The problematic past of the Merchant Venturers

Mark Steeds from the Bristol Radical History Group, co-author of From Wulfstan to Colston, tells the story of the origins, history and development of the Society of Merchant Venturers

Words: Mark Steeds

Shielded by their Royal Charter of 1552, the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV) helped shape Bristol’s past and present, but what will be its role in the city’s future? Regarded today as the doyen of Bristol’s charities, this undemocratic, unelected club for wealthy business elites, is guardian to a goodly proportion of Bristol’s schools and universities, marketing itself as an innocuous force for good. Others are convinced that the SMV is outdated.

The Charter was granted at the time of a power vacuum, filling the void between Church and State left by Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 16th century. Setting the template for future years, the Society’s first Governor was Sebastian Cabot, one of the earliest Bristolians to be involved in the African slave trade. Bristol’s SMV was made up of merchants and adventurers that included American colonisers Thomas Guy and Martin Pring. Other leading Bristol merchants like Robert Aldworth traded with Spain and Portugal; Aldworth was the first to set up a sugar refinery in Bristol in 1612.  

By investing in early exploration and colonisation, the SMV’s interests expanded quickly throughout the 17th century, eventually including tobacco plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. To protect its overseas tobacco trade, the SMV suppressed local growers, and to augment its use of forced and bonded labour in the plantations, the Society campaigned tirelessly to become involved in the transatlantic slave trade.

The historic Merchant’s Hall on The Promenade in Clifton

In 1698 the wishes of the SMV were granted by Parliament, and African trade was opened up to merchants across the country. Within ten years of the overthrow of the Royal Africa Company monopoly, Bristol’s African slave-trading fleet had grown to almost 60 vessels. 

Many dynastic families in Bristol were Merchant Venturers, including several generations of Colstons. In 1709, Edward Colston chose the Society to act as his trustees, with the aim of perpetuating his memory – looking after his school and other endowments. Another family, the Eltons, first prospered in the brass industry and then banking in the 1750s. Many SMV members used the Corporation (that is now Bristol City Council) to climb the power ladder from Alderman to Mayor, Sheriff and MP.

In 1789, to protect themselves against the growing campaign for abolition, Bristol’s merchant elite established an influential committee to defend their interests in the slave trade. The New West India Society was made up primarily of members of the Bristol Corporation and the SMV. Their petitions, originally signed by 11 ‘African Merchants’, 23 ‘West Indian Merchants and Planters’ and 34 ‘manufacturers’, helped delay abolition of the slave trade until 1807, and full emancipation until 1838.   

Among them was SMV Master Sir James Laroche, responsible for over 132 slave trading voyages, and SMV Warden and Master, Thomas Daniel, who received the equivalent of over £100 million in compensation money for the enslaved people he ‘owned’. SMV historian Francis Greenacre described Daniel as “…one of the most powerful defenders of slavery”.  

Bristol’s merchant elite used the Corporation, SMV and Bristol Dock Company to further their own economic and political interests – while the Colston Societies were employed to enhance their popularity and influence through charity and patronage.

The first academic study of Bristol slavery and the slave trade was written by Professor C. M. MacInnes. His 1939 book Gateway to Empire is full of imperialist exhortations, attempts to portray the British slave owners as ‘kind despots’ and ‘pillars of society’. The book was dedicated to the SMV “… whose fellowship has played so notable a part in the history of the Empire.”

This stance persisted in 2006. On the eve of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, D’Arcy Parkes, SMV spokesman, said: “We all regret that the slave trade happened. Slavery was a trade which all of Bristol was involved in, but we believe an apology is totally meaningless.”

This ‘we were all in it together’ picture was another attempt to try and gloss over the important role the SMV had played historically in slavery and make all Bristolians culpable, which they weren’t.

In 2018, a project was launched by Bristol City Council to place a ‘corrective’ plaque on the statue of Edward Colston to expose his leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. During the consultation, SMV member Francis Greenacre and other apologists for Colston successfully sanitised the wording of the plaque to remove the historical facts that Colston was a religious and political bigot, and thus selective in his philanthropy, that he had defended the slave-trade as an MP, that he had been involved in the Spanish slave-trade and, most controversially, the numbers of enslaved West African children that had been transported and died.

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Instead, the wording on the plaque began by praising his philanthropy and reinforcing his ‘great man’ status in Bristol. More than a year later the SMVs stated their intervention in the consultation was “inappropriate”, but only after Colston’s statue was dumped in the docks. 

In response to the toppling of the Colston statue, the Mayor announced a new (as yet undefined) ‘History Commission’ – despite the city already having a well-documented past. Is this yet another smokescreen for inaction? Bristol desperately needs both change, ridding itself of the influence of unfair and undemocratic business clubs, and an international memorial to the victims of enslavement.

Comment: The ‘Downs-fall‘ of Bristol’s elitist member’s club?

Words: Priyanka Raval

The Society of Merchant Venturers shrewdly navigated a media storm after the toppling of the Edward Colston statue with a well-timed tweet, writing it was “right to have the statue removed”. The irony of this was not lost on those familiar with the Society’s near cult-like worship of the former slave trader. 

The elite members club may have dodged some criticism for their historic standing on Colston, but they’re now taking flack from an unexpected adversary. The ‘Downs for People’ group of local residents are now taking Bristol City Council and the Society of Merchant Venturers to court. 

It’s not the society’s apologist attitude to Colston on trial, but a dispute over Bristol Zoo parking on the Downs. “The Downs are for people, not for cars,” goes their battle cry. 

The Downs Committee – established under the Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861 – consists of the Lord Mayor as chair, six other councillors, the Master of the Merchant Venturers, and six other Merchant Venturers. At the end of May, in an updated response to a Freedom of Information Act request, it emerged that the zoo had been granted a licence in secret that allowed it to park on the Downs for another 20 years, from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2039. 

Initially, it was supposed that it was the Merchant Venturers-run Downs Committee that had granted a ‘secret’ 20-year lease to Bristol Zoo. But in the latest twist of the tale, it emerged that the Society of Merchant Venturers, who own the land granted a licence of the land to Bristol City Council which then granted a sub-licence of it to the Zoo.  

Protestors from #counteringcolston campaign group

The “Downs for People” group are now taking it to the High Court to review the granting of the licence. 

Meanwhile, the tenacious Countering Colston campaign has renewed their calls for the Society to be abolished altogether. They will no doubt be celebrating the announced closure of the Merchant Venturer-run Colston Society, a move prompted arguably by public pressure. 

It is fanciful thinking that an unlikely duo, the well-heeled defenders of the Downs and the tenacious Countering Colston campaign, could be the ahem, ‘Downs-fall’ of the Merchant Venturers? But now more than ever, Bristol’s archaic and elitist society is having to defend its legitimacy and relevance on more than one front.

The Bristol Cable