Bristol was major trading port for the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. The city of Bristol marked the bicentenary of the Abolition Act with more than 100 events across the city - exhibitions, plays, debates, talks, concerts - under the umbrella organisation Abolition 200. In January 2007, city leaders signed a declaration of regret for the city's role in the trade. Over the weekend of 24-25 March, bells rang out across the city and a Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation was held at Bristol Cathedral, organised by a partnership of the Cathedral and the Council of Black Churches. 2007 was themed as the Year of Black Achievement, aiming to bring better provision of black heritage resources to schools in Bristol, with a particular focus on black attainment. Over 30 creative community projects were funded by Abolition 200 - including art installations, educational projects and community theatre - to reflect the themes of education, commemoration and legacy.
Featured here are some of the events from Abolition 200.
In conjunction with York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company produced a new play written by Murray Watts, directed by Paul Burbridge, with original music by Nigerian musician Ben Okafor. African Snow: Secrets of the trade was originally commissioned by the Church Mission Society, an organisation founded in 1799 by representatives of the abolition movement, including William Wilberforce. The play sought to explore the ideas associated with antislavery and how they can be put to use in the modern day campaign for the end of slavery. Opening at York, the play went on to have a West End Transfer followed by a national tour. The main characters are John Newton, the converted slave-trader who later wrote 'Amazing Grace', and the former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. The play saw them confronting each other’s differing perspectives, creating a dialogue in which the audience could witness alternative views towards slavery. A 'snow' was a class of ship, commonly used for the transportation of slaves. 'The African' was the first slave ship on which John Newton sailed.
Am I Not a Man and a Brother? was a piece of documentary theatre devised by Reveal Theatre Company in partnership with North Staffordshire Racial Equality Council. It used stories and testimony from the African Caribbean community in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, interwoven with historical and contemporary slave stories. The play was produced by Robert Marsden and Julia Barton. The production was launched at the Stoke-on-Trent Racial Equality Council - where it was performed to the local people who had contributed their stories and was accompanied by a performance by a local Black choir - and then toured to venues in Bristol, London and Liverpool.
A replica of the nineteenth-century slave ship Amistad visited Liverpool, Bristol and London as part of the Atlantic Freedom Tour in 2007-2008. The ship set sail from its home port of New Haven, Connecticut, on a 16-month 14,000 mile transatlantic voyage to retrace the slave industry triangle. The ship stopped at more than a dozen Atlantic ports, including Freetown in Sierra Leone. Students from the UK had the opportunity to join the crew of the schooner – a replica of the original ship commandeered by 53 of its African captives in 1839 – on one of its legs, and transmitted text, images and videos back to the classroom. At each UK port, the ship was open for guided tours. There were also accompanying lectures.
A performance by the London Shakespeare Workout based on George MacDonald Fraser's novel 'Black Ajax'. The play, set in Regency England, tells the historical tale of two enslaved men through dialogue, song and verse. One slave is from America, another is from Africa. The former, Tom Molineaux, becomes the first Black Prize Fighter in Britain. Black Atlas featured an original score by Tim Williams. The play opened in Cambridge and toured to 40 different venues around the UK.
Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame is an acclaimed stage musical which highlights the contributions and achievements made by black men and women in the world of sports, science and entertainment. First launched as a community project in 1987 at the Shaw Theatre in Camden, the production was created by Flip Fraser in collaboration with JD Douglas and Khareem Jamal. The show was the first all-black cast production to play in the West End. It returned in 2007 with a new line-up of characters, songs and dances, and recreated significant moments in black history including Kings and Queens of Africa, Freedom Fighters, Great Entertainers as well as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela. The musical toured London, Croydon, Nottingham, Oxford and Bristol in 2007.
