The Bristol support campaign

By the 1780s, fewer Bristol merchants were involved in the actual slave trade (that is, the purchasing and transport of slaves from Africa). This was due partly to the growing involvement of another city, Liverpool, in the slave trade. Liverpool had overtaken Bristol in the area of buying slaves in the 1740s. It could also have been due to rumours about the possible end to the slave trade, which might have made merchants less willing to invest in a doomed business. However, the trade between Bristol and the Caribbean, known as the West India trade, was still of central importance to the city. It consisted of goods produced by slaves coming from the Caribbean to Bristol, and supplies for the plantation going the other way. The potential end to the slave trade, being fought for by the Abolition campaign, was a threat to that trade. If the trade in slaves was to end, it was feared there would not be enough slaves to work the plantations. There would be no slave-produced goods to send to Bristol. The plantation owners would no longer need supplies from Bristol to run their businesses.

The Bristol Abolitionists who were against the slave trade were part of a special committee dedicated to the campaign. An opposing committee of plantation owners and merchants was set up in 1789. They were the anti-Abolition committee and were in support of the slave trade. The anti-Abolition committee included Bristol residents John Pinney and James Tobin, both plantation owners and sugar merchants. Other members were from the Claxton, Protheroe and Baillie families, all from Bristol, and all involved in trade with the Caribbean if not the slave trade. It also included Bristol Aldermen (city officers) Daubeny and Harris. A year earlier the two had supported the first meeting of the Abolition committee in Bristol in support of ending the slave trade, but later changed sides. The anti-Abolition committee organised three petitions, from the African merchants, the ‘West Indian’ [meaning Caribbean] merchants and the manufacturers, in support of the slave trade. Henry Cruger, Member of Parliament for Bristol, presented the petitions from the anti-Abolition committee and others, such as the Society of Merchant Venturers (an elite organisation of merchants in Bristol), to Parliament. Pictured here are the minutes of a meeting held at Merchants’ Hall in Bristol. The Society of Merchant Venturers hosted a meeting of all those with an interest in the continuation of the slave trade. The meeting agreed to collect signatures in petitions against the proposed ending of the slave trade.

James Tobin, whose presumed portrait can be seen here, owned the Stoney Grove Estate on the Caribbean island of Nevis in the Caribbean. He owned about 175 slaves. Tobin and John Pinney, another plantation owner on Nevis, moved to Bristol and ran a sugar business together, buying and selling raw and processed sugar. Tobin became a prominent campaigner against Abolition – he was a supporter of the slave trade (one of his sons, however, James Webbe Tobin, was against the slave trade). Tobin wrote pamphlets attacking the Revd James Ramsay, a leading Abolitionist, and gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on the slave trade (who were investigating the slave trade and the arguments for and against it). He said “I have no doubt but that the situation of the West Indian slaves is preferable to that of the labouring poor in Europe.” This was a common argument used by supporters of the slave trade. It stated that the slaves were cared for by their owners and supplied with housing, food and clothing in return for their work. The poor in Britain had to pay for all their needs out of low wages. Tobin even made reference to the better weather in the Caribbean, as a plus for the slaves.

Some of the supporters of the slave trade were very worried by the Abolition campaign and the strong possibility of the end of the slave trade. John Pinney, pictured here, inherited Mountravers Plantation on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. He came to Bristol in 1784, leaving his plantation affairs in the hands of managers, and set up a firm of sugar agents with James Tobin. Despite campaigning for the slave trade to carry on, he was concerned enough to consider selling his estates and slaves in the Caribbean. “The present alarming crisis”, he wrote to his agent William Coker on the Caribbean island of Nevis on 9 February 1788, “respecting the abolition of the African Trade, operates so strongly on my mind, that I am resolved to contract [dispose of] … all my concerns in the West Indies.” Pinney was clearly afraid of losing his slaves and plantation on the island of Nevis. He knew that if the slave trade ended, it would affect his business and possibly ruin it.

Many people had concerns about what would happen if the slave trade ended. They used them in their argument with the Abolitionists who were campaigning for the end of slavery. Whilst people in Britain and the British owned colonies, argued for or against the end of the slave trade, enslaved Africans working on the plantations became more restless. It was their uprisings and rebellions against the slave trade that finally helped tip the debate towards abolishing it.