A Local LegacyBath, Bristol, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
A few miles up the River Avon, the fashionable and genteel Georgian city of Bath was also flooded with wealth acquired from slavery. Constructed mostly during the 18th century, concurrent with the height of the slave trade, much of Bath’s celebrated Palladian-inspired Georgian architecture was funded by prominent slave-owning families.
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protesters helped to trigger an imperative and long-overdue discussion in the UK. The country’s legacy of racism and slavery is often left obscured or undisclosed, vaguely hinted at but never fully acknowledged or understood. When one imagines a slave-owning society, the picture of cotton plantations in the southern United States comes far more readily to mind than Georgian 18th century Britain, whose plantations were hidden offshore, out of sight and out of mind, thousands of miles away in the Caribbean. Having lived, studied and worked in Bristol and Bath for the better part of a decade, I was aware of Bristol’s slave-trading past, but never felt entirely informed of the cities’ ties to this legacy.
Bristol served as a major port in the transatlantic slave trade, alongside Liverpool, London and Glasgow. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the trade’s abolition in 1807, thousands of ships departed Bristol harbour for the coast of West Africa, where brass objects and other goods made by British factories were exchanged for enslaved Africans. These people were then transported in ships across the ‘Middle Passage’ to the Americas and the Caribbean, where they were sold to plantation owners in exchange for their produce of sugar, tobacco or cotton. Between 1730 and 1746, around 40% of Britain’s slave voyages were made from Bristol. Edward Colston – whose statue had venerated the man’s philanthropy in the centre of the city since 1895 (174 years after his death), without mentioning how his riches had come about – had served as a board member and deputy governor of the Royal African Company, the institution responsible for sending the greatest number of slaves to the Americas throughout the entire 400-year history of the slave trade. During his time at the company, it is estimated Colston helped oversee the transportation of 84,000 enslaved people across the Atlantic, around 19,000 of whom died in the crowded, disease-ridden holds of the ships, on voyages that could take anything from six weeks to six months.
Much of Bristol’s Georgian architecture, particularly in the elegant hilltop neighbourhood of Clifton, was funded by income generated from the slave trade. The Goldney family of Goldney Hall – now a halls of residence owned by the University of Bristol – produced manillas and other brass goods in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, to trade for enslaved people at West African ports. The Tyndall family, whose Royal Fort House on Tyndall Avenue now hosts offices for Bristol University’s Faculty of Science, operated under the company name Tyndalls and Assheton in Jamaica, selling Africans from the ships to the plantation owners on the island. The Bristol Old Vic on King Street, which was built as the Theatre Royal in 1766, was funded by 50 merchants, of whom at least 18 were either slave traders, slave ship owners, suppliers or slave owners.
A few miles up the River Avon, the fashionable and genteel Georgian city of Bath was also flooded with wealth acquired from slavery. Constructed mostly during the 18th century, concurrent with the height of the slave trade, much of Bath’s celebrated Palladian-inspired Georgian architecture was funded by prominent slave-owning families. Great Pulteney Street and its namesake bridge, designed by Robert Adam and inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, was commissioned by Sir William Pulteney in order to connect the Pulteney family estate in Bathwick with the city centre, which had previously been separated by the River Avon. The Pulteney family wealth was derived from its plantations in North America and Grenada. Their wealth also funded the construction of the Sydney Hotel at the opposite end of the street, now the Holburne Museum, and the adjacent streets of Sydney Place, Pulteney Place, and Henrietta Street, named after Sir William’s daughter. The Sydney Hotel boasted a concert hall, tearooms and galleries to service the surrounding Sydney Pleasure Gardens – a fashionable place for visiting Caribbean plantation owners to mingle with members of high society while visiting the spa town.