Breaking the Chains opened at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum to coincide with the bicentenary, and told the story of the British transatlantic slave trade and its abolition. Developed in partnership with Bristol City Council's Museums, Galleries and Archives' Service, the exhibition used artefacts, film and testimony to challenge perceptions about Britain's involvement in the slave trade and its legacy today. It featured a multimedia gallery of digital memories and feelings on the contemporary legacies of the slave trade; interactive sound stations to see and hear personal testimonies and the power of black music; and the ‘Me deya’ gallery, led by Firstborn Creatives, a collection of work from artists and communities who wished to share their creative pieces about the legacies of the slave trade. Associated events included African music for children, community dance events and public debates.
As part of the Abolition 200 programme, the Bristol 1807 project set out to explore the lives of ordinary Bristolians in 1807. An exhibition in the Central Library, and a series of touring exhibitions in Bristol's libraries and community centres explored society, culture, trade and travel in 19th century Bristol, a city and port with many ties to transatlantic slavery. The project collaborated with local schools to provide creative art workshops for children around themes of slavery and freedom. There were also 'Treasures in Store' hands-on sessions with rare library artefacts concerned with the period of abolition including books, newspapers and everyday objects. A book emerging from the project, 'Bristol in 1807: Impressions of the City at the Time of Abolition' by Anthony Beeson, was published in 2009.
The Bristol Black Archives Partnership (BBAP) was set up to collect, protect and make available the heritage of Bristol's local black history. The partnership involved communities, heritage organisations and academic organisations coming together to collect and make accessible the archives - films, photographs, documents and objects - that reflected the experience and contribution of black people in Bristol. BBAP aimed to provide learning resources for a better understanding of Bristol's multicultural history: the 'Me, We, Making History' calendars celebrated local black achievers; 'My Legacy Journal' was made available for African-Caribbean people to record their own family identity, history and stories. A Black Bristolians Teaching Pack was produced, alongside a travelling exhibition based on the project's research entitled 'The Black Presence in Bristol - 16th Century to the Present Day'.
Written by composer Paul Field, Cargo premiered in Hull City Hall in March 2007, sponsored by Hull City Council. Cargo featured contemporary songs, narration, dance and images that told the story of the struggles of slaves, the historical work of William Wilberforce and the abolition movement, through to the contemporary struggles against slavery today. Performers included the singer Coco Mbassi, saxophone player Mike Haughton and Springs Dance Company. The narrators and choir were local people, including members of City of Hull Youth Choir, Redemption Gospel Choir and Hot Gospel in Hull. Cargo was also performed in London, Plymouth, Bristol and Liverpool. Smaller events were put on by church and community groups around the UK, assisted by the script, score and backing track of the music being made available on CD-Rom.
A group of Bristol Film and Video Society members wrote Clarkson, a 40 minute drama based on the life of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. The character study is set in Bristol in 1787, around the time that Clarkson was visiting English ports gathering evidence about the brutalities of the slave trade.
COSTA stood for 'Commemoration of Slave Trade Abolition' and was a project of Sul'Art, a community art organisation in Bristol. Sul'Art delivered a programme of music, drama, art and dance to a number of schools and community groups to explore meanings of the bicentenary, working around themes such as migration, identity, celebration of difference, critiques of consumerism and intergenerational dialogue. Sul'Art also presented a number of performances of the professional jazz show ‘King Cotton’, dramatising the story of the cotton industry in music, song and film.
The Diverse Stories project began in 2007 with participants from Malcolm X Elders, an Afro Caribbean elders and community group in Bristol, taking part in a creative writing project to mark the bicentenary. This was jointly supported by Show of Strength Theatre Company, Our Stories Make Waves and English Heritage. Participants visited the ruined Temple Church in Bristol and explored its links with the slave trade and abolition movement. Their responses included a range of dramatic monologues covering themes such as slavery, racism, trade, childhood memories of Jamaica and migration from the Caribbean. These were read at a performance by a professional actor. In 2008 the project was given a permanent record by a selection of the stories being recorded on audio CD.
