The history of the international slave trade is a highly sensitive and sometimes divisive issue in Bristol. Debate is current and heated. Many feel it is essential to learn about this aspect of Britain’s history, while others would prefer to forget and move on.

The slave trade was part of the network of trade which existed between Britain, West Africa and the Caribbean. This trade also serviced Virginia and other slave-holding British colonies in North America. Although Spain and Portugal had originally dominated the trade, by the eighteenth century Britain had become the most important slave-trading nation in the world.

Between 1501 and 1866, over 12 million Africans are estimated to have been exported to the New World, around 2 million of whom probably died en route. Although slavery has existed in various forms for centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was unique in its almost exclusive enslavement of Africans.

Virginian and West Indian plantations run by British landowners needed cheap, reliable labour to produce sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton and other profitable commodities.

In the West Indies the forced labour of local people led to their wholesale destruction from disease and overwork. When Britain began to gain control of the Caribbean from the Spanish in the seventeenth century (Barbados was captured in 1625, Jamaica in 1655), attempts were made to obtain labour from Ireland and England. English servants could gain free passage to the New World by agreeing to be bound to an employer for a set number of years.

When not enough servants opted for this scheme, more sinister methods were used. Kidnapping of children and young people became common, and political prisoners and religious dissidents were transported to Caribbean plantations in lieu of execution. Bristol became particularly notorious for the summary transportation of its criminals to hard labour in sugar and tobacco plantations owned by the city’s elite.