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Bristol and the commemoration of the end of slavery

Bristol: Commemorating the abolition of slavery and coming to terms with the city's difficult past
© European University Institute

Coping with Britain’s imperial and colonial legacy presents a number of challenges. Assuring that non-white people find a proper place in British society is one of these challenges. Deciding how the British ‘national story’ might be adapted to acknowledge past injustices is another. Examples of past injustice are abundant: The ‘plantocracies’ of the Caribbean relied on forced labour, particularly for the production of sugar. English port cities, Bristol among them, were the hubs of transatlantic enslavement and trade in commodities produced by slave labour.

With the immigration of Black Caribbeans after the Second World War, this fraught history has become a matter of considerable importance. Various initiatives have emerged since the 1980s and 1990s to contribute to a history ‘from below’ that acknowledges the contributions of black people and considers their continued experiences of discrimination. Such considerations came to the fore in the 2007 celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the ‘abolition of slavery’ in Bristol.

The idea that 1807 had seen the ‘end of slavery’ (and that this ‘end’ could be attributed to the actions of white abolitionists) caused offence – not least because slavery in various forms continued on territories under British control well into the 20th century.

Both nationally and locally, such debates occurred in the run-up to the 2007 commemoration of the bicentenary of abolition. For Bristol, two million pounds were provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and 150,000 pounds by Bristol City Council to fund 24 local initiatives in the context of ‘Abolition 200’. Where local commemorations up to the mid-1990s had largely ignored Bristol’s fraught history, this represented a significant move towards acknowledging the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Simultaneously, however, a significant number of local actors and black grassroots groups expressed uneasiness with how the official discourse continued to reflect a white perspective. Various protests occurred during the 2007 commemoration (notably by the Bristol-based group ‘Operation Truth’). A ‘steering committee’ made up of local groups was set up in Bristol. Together with various other local dignitaries, the city’s Lord Mayor issued a declaration acknowledging that 1807 was not the end but rather the ‘beginning of the end of slavery’.

© European University Institute
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