Bristol: The Hub of the Slave-Trade

Meyell, Francis. Lt. Francis Meyell . 1845. Photograph. National Maritime Museum , Greenwich .

Meyell, Francis. Lt. Francis Meyell . 1845. Photograph. National Maritime Museum , Greenwich .

In A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade, the reader is captivated by a little boy named Luco. The story of Luco, real or not, is just one of countless heart-wrenching stories from the slave trade. The graphic depiction of slave trade can cause a readers’ stomach to turn and create feelings of remorse and shame. Stories such as these can only leave the reader asking one question, “why”.  This text explains that the Bristol slave traders’ major purpose was to prosper individually  and to collectively grow the Bristol economy.
The very first stanza in A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade is directed to Bristol. Yearsley writes, “Bristol, thine heart hath throbb’d to glory. – Slaves, even Christian slaves, have shook their chains, and gaz’d with wonder and amazement on thee. Hence ye grov’ling souls, who think the term I give, of Christian slave, a paradox” (p.252)!  Yearsley also grew up being a dairymaid in Bristol. Growing up so this land is very familiar to her, and she is aware to an extent of the torture which the Bristol slave trade is causing to many families. Her poem is directed many times toward Bristol, the hub of the slave trade. The officials of Bristol during the 1700’s and 1800’s were more concerned with the way that their trade was going.

David Richardson gives insight into this fight for economic success by saying, “Bristol’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade ranks among the most disrespectable- table episodes in the city’s history. For some, indeed, the city’s involvement in slave trafficking in the eighteenth century is synonymous with its ‘golden age’, when the city became the ‘metropolis of the west’ and was a major importer, refiner and consumer of slave-grown American sugar and tobacco” (p.35). Bristol was rising fast in trans-Atlantic commerce of the 18th century. Although this rise did not last for too long, the people of Bristol were willing to risk and do anything to reach the top.

Bristol was making good money off of the slave trade, and so it is no wonder that they wanted to continue slavery despite the despicable conditions.  Richardson again explains this well saying, “The precise number of enslaved Africans taken by Bristol ships to America will never be known but modern estimates suggest that ships owned in Bristol carried some 587,000 slaves from Africa in 1698–1807, 486,000 (or 82.8 per cent) of whom landed alive in the Americas” (p.36). The total estimated profit which Bristol was making is estimated to be $481,340. This seems to not be a huge sum of money considering the amount of pain which the slaves were being put through, and the anguish which the families were going through as they were being ripped apart. Yet during this time period it was a large amount of money. London and Liverpool are the two other big slave trade cities which participated with Bristol. It seems as though these three places were in a competition throughout much of the 1700’s and 1800’s to see who could climb the economic ladder the fastest (Richardson).

Over the course of the slave trade, Bristol’s economic success fluctuated multiple times, mostly along with Liverpool and London. The causes of these vary but many agree that the most prevalent cause is because of the war. Parliament threatened to abolish the slave trade multiple times and when this threat was revealed to the people of Bristol, the merchants were injected with a new enthusiasm and the slave trade continued to grow (Richardson). They were not willing to go down without a fight, and they were determined to win this competition. This shows how the people of Bristol were hungry for money and economic growth and were not willing to let anyone block their goal. Yearsley also addresses this in her poem by saying, “Speak, ye few who fill Britannia’s senate, and are deem’d the fathers of your country! Boast your laws, defend the honour of a land so fall’n, that fame from ev’ry battlement is flown, and heathens start, e’en at a Christian’s name” (p.256).

Yearsley also calls out many times throughout her poems “Christians” who were involved in the slave trade. She wags her finger at Bristol for being a land which professed Christ but was really after selfish gain and the furtherance of the economy. Richardson also reiterates this information by saying,” A single group of Bristol shareholders invested in the slave trade and the rest were tradesman, manufacturers, and middle class people” (p.39). The people who were investing into this competition of economic gain were normal people.  The people who Yearsley was rebuking and calling hypocritical are the people who are found in a chapel on Sunday but are investing in slaves on Monday.

By knowing all of this background information on Bristol, it helps the reader understand what was really happening at the time. This information also sheds a light on another reason why the slave trade was so cruel.  Slaves were being beaten, shoved into boats, and ripped apart from their families, so that Bristol could be the strongest competitor and make the most money. This adds new perspective, and a deeper level of sympathy for Yearsley’s character Luco and the family from which he was ripped.

Damrosch, David, Susan J. Wolfson, and Peter J. Manning. “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade.” The Longman anthology of British literature. New York: Longman, 1999. 252-256. Print.

Meyell, Francis. Lt. Francis Meyell . 1845. Photograph. National Maritime Museum , Greenwich .

Richardson, David. “Slavery And Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’.” Slavery & Abolition 26.1 (2005): 35-54. Historical Abstracts. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.