Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Bristol Slavery Trail

Representations of Slavery in Bristol’s Streets: Walking the Bristol Slavery Trail

To do this walk with a mine of information, make sure you buy or borrow a copy of SLAVE TRADE TRAIL around central BRISTOL 1998 £2.95 ISBN 0 900199 42 3. Madge Dresser, Caletta Jordan, Doreen Taylor. Published by Bristol’s Museums, Galleries & Archives. I got mine at the M Shed.
The piece below is a vaguely psychogeographical piece of historical reimagining; the indispensable guidebook has the facts.
I also used the ideas of conversations with ghosts from the excellent Counter-Tourism, by Phil Smith (Crab Man), Triarchy Press

It was a pewter-light late July morning,
Golden cornfields and green quilt-work hedgerows,
The train to Temple Meads right on time:
Then a walk to the docks,
Cumulus cloudscape reflected in the waters
Betwixt the M Shed and Pero’s Bridge
(Pero was a slave of Mr. Pinney – wait for near the end about him);
The quay was a sightseer source of leisure and pleasure,
Throngs of holidaymakers enjoying the day -
It was hard to hear hidden voices on the wind,
Snatches of mariners’ chat across the waves:
‘Don’t you worry boy. I’ve only lost five mates on these slaving runs.
The tropics ain’t so unwholesome as said. You stay by me and I’ll see you right.
And by our third voyage together, why, you’ll be a man like me,
You’ll whip’ ‘em and brand’ ‘em like an old hand.
Trust me boy. This’ll make your fortune. And make a man of ye.’
People passed by with their cones and 99s:
‘Don’t be dippy. Lick a Whippy. Whipped ice cream’,
Missing the unobtrusive plaque on the wall:

I walked up Prince Street, now busy with cars,
But once busy with triangle trade warehouses.
A solitary early morning drinker supped outside the Shakespeare Tavern,
Behind him, three spectres:
‘ My grand-father was there, sir, when Hanging Judge Jefferys did turn upon the Lord Mayor of Bristol,and did force him into the prisoner’s dock, and did harangue him as a kidnapper who profited thereby from transportation
to the colonies of the West Indies.’
‘ And that is why, sir, when three blacks work cheaper than one white man,
‘Tis but common sense to buy them in; why, sir, if the leaves of tobacco, the fields of cotton and the canes of sugar, could speak, I wager that they would tell you that themselves.
Come, let us proceed to the African House and thence to Merchants Quay.’

The spectres accompanied me, studying with great curiosity the new housing,
Astonished that a resident should clip the branches of a tree in the street,
Rather than survey the masts of the slaving vessels in front of their eyes.
They suggested a visit to the Ostrich to discuss business,
And laughed at the inn board
(‘discover a warm and friendly atmosphere with great value’),
And the sign of a three master plowing the briny,
‘Well, sir, on my ships, the Africans certainly did discover a warm atmosphere!’
‘And, sir, it was most certainly good value!’
‘But, sir, I don’t know about friendly!’
They slapped their thighs and laughed till their eyes watered -
I left them to their ale and walked past Redcliffe Caves,
Another unobtrusive, but informative, plaque in a wall:
A narrative about Redcliffe Parade (’formerly known as Addercliff’),
Listing facts about a possible King Alfred connection
(‘thought to have sheltered in the caves’),
The Elizabethan fear of war against Spain,
‘1826 renamed King Wharf, being bought by the King family of Redcliffe Parade East, the last merchants to use it while plying the “Middle Passage”. Slaves from Africa to the West Indies, then rum and sugar to Bristol’; the narrative then continues in its matter of fact way about how the wharf was renamed by the Midland Railway and is now Phoenix Wharf:
former name of Sun Alliance Insurance Group which funded its renovation and that of the (Phoenix) car park above …’
The slave trade as part of a narrative of time …
One darn thing after another …
Like Frank Sinatra singing:
‘It was just one of those things’ …

I walked along Redcliffe Parade and Jubilee Terrace,
To turn into the unfortunately named Guinea Street -
My unwanted companions were knocking at a door,
Asking if Captain Sanders could join them at the Golden Guinea
(Next door to the pub, a presumably non-ironic sign:
I heard Sanders ask if they had seen an escaped slave running down to the Quaker burial ground, and had they heard that Wilberforce’s abolition bill had been defeated, and so this was no time for beer, but rather the ringing of bells at St Mary Redcliffe. He saw me gazing at him - he crossed the street, grabbed me by my collar and shouted:
‘Praise be to God!  Hark to the bells of our noble Bristol belfries!
Such peals of joyous relief!
Wilberforce’s accursed abolition bill has been rejected by Parliament!’

I left them to cross Redcliffe Bridge, to reach the Hole in the Wall,
Where my associates were plying mariners with drink,
Befuddling them with beer and promises and so onto their slave ships.
A jogger passed by. I glanced at the inn sign. Three piratical figures,
All Bluebeard and Treasure Island romance, with not a slave in sight.

