Back to the home port

When the ship arrived in Bristol, various local and national taxes were payable on the cargoes. Careful accounts were therefore kept of the various items on each ship. Some of these accounts, kept in Port Books and Wharfage Books, still exist today and provide a useful record of the goods which entered Bristol. The accounts book of the slave ship the Africa also lists some of the goods brought into Bristol in 1774. The Africa’s owners paid £2.1s.4d (£2.6p) in duty (tax) and fees on four elephant tusks from Africa. The Africa’s owners also had to pay tax for bringing back glass beads they had taken to Africa but had been unable to trade. There is no mention of duty paid for sugar, which is what would have been expected to come back on the ship from the Caribbean. The orders to the captain of the ship were that he should ‘deliver his Cargo of Negroes’ to the agents Akers & Houston in St Vincent in the Caribbean. He was then to return immediately to Bristol unless he could find some goods to take back within a fortnight. Possibly he could not pick up any sugar and returned home without a cargo.

The poet Romaine Joseph Thorn summed up Bristol’s trade in Bristolia: a Poem, written in 1794:
‘Majestic BRISTOL! to thy happy port
Prolific COMMERCE makes its lov’d resort;
Thy gallant ships, with spacious sails unfurl’d
Waft, to thy shore, the treasures of the world!’

Pictures of Bristol harbour in the 18th century show how busy the port was. Small ships traded around the coast of Britain and to Ireland. Larger ships traded to Europe, Africa and the Americas. This painting of Broad Quay (now the Centre in Bristol), from about 1760, shows one of the main quays in the harbour lined with ocean-going ships. On the quayside are piled barrels and bales of unloaded cargoes. This detail from the North West Prospect of the City of Bristol shows a forest of masts in between the houses in the city. Bristol was, until about the middle of the 18th century, the second biggest port in Britain after London.