Whenever we discuss Bristol’s involvement in the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans, the name of Edward Colston inevitably comes up. This is hardly surprising given his prominent role as deputy governor of the slave-trading Royal African Company and his legacy in the city, which came crashing down when his statue was dumped in Bristol Harbour in 2020.
But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a story about one man. Hundreds, even thousands, of Bristolians were involved in some capacity.
Imagine my excitement, then, when my research uncovered that Edward Colston was not in fact the first member of his family to become involved in trafficking enslaved African people. That dubious honour goes to his younger brother Thomas Colston.
I was transcribing a Bristol customs account from 1662, which had long been overlooked as it was misfiled at the National Archives. Two intriguing ships caught my eye, the Endeavour and the Mary Fortune.
Their destination was labelled as São Tomé, an island off the west coast of Africa. This immediately caught my attention, as I don’t normally see ships heading that far south, and they also had some unusual commodities on board such as glass beads and Indian cloth. So, I added a note saying, ‘slave trader?’, and went on with the transcription.
This, though, was a little odd, because Bristol wasn’t supposed to be involved in slave trafficking at that time. The Royal African Company (and its predecessor the Company of Royal Adventurers to Africa) had a royal monopoly granting them exclusive rights to African trade.
As a result, historians usually date Bristol’s entry into the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans to 1698 when the monopoly ended. But proving that the Endeavour and Mary Fortune had actually gone on triangular slave trafficking voyages, would push the start date for Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade back by 35 years.
Later that year, I was due to teach a class on Bristol’s slave trade, which gave me an excuse to do some more detective work on these two ships. The first thing I did was to go to the customs records for the following year to see if I could trace when the Endeavour and Mary Fortune came back to Bristol, and crucially to see if I could work out where they had been in between.
And there they were. Eight months after her departure the Endeavour arrived back in Bristol, and the Mary Fortune returned after 10 months at sea. This was towards the shorter end of the timescale for slave trafficking voyages, which usually took a year to 18 months at the height of the trade, but certainly plausible at this early stage.
The clincher, though, was what they had on board. The available records unfortunately don’t record the itinerary or last port of call, but the cargos of sugar with a smattering of ginger and cotton which filled the holds of both vessels can only have come from one place: the Caribbean.
It was at this point that I also spotted that Thomas Colston was one of two principal investors in the Endeavor voyage. Like his older brother Edward and his father William, Thomas was a merchant specialising in trade with Spain, where he would have come into contact with the idea that people could be bought and sold. He would also go on to work with the Royal African Company, supplying glass beads to fill the holds of their slave trafficking vessels.
The combination of the triangular voyage to the Caribbean, the presence of signature slave trafficking goods such as glass beads, felt hats, and Indian cloth, and the involvement of the Colstons left me convinced: I’d discovered Bristol’s first recorded slave trafficking voyages, and pushed the date of the city’s entry into the trade back by 35 years.
Having found these two early slave trafficking voyages, I naturally wondered whether there might be more, so started digging through the surviving Bristol customs records. My best estimate is that Bristol sent out an average of two slave trafficking voyages a year over the 35 years between 1662 and 1698.
The significance of this could easily be lost among the numbers. After all, we’re talking about a couple of voyages among hundreds which left Bristol every year. But history is about human experience, not statistics and economic significance, and this is a window onto the story of thousands of lives lost.
Taking a conservative estimate of the number of enslaved people carried on each voyage, this would equate to more than 10,000 people taken from their lives in Africa to ones of enslavement in the Caribbean. That’s the equivalent of half of the population of Bristol at that time condemned to either death, or a life of enslavement, backbreaking toil, and degradation thousands of miles from home.
Since I started this research, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue by Black Lives Matter protesters has brought more attention to Bristol’s role in the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans than ever before. There is much in Bristol’s history of which we can justly feel proud.
However, if we want to celebrate these positive stories, we need to be honest about the darker aspects of the city’s past. This awful trade, which Thomas and Edward Colston helped to pioneer, caused untold suffering for the enslaved, and, as the 2017 Runnymede Report shows, continues to limit the opportunities for many of their descendants who live in Bristol today.
Colston’s toppling prompted research projects into Bristol’s links to slave trafficking and the broader slavery economy are currently underway. These include the We Are Bristol History Commission, which asked ‘what next?’ for the Colston statue, and the University of Bristol looking into its links to slavery through the Wills, Fry, and Goldney families, and reflecting on the question of renaming buildings that bear these names. We are examining this dark chapter of our city’s history like never before.
As these new findings about his young brother show, it’s important that we not only tell the story of Edward Colston, but continue to research, and question our assumptions about the extent and duration of Bristol’s role in the slave trade. It can no longer be pushed under the carpet.