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.
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.
The official publication from the British Government in response to the bicentenary included a message from Prime Minister Tony Blair. It set out the history of transatlantic slavery and resistance to it, and featured a calendar of upcoming events for 2007 relating to slavery and abolition. The publication also detailed contemporary efforts to end modern slavery. Later in 2007, 'The way forward: bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807-2007' reflected on some of the commemorative activity that had taken place in Bristol, Hull, Liverpool, London and Greater Manchester. With a foreword by the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the theme of the publication was 'Reflecting on the past, looking to the future' and it linked efforts for the abolition of historical and contemporary slavery. The publication also looked to how to tackle inequality and poverty in the UK, Africa and the Caribbean.
The sculpture Blue Earth 1807-2007 by African artist Taslim Martin was permanently installed in the newly updated African Worlds Gallery at the Horniman Museum in 2007, to mark the bicentenary. The large iron globe, inscribed with the 18th century image of the slave ship Brookes, traces the routes along which enslaved Africans were transported to the New World, alongside the movement of the products of enslaved labour. The major British ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol are depicted, as well as ports in West Africa and some of the destination ports in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Visitors are encouraged to spin the globe to view slave routes across the world. In 2007-2008, the Horniman Museum also hosted 'La Bouche du Roi' by Romuald Hazoumé.
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'.
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.
This exhibition and booklet were produced as part of South Gloucestershire's Engage 2007 project, in partnership with Yate and District Heritage Centre. Both the exhibition and booklet explored local connections with the history of slavery and anti-slavery in South Gloucestershire. Links identified included the career of Robert Jenkinson of Hawkesbury (later Prime Minister Lord Liverpool), the Caribbean plantations of the Codrington family, the campaign efforts of abolitionist Joseph Sturge and, looking further back in history, St Wulfstan's attempts to abolish the trade in slaves to Ireland in the 11th century. The booklet was written and edited by Lorna Brooks and David Hardill. The exhibition toured the local area, including Thornbury and District Museum, pictured here.
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.
A play by the Malcolm X Elders Theatre Company in Bristol, addressing issues of age, identity and heritage.
M Shed opened in 2011 and is housed in a warehouse on Bristol’s dockside, a clear and tangible link to the history it interprets. The free-to-enter museum focuses on social history, exploring the development of Bristol as a city through people, places and daily life. It is a popular site, attaining over half a million visitors per year since 2013.
Through this local viewpoint, the museum explores Bristol’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade and the abolition movement in its ‘Bristol People’ gallery which aims to ‘explore the activities past and present that make Bristol what it is.’ Voices from all factions of the slavery debate feature in the display, with proslavery, the enslaved, particularly those who fought for emancipation, and abolitionists all interpreted within dedicated cases. Each case contains a mix of objects, archive materials and text panels to tell the story. Quotations from key figures also bring to life the voices of those who were personally involved: for example, John Pinney, a plantation owner and sugar agent; Hannah More, a writer and Abolition campaigner; John Kimber, a slave ship captain accused (and acquitted) of murder; Silas Told, an ordinary sailor on slaving voyages. These Bristolian voices give different perspectives on how those involved in the trade saw it at the time. Quotations printed around the gallery also provide the views of today’s visitors to the trade. The exhibition also has sections about the legacies of the slave trade within Bristol, particularly in relation to the representation of African or Afro-Caribbean communities in popular culture, the presence of racism in the city, and the legacies of prominent slave owners in some of Bristol's public institutions.
The theme of antislavery also features as the starting point for a display on public protest movements. One case focusses on Thomas Clarkson’s visit to Bristol to collect information against the trade, another on the campaign to abstain from slave-produced sugar in the 18th century and the Bristol bus boycott against racist employment practices in the 20th century. This display then goes on to look at other popular campaigns and protest movements including women’s suffrage, riots, strikes and the Occupy movement. This perspective, situating the abolition campaign as the beginning of a British tradition of society campaigning, is a unique one across UK museums.
In the Bristol Life gallery, the stories of two Black Bristolians look at the new life for the runaway enslaved man, Henry Parker, and the Windrush generation Princess Campbell.
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.
Re:interpretation was a participatory media project carried out by Firstborn Creatives in partnership with the National Trust. The project explored transatlantic slavery and its connection with three National Trust properties in South West England: Clevedon Court, Dyrham Park and Tyntesfield. It focused on the feelings and opinions of invited community groups towards those histories, who produced a range of creative responses and commentaries to their findings and also their own personal emotional responses. The project produced a multi-layered interactive exhibit, available on DVD.