodists.
In fact, Bristol was the first city outside of London to set up a committee for the abolition of the slave trade; some 800 people volunteered to sign the first Bristol petition against the slave trade in 1788.
The Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce. the public face of the abolition campaign, came to Bristol in 1791 to encourage the local campaign. The poets Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Hannah More, Anne Yearsley and Samuel Coleridge all wrote against the trade. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church, wrote against slavery and preached against the trade in the New Rooms in Broadmead.
This was one of the first political campaigns in which women played an active part and in 1787 Hannah More was instrumental in organising a boycott of West Indian slave sugar in Bristol.
Parliament first debated a motion calling for the abolition of the slave trade in 1788.The Society of Merchant Venturers and other business interests in Bristol lobbied strongly against Wilberforce and the abolitionists. claiming it would be ~'ruinous in the extreme to the petitioners engaged in the manufacture, but the mischief would extend most widely throwing hundreds of common labouring people wholly out of employment'.
The slave business won the day and Parliament merely passed an Act aimed at improving conditions on slave ships by limiting the numbers carried. The Bristol Corporation ordered church bells across the city to be rung in celebration.
The Society of Merchant Venturers fought against abolition to the last, even though Bristol’s share of the trade was insignificant by the end of the 18th Century. - The merchants could make handsome profits by trading directly with the plantation owners, many of whom were from the city, rather than undertaking the far more risky triangular voyages.
The abolition movement suffered a setback in 1793 when Britain went to war with France. - The slave trade was seen as the nursery of seamen’ and abolition of the trade was postponed. - Eventually, in 1807.the slave trade in the British colonies was abolished and it became illegal to carry slaves on British ships.
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