Bath’s most prominent architectural highlights, including the Royal Crescent, the Circus, Queen Square and the Assembly Rooms – constructed by John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger – were partly funded by patrons who made their wealth as slave owners, including Richard Marchant; John Jeffreys; and James Bridges, the Duke of Chandos, who worked in the Royal African Company. These works of architecture are widely celebrated, and have merited Bath UNESCO recognition as a site of ‘outstanding universal value’ – the only city in the UK to be granted such status. The entry for Bath on the UNESCO website lists the spa town’s Roman remains, the key architects responsible for the Georgian development of the city, and a breakdown of the various neo-classical and Palladian styles of the architecture. What it omits, however, is any mention of who paid for these grandiose displays of wealth, and where such wealth came from.
Bath’s most noteworthy slavery connection of all is probably William Beckford, whose architectural folly, Beckford’s Tower, can be found on Lansdown Hill, overlooking the city. Beckford was the epitome of the absentee slave owner, having never visited the Caribbean, where his family owned around 3,000 slaves across 13 plantations, making the Beckfords the largest landowners in the West Indies. Upon his inheritance from his father, it was said that Beckford was the wealthiest commoner in all of Britain, second only to the royal family. He lived in Lansdown Crescent, and commissioned the Tower as a place to store his vast collection of Italian Quattrocento paintings, 18th century French furniture, and Asian objets d’art, including Mughal hardstone carvings, lacquerware, sculptures and ceramics. By the time of his death in 1844, he had squandered almost all of his fortune. Pieces of his former collection now populate London’s National Gallery, the V&A, and the Wallace Collection, as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, and LA’s Getty Museum.
Not every slave owner in Britain was of the stature of William Beckford. At the time of slavery’s abolition in the UK in 1834, all British slave owners were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’ by the British government. The 800,000 people who had been enslaved, on the other hand, received nothing, instead being forced into unpaid work for another four years before receiving their promised freedom. The total payout to the slave owners came to £20 million, equivalent to around 17 billion GBP today. It represented 40% of the national budget at the time, and required the government to take out such a gargantuan loan that it wasn’t fully paid off until 2015. The unintended legacy of this enormous public bailout, however, was the creation of a complete census of British slave ownership – the first time in 200 years that the full extent of British slavery had been exposed. A total of 46,000 slave owners across the British Empire applied for compensation, including members of the lower middle classes who owned just one slave. Out of that total, more than 3,000 claims were made by people living in the UK; 182 were resident in Bath, and 131 in Bristol.
These records, stored in the National Archives at Kew, have been compiled by University College London into an online database, titled ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’. A search in this database revealed to me that some of my own ancestors were slave owners. The Gibbons family, to whom I am related via my great-grandmother, owned several plantations in Barbados and Guiana. Some of these slave-owning ancestors appear to have lived in Barbados, such as Sir William Gibbons (a sixth great-grandfather to me), who, according to the records, served as speaker in the Barbados House of Assembly, and died on the island, in St Peter, in 1760. He owned three sugar plantations in Barbados, which he passed onto his son Sir John Gibbons. The records specify the exact number of enslaved persons on each plantation. Around 1780, for example, there was a total of 482 people working on the three plantations owned by John Gibbons. The average life expectancy for a person working as a slave in Barbados at the time was just 20-29 years.
Other ancestors I found in the database appear to have been absentee slave owners, many with registered addresses in Bath. Sir John Gibbons’s grandson, Reverend Scawan Kenrick Gibbons II (a fourth great-uncle to me), was born in Walcot, Bath, in 1792, and came to inherit the Morgan Lewis plantation in Barbados. Under the 1834 Slavery Abolition Act, he received a total of £3,577 and one shilling as compensation (roughly equating to 2.5 million GBP in today’s terms) for the freedom of 164 slaves on the plantation, on an island that he had perhaps never visited in his life.
Although distant ancestors, (Sir John Gibbons, for example, is one of 128 fifth-great grandfathers in my ancestry), these individuals resided in a city I have come to know well, with some even sharing my middle name, Kenrick. I continue to reflect on what this information means for me in terms of personal responsibility. At the very least, it has proven to me the importance of confronting these truths that we, as a society, are so frequently accustomed to leaving uninvestigated and unspoken.
- words: Ollie Horne
- photo: Rich Stapleton