I walked on to Queen’s Square.
Picnicking, drilling, banging, hammering, pushchairs, bikes,
A snatch of conversation like a Pears Soap advertisement:
‘Wire brush and bleach is what we need’,
And over there surveying it all:
‘Well sir, here we are again. I returned from the West Indies a month ago. I am pleased to report that my plantations thrive, as do most of my slaves. I have been taking the waters since returning: Cheltenham, Epsom, Bath and Hot Wells, here in Bristol town.  Do you know them, sir? They are exceedingly popular. And I have to say, sir, I have met with a goodly number of my fellow plantation owners and their wives and daughters at the spas. These heiresses, sir, taking the waters, make my own mouth water.’

I strolled past the classically straight lined buildings,
So many with triangular trade connections:
29, 33-35
(The plaque to WOODES ROGERS 1679-1732, doesn’t mention his slaving involvement; instead: ‘Great Seaman, Circumnavigator, Colonial Governor’),
Then the site of the first American Consulate in Britain
(The tobacco connection in the slave owning South),
Then, Custom House;
In the middle stands the commanding statue of King William the Third
(No mention of his avid investments in the Royal African Company),
While on the side of the park, a Bristol Parks information board
Understandably lauds
‘The Regeneration of Queen Square
Bristol’s finest historic place’,
But there is no mention of slavery on this textually rich board -
It’s almost like witnessing a spectacle of invisibility:
‘The truth that dare not speak its name’;
But there is a plaque about Comic Relief:
‘If we all come together we can do amazing things’

I got lost in King Street, trying to find Marsh Street –
I asked a road sweeper if he knew the way,
He was on his mobile phone and said he didn’t know,
But a minute or so later, he came bounding after me,
With full directions showing on an app
(His face was strangely familiar),
And so I passed The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer,
A jolly Jack Tar dancing a hornpipe by a cannon on deck
(No iconography of the press gang here),
But Marsh Street was once drunken street theatre,
An endless run of addled sailors,
Waking up on slave ships,
Seduced by the promise of ale, rum, women, tobacco, and a share of the profits,
And like old seadogs, ceaselessly returning to their past …

Back towards King Street, I passed a plaque to the Merchant Venturers
(No mention of slavery),
Then the Merchants’ Almhouse and so back to King Street,
A street whose cobbled pavements never ran with blood,
For that was spilled elsewhere,
But a street whose cankered coin built foundations from
‘A voyage of six weeks, slaves chained below deck,
In a space 5 feet six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth,
Why sirs, the space is less than if in a coffin.‘

An open topped tour bus passed the Theatre Royal (1766),
The guide pointed to the theatre – did she mention
The Merchant Venturers’ money, I wondered,
Or King George the Third’s opposition to abolition?
I saw the spectres on the top deck,,
Laughing at the tag line on a van parked in the street:
“Happiness Delivered’;
I walked on to the waterfront to try to glimpse the Severn Stars,
A pub associated with Thomas Clarkson and the abolition campaign,
Before making my way to the end of Welsh Back,
Crossing Baldwin Street: ‘BEER FOR PIRATES’, and ‘The Mother’s Ruin’,
Then up past St Nicholas Church and up the steps to All Saints Church,
Where Edward Colson’s tomb lists his many benefactions …

A left then took me into hipster boho Corn Street,
Artisanal market produce on trestle tables,
A man in a Treasure Island tricorn hat drinking beer,
And on the wall of the Nat-West: “THE OLD BANK”;
Number 56 is ‘CafĂ© Revival’: ‘Bristol’s Oldest Coffee House …
Serving coffee since 1748’, but no mention of its slaving roots and past,
Nor any mention anywhere of the ‘savage Aethiopian’:
A display for those who curiosity led them to pay
(Shades of the 19th century freak show and the Elephant Man);
There is interesting iconography at the Corn Exchange and Commercial Rooms:
Britannia trading with an exotic world and counting her pennies;
Broad Street has abolitionist connections,
But if you turn right into an alleyway, just after 44, you enter Tailor’s Court:
At the end is ‘Court House’, once the home of William Miller,
The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa’s founder member -
He obviously did pretty well out of it.

Then retrace your steps, turn right, go down Colston Avenue,
Cross to Lewin’s Mead, and spot the Hotel du Vin –
This was once Lewin’s Mead Sugar House,
Now go left past St. Bartholomew’s Arch, to find ‘Christmas Steps’,
Formerly ‘The Three Sugar Loaves’ – there were once refineries close by;
Walk on through the covered passage to discover the statue of Edward Colson,
A tribute from when ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’,
Scenes of maritime philanthropy garland the column,
Rather than any depiction of slaving ships or sugar plantations …

We then cross St. Augustine’s Parade to catch a glimpse of Colston Hall
(The site of Bristol’s first sugar house);
I got lost here, around Colston Street, trying to find St. Stephen’s Church,
But I spotted two road-sweepers and, as I approached, the older one said:
‘I thought as much’, and pointed, disbelievingly, at a church tower
(They both gave me a wink – there was something familiar about their faces too);
The church has abolitionist credentials,
But I continued down St. Augustine’s Parade,
Past ‘The Drawbridge’, a pub with a facsimile ship’s figurehead,
Denoting sugar-rich, slave-revolt, Demerara (British Guiana);
Next, a right into Denmark Street, and so into Orchard Street:
At least four houses have a slavery connection here –

Then turn round to pass up Unity Street; cross Park Street and College Green,
Enter the cathedral to wander around the walls:
See how many memorials mentioning Barbados you can find,
Both set in the floor and then rather more ornate and grand;
There is also a memorial to the abolitionist Mary Anne Galton
(Schimmel-penninck, after marriage),
But we have to go back up Park Street, up the hill, to look at number 43.