Down at the Bamboo Club was organised by Picture This, an artists' film and video commissioning agency in Bristol. The project was an exhibition of artists' video exploring Bristol's cultural histories and ideas of legacy. Contemporary artists worked with community groups to develop films and events that used the device of re-enactment to explore subjects such as community relations, identity, the legacy of slave trading in the city and histories of division and solidarity. One such film was 'Bamboo Memories' by Barby Asante. The Bamboo Club was a legendary Bristol nightclub in the 1960's and 1970's which holds great significance for older generations in the city as a place where first groups of African-Caribbeans socialised with white Bristolians.
The Engage 2007 Festival of Culture celebrated cultural freedoms in South Gloucestershire. Led by South Gloucestershire Council, and in partnership with local volunteer groups, schools and community groups, the festival took place on 17 November 2007. It featured 40 live performances of drama, dance and music from India, China, Africa, South America and Europe, a world food zone, family workshops, youth and environmental activities and 60 interactive and information stalls. The Impact exhibition was produced as part of Engage 2007, exploring the part that people living in South Gloucestershire played slavery and abolition.
The In Stitches project was led by the African Families Foundation (TAFF) and brought together British, African and African-Caribbean women's quilting groups meeting in London, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham. The In Stitches Quilt, designed by Janice Gunner, included 60 squares of embroidered images, texts and symbols, depicting historic figures, scenes and artefacts associated with the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition. The Quilt used several of the Adinkra symbols from Africa, originally printed on fabrics worn at funerals by the Akan peoples of Ghana. The accompanying work pack was designed to support learning about slavery based on the four themes of the Quilt: Capture, the Middle Passage, Life in the 'New World', and Proscription of Slavery. The Quilt was unveiled at City Hall in London, and then toured to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (Bristol), Central Library (Liverpool), Soho House (Birmingham), the International Quilt Festival (Birmingham) and Central Library (Manchester).
La Bouche du Roi was created by artist Romauld Hazoumé, who lives and work in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. The multi-media artwork is named after a place on the coast of Benin from where enslaved Africans were transported. It comprised 304 plastic petrol can 'masks', each representing a person, arranged in the shape of the woodcut of the Liverpool slave ship Brookes. The aroma of tobacco and spices are represented alongside the terrible smells of a slave ship. The artwork was accompanied by a film showing the motorcyclists who transport petrol illegally between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. The cans and motorcyclists are metaphors for modern forms of enslavement and resistance. First exhibited at the British Museum in London, La Bouche du Roi toured to the following venues during 2007-9: Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery, Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, and the Horniman Museum in London.
The project to produce the booklet Myths, Facts and Feelings: Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery began in 2007. The Bristol Race Forum aimed to tackle some of the sensitivities, misunderstandings and popular opinions about the subject, and particularly in the Bristol area. The book's development went through a number of stages until it was published in 2012. The booklet and accompanying website for schools and communities across Bristol were produced with a view to sharing lessons from Bristol's past, and as a driver for future debate, activism and challenging prejudices. The contents were developed out of workshops with young people from the African Caribbean community and visits to community groups across Bristol.
Our History, Our Heritage was a black-led Bristol group promoting historical awareness of the contributions of African, African-Caribbean and British peoples in past and present struggles, and in Bristol in particular. Their series of talks and educational initiatives sought to encourage 'creative education in Citizenship and British, Afrikan, Afrikan Caribbean History', taking inspiration from 'those who have gone before'.
Port City was a large-scale exhibition featuring over 40 international artists and addressing issues of migration, trade and contemporary slavery. Set in the arts centre and gallery Arnolfini, it was accompanied by a programme of art, music, film, literature and educational activities. Coinciding with the bicentenary year, several works explored Bristol's histories of trade, as well as a contemporary port. For Seeds of Change, Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves researched sites around the Floating Harbour where ballast would have been off-loaded. The ballast seeds discovered were germinated by local groups so as to make a garden of ‘living history’, reflecting the different routes travelled by Bristol merchants. Other highlights included a model of a 'global village' made from sugar by Meschac Gaba and kaleidoscopes showing contemporary scenes from the triangle of the transatlantic slave trade by Mary Evans.