Magazine article New African

Can Bristol City Conceal Its Slave Past?

Magazine article New African

Can Bristol City Conceal Its Slave Past?

Article excerpt

Thousands of Jewish people used as forced labourers by German firms during the Second World War have received huge compensations from a $4.5bn German compensation fund. But there is an uproar in the English city of Bristol for being asked to apologise FORMALLY for benefiting immensely from the African Holocaust--slavery ... "Surely God ordained 'em for the use and benefit of us, otherwise his Divine Will would have been made manifest to us by some particular sign or token".

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The British weekly, The Observer, reported on 7 May that "passions" were "running high" in the city of Bristol over whether it "should say sorry" for its role in the slave trade. "For generations," said the newspaper, the people of Bristol had "gloried in the beauty of their city, with its graceful Georgian terraces, grand public buildings and honey-coloured churches." What they had failed to acknowledge was the part that money from the slave trade had played in creating that magnificence. But now, the people were being made to face "a decision that has split the city--whether to apologise for the cruel trade that paid for so much that makes it beautiful."

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The front page headline in the Evening Post, Bristol's local newspaper, was in no doubt when it said: "It's time the city said sorry". But, there was no consensus on the issue. Dr Gareth Griffiths, director of Bristol's British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, pointed out that Bristol was "one of the main ports involved in the trading of slaves taken from West Africa to British colonies in the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most Bristolians were involved in the slave trade in one way or other," he added. "Local people supplied the labour and provisions for the slaving ships; they created the goods that paid for the slaves and they bought the spoils from the ships when they returned."

The extent of Bristol's involvement in the slave trade is to be discovered in practically every civil and religious landmark in the city: from Merchants Wharf to the Redcliffe Caves where slaves were probably incarcerated, to Queen Square--completed at the height of Bristol's involvement in the trade--where a former mayor called Nathaniel Day petitioned against a tax on slaves.

No official representative of Bristol has ever apologised for the fact that, from 1698 to 1807, when trading in slaves from Africa was outlawed, 2,114 ships set sail from Bristol to Africa and then on to plantations in the Americas, carrying over half-a-million slaves. No one knows the exact number of slaves who were carted out of Africa altogether, but many people were killed during slave raids. Others died horrible deaths in the unhygienic holds of the ships that transported them. And yet more died on the plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, either through being brutalised whilst working, or being shot down when they tried to escape. Bristol's record as a city that benefited from slavery was only exceeded by Liverpool. London also benefited enormously. Liverpool made a public apology for its role in the slave trade in 1994.

Kofi Mawuli Klu, chair of the Pan-Afrikan Taskforce for Internationalist Dialogue, told The Observer that Bristol had "failed to honestly come to terms with its role in the trade. The story of enslaved African peoples must be remembered, retold and reinterpreted. Only then can we come to terms with the fact that, although the trade ceased 200 years ago, the descendants of the slave trade in Bristol still live in mansions while the descendants of slaves remain in poverty". And Toyin Agbetu, of Ligali, a voluntary organisation dedicated to challenging negative representations of the African-British community, said that an apology by Bristol would encourage honest engagement with the past. "An apology is just a beginning," he said. "As well as an apology, there should be re-education, reparation and a rewriting of history. …

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