‘LET’S FILL THIS TOWN WITH ARTISTS’ is emblazoned there at the moment,
But it was once the site of a school run by Hannah More and her sisters –
A key abolitionist and member of the women’s sugar boycott group,
Her words would not look out of place in the window of 43:
‘The countless host
I mourn, by rapine dragg’d from Afric’s coast’,
But such rapine was organized just a few yards on from here,
From office and home, just by the corner of Great George Street,
While number seven in this street is ‘The Georgian House’,
The home of Mr. Pinney and enslavement of Pero;
The house is grand, cultured and elegant,
As you would expect from someone with such extensive plantations;
Books, ornate furnishings, art,
And at the top (do the elderly, disabled and short of breath get that far?),
A small – but significant – display:
‘This is the view that John Pinney would have had from his window. In front of the Cathedral is a tree-covered College Green. In the distance you cans see the masts of ships in the harbour.’
(What would Pero have made of this view, I wonder?)
There are fragments of Pinney’s writing:
‘Since my arrival I have purchased 9 negroe slaves at St. Kitts and can assure you I was shocked at the first appearance of human flesh for sale. But surely God ordained them for ye use and benefit of us, otherwise his Divine will would have been made manifest by some particular sign or token.’
And: ‘it is as impossible for a man to make sugar without the assistance of negroes as to make bricks without straw.’

A return to Park Street would allow a glimpse of the Wills Memorial Building (Bristol University), and the City Museum and Art Gallery –
Both the result of tobacco philanthropy and profits;
But now it is time to return to the M Shed and reflect –
When there, ignore the lament of the seaman we heard when we started off ,
For he is reciting a stanza from Southey:
‘I sail’d on board a Guinea-man
And to the slave-coast went;
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!’

Instead, let us think about what we have seen and experienced.

If we go into the M Shed then we will find a multi-media exhibition
On the history of Bristol’s involvement in the slave and triangular trade
That will educate and inform.

But not everyone can get to, and not everyone likes museums,
And if museum charges were to be introduced in the future …
What will people know?

Surely the streets of our towns, cities and villages should ideally be living museums, with past and present conjoined and explained. And in Bristol, unless you have the wonderfully informative SLAVE TRADE TRAIL around central BRISTOL, it seems to me, as a visitor, as though there is no explanation and narrative of Bristol’s slaving past.
Quite the opposite in fact.

Sometimes on my walk, there was a jarring juxtaposition about so much of what I saw: a jarring juxtaposition between the representation of history and historical actuality, and a series of unconscious ironies contained within the interplay of past and present.

And I only knew that because I had bought the guidebook.
Without the guidebook?

I think I would have thought that Bristol’s s eighteenth century history was a mix of an upper class Age of Enlightenment and a bawdy lower class world of Treasure Island adventure and piratical taverns.
But slavery?

“Non-fiction uses facts to help us see the lies. 

September 13th 2015
Every walk a re-interpretation, every walk a revolution:
Today I walked the Bristol Slavery Trail with new companions,
And new insights – thank you Jethro, Scarlet, Trevor, Christine and Trish,
For taking us through the Bristol crowds at the half-marathon,
And showing me:
Where the ghosts of docks and jetties used to be.

The site of the Bathurst basin with a name so redolent of slavery;
And where the River Frome flowed beneath our feet as we stood on the road.

Why Sugar Loaf Mountain near Abergavenny has that name.

The social media analogy with the 1791 church bells of Bristol
(Ringing in delight at Parliament’s rejection of the abolition bill),
A ‘tweet of tintinnabulation’, we thought and imagined,
When to our surprise, raised eyebrows, and delight,
The bells of St Mary Redcliffe rang out right beside us.

The commemorative inscription in Queen’s Square,
Linking Heritage, restoration, and the National Lottery –
But, needless to say, with no mention of slavery.

The parallel between aesthetics, culture and elegance in King Street
(Funded by tainted Georgian golden guineas),
And BP’s association with art and Tate Modern;

The monument at Welsh Back to all Bristol mariners;

Rupert Street – Prince Rupert sailed to Barbados,
After his defeat at Bristol in the Civil War,
And then went slaving on the Gambian coast:
He was a determined proponent of the Royal African Company,
And preposterously laid claim to the entire Atlantic coast of that continent:
‘All the singular Ports, Harbours, Creeks, Islands lakes and places’;

The symbolic rope attached to Edward Colson’s statue,
An allegory of ‘colonialism and migration’ for modern times,
And the decimation of the shoals of north Atlantic cod;

The padlocks on Pero Bridge – symbols of pledges of love,
On a bridge named in symbolic memory of the countless slaves
Shipped in Bristol slavers, with padlock, manacles and chains …

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