Bristol's wealth has long been based on trade. Merchants were powerful people, and were involved in the running of the city from about 1200. Members of the medieval 'Guild Merchant' were usually members of the Corporation as well, and so politically powerful as well as economically.
This Guild Merchant may have developed into the Society of Merchants Venturers, but the link between them is not clear. What we do know is that in 1552, a group of Bristol merchants petitioned the king, complaining that untrained traders were ruining business. In response, the king established a new society, 'the Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol'. Only trained merchants, who had served an apprenticeship, could join and only members could trade abroad.
By the 1600s most of the people involved in the politics of the city, the Common Councillors, Mayors and Aldermen, were also members of the Society of Merchant Venturers, as it is usually known. The Society regulated the city's trade and defended the interests of Bristol's merchants, helping to create an elite group of merchants who ran the port.
Bristolians will always associate the Society with the slave trade, as in the late 1600s the Society campaigned to be allowed to join the 'Africa trade' and various members were slave traders throughout the 1700s.
Today, the Society still supports business in the Bristol area, but is also involved in education, social care and charitable work.