Ghosts of Bristol’s shameful slave past haunt its graceful landmarks

Dan Glaister
Bristol University was founded with money given by tobacco baron Henry Overton Mills, but now students are upset by what they claim are his links to the slave trade. Photograph: Simon Montgomery/Getty Images

Mark Horton sits on a bench in Bristol’s Queen Square pointing at the elegant Georgian houses surrounding him. “There’s one!” he exclaims, as if there is a danger that the house will disappear from view. “And there, that was a slave trader’s house. And that one, that one had slaves in it!”

Horton, a professor at Bristol University, approaches the house, once the home to the trader Henry Bright, who owned a slave named “Bristol”, and points to some holes at ground level, like tiny portholes. “Haha,” he says, his enthusiasm getting the better of him, “that’s probably where they would have lived.”

For the city of Bristol, home to happiness, hipsters, rising property prices and austerity, has an under-acknowledged history: slavery. Last week, students at the University of Bristol launched a petition to remove the Wills name from the Wills Memorial Building, the institution’s principal and most visible structure, the last gothic hurrah of imperial Britain, all thrusting buttresses and vaulted ceilings standing proud at the top of Park Row in the centre of the city.

Henry Overton Wills ran WD & HO Wills between 1846 and 1880, before the company merged with others in 1901 to form Imperial Tobacco, the world’s fourth-largest cigarette company. In 1908, Wills, then aged 80, promised £100,000 to fund a university for the city. The following year, with the university granted a royal charter, Wills was named as its first chancellor. The building was opened in 1925 as a memorial to Wills by his sons, George and Henry Wills IV.

Arguing that Wills became chancellor “after financing the university with slave-profited money”, the petitioners challenge the institution “to uphold its commitment to diversity and inclusivity and revise the name of the building … let us break free from Bristol’s homogeneous toleration of slave profiteers and name the building after somebody the entire university population can be proud of”.

But the allegation that Wills made its money from slave-grown tobacco is disputed both by Imperial and by scholars. “It’s good that we have these little debates,” says Horton, “there’s nothing students like better than a political controversy but the slavery connection isn’t that strong with Wills. The truth is that we may never know.”

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Sitting on a square of lawn outside the Wills Memorial Building on a bright, blustery Friday lunchtime, Samuel March, a second-year computer science student at the university, puts his lunch aside to consider the proposition. “My understanding is that they weren’t slave traders,” he says. “The petition isn’t going to achieve anything, it’s pointless, like they’re trying to change history. And anyway,” he adds, “I don’t use the building very often. It’s for the lawyers.”

Kellie Horder, who works nearby, was more sympathetic to the petition, which by Saturday had attracted 516 supporters. “I can understand it,” she says. “I get why people would be pissed off about the name. It’s terrible. Let’s not give the name that power any more. The petition provokes a conversation about why things were wrong. I like it if conversations are had about it. History isn’t a reliable thing, it’s a narrative someone wants to tell.”

The Great Wills Memorial Building Brouhaha, as it may come to be known, comes in the wake of the furore over the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. It also has a companion in the form of what locals are prone to term “the Colston issue”, the debate that has been rumbling away since the late 1990s over the suitability of the name of the philanthropist, merchant and slave trader Edward Colston adorning the facade of city institutions, from schools to a window in the cathedral to, most notably, a city-centre statue and the city’s leading music venue, the Colston Hall. With the venue undergoing a major refurbishment, the time is right, argue many, for a change of name.

“I just don’t feel comfortable in that place, don’t go in there,” says Ros Martin. “But you know, it matters. Come on! We’re artists, this is important! We’re talking about trading on the profits of a 17th-century slave merchant.”

For Martin, a prolific local writer and artist who has been central in voicing opposition to the Colston name through the Countering Colston website, it’s about more than a name.

“It’s about the psychology of the city,” she says, “what we tell ourselves about ourselves. Quite often people don’t know about the history of the city, or because we are bequeathed the city like it is, we just pass through it because this is what we’ve been left. But what do we want to leave? It would be good if we thought about what we want to bequeath.”

Colston, Wills and the rest – and there are many others in a city whose past is predicated on the efficiency of slavery – provide the key to unlocking the history of Bristol, to illuminating what went before. “The bottom line is about the memory of our African ancestors and how they are being remembered,” says Martin. “There are missing voices.”

The memorials to those voices, the reminders that the city is so dependent on the slave trade for its wealth and status, are scarce: two plaques (one at ankle height, the other privately funded), a footbridge and a subdued display at M Shed, a city museum, occupying a corner of a gallery on the first floor. Yet all around, the symbols of the trade are present: St Mary Redcliffe church, overlooking the thriving dockside bars and restaurants, from where the bells rang out in celebration of the defeat of the bill to abolish slavery in 1791; the Bathurst Basin, named after the family, still prominent in the area today, who were investors with Colston in the Royal African Company, led the city’s opposition to the abolition of the slave trade and were among those to receive thousands of pounds in compensation for the loss of their slaves following abolition. As one local adage has it: “There is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave.”

Dr Madge Dresser, a historian and research fellow at the University of the West of England, moved to Bristol in the early 1970s from California by way of London, and she too was struck by the missing voices.

“There really was a denial of the history of slavery in Bristol. In the mid-1990s there was the Festival of the Sea, a celebration of the city’s maritime past, and not a dickie-bird was mentioned about the slave trade.”

Now Dresser, who organised an exhibition in the late 1990s to help redress the balance, bashfully admits to having a part to play in the fuss over the Wills Memorial Building. “I feel a little responsible because I taught a course at the university on Bristol and the slave trade and tobacco,” she says, sipping tea in her sitting room on the edge of the city, “and lo and behold … ”

“Statues are in a way a diversion,” she continues, “but perhaps these issues would not have been raised had the monuments not been there as a lightning rod. It’s not just apportioning guilt. It’s about acknowledging the messiness of history and confronting our demons. And it’s also really interesting: the slavery period is the beginning of the global economy and all the dilemmas that presents us with.”

One of the reasons this matters, according to Horton, why Bristol has to take steps to acknowledge its history, is because of the decisive role the city had to play in that beginning.

“The key thing about the Bristol slave trade is that Bristol invented how to do it on an industrial scale,” he says. “Bristol merchants worked out how to do it as a triangle: brass to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean and the American South, sugar back to Bristol to be processed.” Only a tiny number of slaves actually set foot in Bristol.

Yet while the other sides of the triangular trade have taken steps to make amends with the past, Bristol has failed to do so.

“In West Africa you see forts that are part of the process of commemoration,” says Horton. “If you go to the Caribbean, you can see likewise that the plantations are preserved as heritage sites and in acknowledgement of slavery. But when we come to this city, the organising fulcrum of this horrifying trade, there is nothing, and yet around us, from 1700 to 1806, around 565,000 Africans were ripped out of their homeland and put on ships funded by Bristol merchants. Some 450,000 survived.”

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