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Bristol and slavery – a flashback to the bicentenary debate in 2007

June 11, 2020

Bristol has made the news around the world with the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and its dunking in the harbour.  Early this morning it was fished out of the waters and after a clean up will be on its way to MShed, the museum of Bristol’s own history.  I hope the statue goes there in its newly battered, holed and tarnished form as the events of last Sunday are now part of the story of how Bristol has dealt with this troublesome issue of its history.  It is a shame that the statue wasn’t moved there some time ago, which is something I first advocated in 2017 after years of frustrating debate about whether to put an interpretative plaque on the plinth and also whether the name should be changed of the nearby Colston Hall.

Bristol has at times debated, agonised and wrung its hands about what to do about the painful legacy of the city’s role in the slave trade and the wealth that the ownership of slave plantations brought to some Bristol families.  Thirteen years ago those discussions were at their peak when the city and country marked the bicentenary of the ending of the slave trade in 1807.  There were a large number of events in the “Abolition 200” programme and as the then MP for Bristol West I attended and spoke at many of them.  These included the huge rally at the Temple Meads engine shed (then next to the Empire and Commonwealth Museum) when it was a great honour to introduce Jesse Jackson to speak.

Parliament also had an exhibition and several Bristol schools and organisations came to visit.  There was a special debate in the House of Commons, in which I spoke.  Thirteen years ago is a different era in political communications – I wasn’t a blogger then, Facebook was in its infancy and Twitter didn’t exist.  So this speech has probably never been aired before, unless you’re an avid researcher of Hansard.  I’ve just read it for the first time in over a decade and I think all of the words are still valid, so here it is, for the record.  If you want to read the full debate, I’ve pasted the link at the end.  The opening speaker was John Prescott, the then Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Hull, the home of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Extract from the debate on 20th March 2007

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who was quite parochial in his remarks about various personalities from his constituency who played their part in historic events years ago. I will be similarly parochial about the role that the city of Bristol, which I represent in Parliament, played in events 200 years ago. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of my predecessors, Edmund Burke, who bravely spoke against slavery while being the Member for Bristol, which was one of the reasons why he had to flee the city in 1780 and not contest an election again in that particular seat.

The question of slavery is undoubtedly an emotive issue for present-day Bristolians, and its legacy has been much discussed in the city. Bristol was one of the country’s three principal slaving ports. Once the royal monopoly on slavery that restricted the slave trade to London was lifted in 1698, Bristol merchants entered into the slave trade with some enthusiasm, I have to acknowledge, although by the middle of the 18th century the city was overtaken by Liverpool as one of the principal slaving ports in the country. As well as the slave trade itself—in economic terms, it is a moot point as to how much prosperity the slave trade brought to the city, because many slaving voyages ended in a net loss—the city prospered from the trades associated with it, such as sugar, tobacco and brass.
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Many of the slave plantation owners in the West Indies had a direct link to Bristol and contributed much to the city’s wealth. Ironically, the compensation that they received once full emancipation took effect in 1838 contributed further to the city’s prosperity.

Contrary to what many people believe, very few slaves passed through the city of Bristol, although many became servants there. In north Bristol, in Henbury churchyard, there is the grave of Scipio Africanus, who is buried there. In the city centre, we commemorate one of the few known slaves apart from Scipio Africanus, who was known as Pero and was the slave of a West Indies plantation owner who lived in the Georgian House in the centre of my constituency.

St. Paul’s, in my constituency, has the one of the oldest communities of West Indian origin in the country. The legacy of slavery and the racism that is associated with it is a very hot topic in my constituency at the moment; indeed, it has been a big topic of discussion in the city for many decades. Some significant progress has been made. The hon. Member for Battersea said that the first black mayor was in his borough. Bristol can claim the first Afro-Caribbean lord mayor—Jim Williams, who was a Labour councillor and became lord mayor of Bristol in 1990. I was pleased to play my part in the election of the city’s first black Afro-Caribbean-origin lady councillor—Shirley Marshall—in my constituency in 2003.

The question of how to commemorate the events of 200 years ago has been the subject of much debate in the city. How do we balance a recognition of the shame of the city’s association with slavery, which is much referred to by people from outside the city, with a commemoration of the blow for civil rights and human dignity that this Parliament made in 1807? In fact, the city and people of Bristol played a role in both aspects.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a councillor for the city centre of Bristol, a couple of Labour councillors and I mounted a campaign to ensure that the city owned up to its rather shameful past as regards its association with the slave trade, because there was nothing to be seen in the city’s museums that reflected it. That led to an exhibition in the Georgian House, which has been open to the public for about a century and was owned by the Pinney family, who were big plantation owners in Nevis in the West Indies. That led to a larger exhibition in the Industrial museum, which will lead in turn to an exhibition later this year in the British Empire and Commonwealth museum next to Bristol Temple Meads station. The new city of Bristol museum, for which I have campaigned for about 15 years, will open in 2009, on the back of investment from the city council and the national lottery. It will have a permanent gallery showing the warts-and-all story of Bristol’s role in the slave trade.

Mr. Steen: Has the hon. Gentleman any idea of how much new slavery there is in Bristol? Has he any idea of how many women and children there are who have been trafficked? I am not in any way demeaning what he is saying, but slavery is not dead, and it is certainly pretty active in Bristol.

