The paradox of Bristol

I love Bristol. My family comes from Bristol. My father was born in Downend, and his father was the director of a timber company based in the city. My mother was born in Redland and went to school in Clifton. My uncle’s first bookshop was on Christmas Steps. I was christened in the old church on Frenchay Common. The first theatre I went to was Bristol Old Vic. The city was also where I saw my first opera, first went to a Quaker meeting, and first saw black people.

I was one of many who cheered silently as I watched television film of Edward Colston being tipped unceremoniously into the harbour where so many slave ships once moored. It was not because I approve of vandalism. It was, like the bursting of a boil, a necessary act, since more peaceful, legal methods of resolving a painful issue seemed unattainable.

I remember as a very young child travelling by bus into the city centre with my grandmother, passing a long line of people. Many of them were black. My grandmother told me very sharply not to look. She was an awful snob and was probably trying to save herself from awkward questions – perhaps she thought she was protecting me. She did not answer my questions about the black men in the queue.

My parents were more forthcoming – the men were queueing at the Labour Exchange. The wartime devastation of the city left a legacy of poverty and unemployment. In our tiny New Forest village we didn’t see any of this – nobody we knew was wealthy, but we didn’t see people queueing for jobs because there was a lot of work locally, at Fawley refinery on Southampton Water, in Southampton docks, at factories around Lymington, and in forestry and farming.

They also told me also about Bristol’s history of slavery and its role in the “triple trade” – the triangular process of ships carrying slaves, cash crops, such as coffee, cotton, rum, sugar and tobacco, and manufactured goods, between West Africa, the Caribbean or American colonies and the European colonial powers.

I learned more about slavery when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not a book that you hear about these days. It is very sentimental, as are so many novels of the time, and nowadays is criticised for its stereotypical black characters – the “mammy”, the cute “picanninies” and the old black “Uncle Tom” servant who is faithful to his master or mistress. But when it was published in 1852, the story by the Connecticut teacher Harriet Beecher Stowe shocked readers with its picture of the reality and cruelty of slavery. Stowe was an active abolitionist, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the 19th century in the US, is credited with helping to drive the abolitionist cause which culminated in the American Civil War less than ten years later.

Bristol has been in the news and on our screens a lot in the past few weeks – most dramatically with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, but also with the latest of David Olusoga’s series of A House Through Time, following three centuries of an 18th century house at 10 Guinea Street, in the heart of the old city.

Thanks to the extraordinary work of the programme’s researchers, the history of this house tells much about life in Bristol, from piracy and slavery to illegal abortions, the temperance movement, the tobacco industry and the tragic impact of two world wars.

Major ports like Plymouth, Liverpool and Bristol suffered intense bombing. Just before she joined the Land Army, my mother experienced the blitz in all its ferocity – on one night in June 1940 the heart was bombed and burned out of the old city, destroying buildings that had stood for centuries, but somehow, miraculously, sparing the great St Mary Redcliffe Church.

For centuries, starting with the medieval wine trade with Bordeaux, Bristol had been an important trading centre, but it was slavery that made the fortunes of so many merchants. Edward Colston, who was born in the city in 1636, was one of the most prominent of the men who grew wealthy on the transport and sale of men, women and children from West Africa to the Caribbean and the American colonies. He was a board member and became deputy governor of the Royal African Company, overseeing the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans.

The first time I saw a drawing of the layout of a slave ship, I remember feeling physically sick. Slavery wasn’t invented by 17th century merchants, but just as the Nazis industrialised genocide, so the transatlantic slave trade turned the mass transport of human beings into a commodities market. Like any commodity, a slave had an insurance price – so if ballast needed to be thrown overboard, over they went, if they were sick or died, over they went. It is estimated that 19,000 men, women and children, died on the Royal African Company’s slave ships.

The sad thing for Bristol, a beautiful, colourful, vibrant city bursting with creativity, is that it is deeply divided with social, economic, health and employment inequalities, which the city council has failed to resolve. The council has also failed to resolve the issue of the Colston monument that stood in Colston Street until Sunday 7th June 2020. The statue, erected in 1895, recognises his gifts to the city, including schools, almshouses and improvements to churches and the cathedral, but makes no mention of the source of his wealth.

The failure to confront Bristol’s past role in slavery has led to repeated unsuccessful requests by members of the city’s large black community and others for the statue to be removed or for a plaque to be erected to put Colston in context. If there was a museum that told the history of slavery, and if the various groups and academics had been able to agree a wording for the Colston monument, the history would be better understood and the messy scenes of the statue being pulled from its plinth and rolled to the harbour might have been avoided.

Bristol’s artistic scene is one of its great unifying features. Perhaps the most powerful healing will come from the imagination and energy of Tom Morris at Bristol Old Vic, working with local writers, poets, musicians, historians, academics, actors and ordinary citizens across the myriad ethnic groups that make up Bristol’s half-million population. That would create a better memorial than any statue.

Fanny Charles