The debate over the slave trade

Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade started in the 16th century. Gradually, over time, people from all walks of life started to speak out against it. They formed a campaign called ‘Abolition’ which aimed to raise public awareness about the horrors of slavery and eventually to persuade the Members of Parliament that it should be made illegal.

There were many different arguments both for and against the slave trade. Abolitionists told of the cruelty experienced by the slaves at the hands of their owners. Those who supported the slave trade however, argued that the slaves were not badly treated. In fact they claimed that the slaves were lucky to be fed and provided with accommodation, unlike poor people in Britain.

Supporters of the slave trade were generally those who had financial involvements in it or in the industries that were connected to it, such as sugar and tobacco. In Bristol there were many businessmen, merchants and traders who were making good money from the slave trade. There were insurance companies which insured the slave ships on their voyage to Africa and the Caribbean. There were shipbuilding yards, which employed numerous people to build slave ships. Local factories processed tobacco and sugar grown on the plantations. Shopkeepers sold the sugar and tobacco in their shops. They also sold the rum that came from the plantations. The brassworks in and around the city produced brass goods for trade in Africa, which the slave traders used to buy enslaved Africans. Many wealthy families in Bristol also had connections with the Caribbean and the Americas where slavery existed. They traded with the colonies there and owned plantations. These connections often went back through the generations. Pictured here is Charles Pinney, whose father was a merchant who lived in Bristol and owned plantations and slaves on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

If the slave trade was stopped, as the Abolitionists wanted, many merchants, traders and investors faced financial difficulties and would have to turn their attentions elsewhere. Local politicians, who wanted the city of Bristol to be successful in the world of trade and finance and to compete against other cities like London, were often supporters of the slave trade. The trade brought the city much of its wealth, which in turn made people want to invest there.