Stephen Williams: I am not sure whether slavery is pretty active in Bristol. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s speech and his earlier interventions on other Members,
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and I recognise his passionate commitment to raising the issue of human trafficking. He and other hon. Members have mentioned prostitution, and that is certainly an unfortunate feature of a major city such as the capital of the west of England. In my constituency, unfortunately, there are women of various nationalities who are there, either because of their drug dependency or no doubt because they have been trafficked into the area, to satisfy the quite awful needs of some men in the city of Bristol. That is a matter of shame for all of us, and a reminder of the lack of human dignity that some people have to face.

How Bristol should face up to the events of 200 years ago is a matter of great debate there. Some people wish to erase all memory of the city’s role in the slave trade by altering street names and the name of our concert hall, and by not allowing a shopping centre to make even a convoluted reference to merchants. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the role of Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, and that, too, is a topic for debate at the moment. I believe, however, that the way to deal with the past is not to erase it from our memory but to recognise it, debate it and interpret it wherever we find an association with the past that is linked to slavery, be it a statue, a hall or a shopping centre. Wherever we find a link, however tenuous, we should interpret it so that people can understand the issues of the past, deal with them and relate them to what is happening today.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned the apology that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had made on behalf of all of us in this regard. The question of an apology has also been a topic of debate in Bristol. I do not believe that the present generation of Bristolians or their elected representatives can apologise for the actions of people who were alive in the city 200 years ago. We cannot transfer guilt on to those people, particularly as only a minority of the citizens of that time participated in the slave trade or had a direct interest in the West Indies. Moreover, many ordinary Bristolians campaigned against the trade. It is better to recognise all facets of the trade and to understand our legacy. The city council has, none the less, debated the question of an apology and issued a statement of profound regret, which was in a tone similar to the one issued by the Prime Minister on behalf of the nation.

I want to talk briefly about the role of the city in the events of 200 years ago. As early as 1783, the Society of Friends in Bristol first mounted a campaign against the slave trade in which some Bristolians were engaged. On 27 June 1787, Thomas Clarkson first arrived in Bristol to gather the evidence that many hon. Members have referred to today. That evidence was subsequently used by Wilberforce in his parliamentary campaign. Clarkson’s 1808 two-volume account of his campaign was entitled “The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament”, which was rather a long title for a series of memoirs. In it, he noted that Bristolians were not at all proud of the trade that was taking place in the city. He said that

“every body seemed to execrate it, though no one thought of its abolition.”

20 Mar 2007 : Column 774

In Bristol, aided by Mr. Thompson, the landlord of the “Seven Stars” pub, which still exists in the city centre, Thomas Clarkson was escorted around the public houses where seamen were recruited to go on slaving voyages. That formed the basis of the evidence that he gathered to campaign against the slave trade in the country, and which he fed to Wilberforce for his campaign in Parliament. The evidence of maltreatment of the seamen aroused almost as much moral outrage at the time as that of the maltreatment of the captives. There were tales of floggings, burnings with hot pitch, branding with tongs and throwing people overboard.

In 1787, a local committee was established in Bristol for the abolition of the slave trade, bringing together Quakers, Anglicans and dissenters, as well as leading public figures in the city. Clarkson then left to gather further evidence in Liverpool. In Bristol, the debate raged for the next 20 years between the abolitionists and the West Indian interests that wished to perpetuate the slave trade. I have to say that my parliamentary predecessors did not play a particularly distinguished role in 1807 in the passing of the Act that we are commemorating tonight. The 1830 election, however, was fought directly on the issue of the continuance of slavery, and competing Whig candidates—one for emancipation and one against—stood. Sadly, the forces of emancipation were defeated—though certainly not disgraced—by 3,378 votes to 2,843. Of course, that was on a very limited pre-1832 franchise. The Act to emancipate slaves became one of the first passed by the reformed House after 1832.

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is arguably the first blow for human rights by any national Parliament on behalf of the peoples of other countries. In opening the debate, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the teaching of history in our schools, as did other Members. I have spoken on black history month a couple of times since being elected a Member of Parliament, and I share with the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who is not currently in her place, the hope that black history issues will be integral to the new history curriculum, and I am assured that that has been the case in Bristol schools for many years. I shall invite all the schools in my constituency to come and see the exhibition in Westminster Hall. Cabot school in St. Paul’s in my constituency has already had an exhibition and commemoration of present-day and historical black heroes.

There is much cynicism about politics, but 2007 provides an opportunity for us to remind people of the good that politics and Parliament can do, as well as to remind them of how much good can be achieved by those who campaign outside Parliament. When I studied history in school, I learned of the success of the Anti-Corn Law League compared with the failure of Chartism. I was not taught at the time of the success in 1807 of the campaign from outside Parliament to end the slave trade. On Sunday, in Bristol, as in Hull and Liverpool, there will be a service in the cathedral to commemorate the events of 200 years ago. Across the city, the bells will be rung, by contrast with when they were rung on the many occasions that Wilberforce’s attempts to abolish the slave trade were defeated. When those bells fall silent, all of us in Bristol will have an opportunity to have a period of quiet contemplation
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and reflection on the events that have taken place in the city’s past, and on how we face up to the legacy of slavery in today’s society.

 

You can read all the other speeches and interventions from MPs here, including my correction of a Labour backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, who refused to accept that Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill were not connected to slavery –

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070320/debtext/70320-0017.htm

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