The wider economy in Bristol

The merchants, investors, shipwrights, suppliers of trade goods, ship’s chandlers and the like all had an obvious link with the slave trade. For most of them, the slave trade was not their only work. Shipyards were busy building and refitting ships not just for the Africa trade, but also for voyages to countries in the Mediterranean such as Spain for olive oil and wine. The ships’ chandlers, selling hardware and fittings for boats, were selling their goods to merchants who carried goods across to Ireland and no further, as well as to the owners whose ships would spend over a year on a slaving voyage. There were other people in and around the city who were also involved in the slave trade to a greater or lesser degree through their work. Shown here is an entry in Matthew’s Bristol Directory (a local directory) of 1798 for a ‘Teacher of Navigation’. Knowing how to work out where the ship was at sea was a vitally important skill: a teacher of navigation was yet another person who might have benefitted from the slave trade by being employed to teach seamen how to navigate.

There were all the port employees. Trade was regulated and well-organised, so there were layers of staff to oversee everything that happened in the docks and write it all down. The Customs officers needed to know everything that came into or went out of Bristol, in case a tax was payable on it. Tide-waiters and land-waiters were Customs officers who boarded newly-arrived ships to make sure that no goods were smuggled in without paying any tax due. The Customs officers also administered the tax charged on shipping to maintain the lighthouses and the lighthouse keepers along the coast. The accounts book of the Bristol slave ship the Africa, shows the costs for the return voyage of 1774. It includes the ‘wharfage’ fees for using the port. The Society of Merchant Venturers maintained the quays, and provided equipment, like cranes, to speed up the loading and unloading of ships (use of the cranes meant a fee payable to the Society). The dockers, carters and porters who did the loading and unloading and moved the goods from quayside to storage were all paid, probably on a daily rate and employed only when needed.

Merchants employed clerks in their offices to keep accounts and labourers in their warehouses to fetch and carry as needed. The merchants often used the coffee houses as their office, so the coffee house owners benefitted from the amount spent on coffee and tobacco by men discussing a business deal. The merchants, the ships’ captains, the customs officers and the bigger suppliers and shopkeepers would all have servants, paid a small wage on top of their board and lodging. Even the woman who did the captain‘s washing benefitted, indirectly, from his employment in the slave trade.

Increasing amounts of sugar and tobacco from the slave plantations in the Caribbean came to Bristol. This meant that the number of people employed in processing them in the city’s sugar and tobacco industries also increased. The twenty or so sugar houses in the city for refining sugar, and the small tobacco processors, all employed staff. The sugar houses produced fine white sugar from the dark brown sugar imported from the plantations. The leaf tobacco, also imported from the plantations, was made into smokable twists of tobacco or snuff for sniffing. Cotton was another slave-produced good, and there were workshops to spin and weave it in Barton Hill and by the river in Hotwells in Bristol. The local industries and shops supplying the ships with trade goods and supplies for the voyage all employed staff. Another local industy, making brass items, also supplied a large part of the trade goods to trade for enslaved Africans. The demand for brassware from the slave trade boosted the industry and kept many men in employment.

In 1713, the Royal African Company, a London based trading company which had once had control over the trade with Africa, was looking as though it might gain control of the trade again. The City Council of Bristol sent a petition to the government against this threat. It included these words: ‘Bristolians depend for their subsistence on their West Indies [Caribbean] and African Trade which employed greater numbers of people in shipyards and in the manufacture of wool, iron, tin, copper, brass etc. a considerable part whereof is exported to Africa for the buying of Negroes [Africans].’ The slave trade was only part of the whole trade of Bristol, but it employed, in whole or part, huge numbers of the population of the city.