Bristol has always been a port city and from its very beginnings, Bristol merchants traded in commodities of all kinds. At different times, the cloth trade and the import of wine, sherry, port, sugar, olive oil, raisins and spices were of particular importance. From the middle of the fifteenth century, successful Bristol merchants started to organise themselves into a trade association or guild, to pursue and protect their business interests. (1)
The efforts of these merchants were recognised in the grant of a Royal Charter by King Edward V1 in 1552. Through this and subsequent Royal Charters, the Society of Merchant Venturers gained effective control over most of the city’s imports and exports, collecting duty and taxes, for nearly 250 years.
Granting monopolies of this kind was lucrative business for the Crown. In London, groups of merchants were granted exclusive rights of trade to particular parts of the world. Notable examples include the Levant, East India, Virginia and Royal African Companies.
The Society of Merchant Venturers of the time acted very much as a local chamber of commerce might today, promoting trade and opposing any government measures that it believed might be detrimental to it.
In this context, opposition to London-dominated companies was an important part of the Society’s ongoing work and in 1690. Unthinkable as it seems today, a committee was set up to petition Parliament, seeking an end to the Royal African Company’s monopoly, specifically: “for letting in the merchants of this Citty to a share in the African trade”. (2) Eight years later, the monopoly of the London-based Royal African Company ended and all subjects of the Crown were allowed to trade with Africa. Bristol, which had already been the second city and port in England for the past three hundred years, would now profit greatly from the slave trade and grow wealthier still.
Over the next fifty years, the Society of Merchant Venturers joined with the City Corporation and Bristol MPs in fighting numerous attempts to restore London’s monopoly, sharing the costs of petitions to Parliament in determined support of the African trade.
Slave trading from Bristol reached a peak in 1732, surpassing London and accounting for almost half of the ships sailing to Africa. In 1750, the African Company was set up by Act of Parliament and any merchant, whether or not a member of the Society, could join on payment of a fee. The managing committee of nine representatives was shared between London, Liverpool and Bristol, with the Society collecting the local membership subscriptions. (3) Bristol’s share of the trade was progressively overtaken by Liverpool and by 1775, had declined to 10 per cent. (4)
Joseph Harford, a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers who would go on to become Master in 1796, was both a banker and a brass manufacturer, and thus a beneficiary of the trade. He was also the first chairman in 1788 of Bristol’s provincial committee for the abolition of slavery, when opinion was becoming more divided. (5)
However, in 1789 the Society joined with many others in Bristol and elsewhere to oppose Wilberforce’s proposed Act for the total abolition of the slave trade. Of six petitions from Bristol, one came from the Society of Merchant Venturers who also made their Hall available to meetings of West India merchants, plantation owners and local manufacturers. The bill was defeated.
Whilst the Society itself did not invest in slaving voyages, a recent study has shown that at some point in the eighteenth century one quarter of the Society’s members were themselves involved directly in this abhorrent trade, representing approximately one fifth of the 536 slave traders in Bristol (6).
It is likely that most of the Society’s members, along with the great majority of Bristol’s citizens, would have profited indirectly from the trade. For example, through shipbuilding; provisioning supplies to the ships involved; the processing of slave-produced commodities such as sugar and tobacco; the production of commodities used in the purchase of slaves, especially brass; the ownership of interests in plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas; or through the banks that financed both trade and manufacturing.
At last, slave trading was made illegal in 1807 and slavery itself was finally abolished in Great Britain and its colonies in 1833. (7). The Society’s 250-year involvement with the port had by then reduced substantially, eventually ending in 1861 when its control of the Bristol Channel pilots was brought to an end. (8)
Note: This summary has been reviewed by Dr Richard Stone, University of Bristol.
‘Jones’ Bristol Past by Donald Jones. Phillimore & Co Ltd 2000.
‘Latimer’ History of the Merchant Venturers Society of Bristol by John Latimer. J.W. Arrowsmith 1903
‘Clarke’ Concerning Edward Colston of Bristol and London by E.G. Clarke. J.W. Arrowsmith 1877
‘Wilkins’ Edward Colston by H.J. Wilkins. J.W. Arrowsmith 1920
‘McGrath’ The Merchant Venturers of Bristol by P. McGrath. Society of Merchant Venturers 1975
‘Bohm’ A Closed Elite? Bristol’s Merchant Venturers and the abolition of slave trading. By Bohm and Hillmann. Emerald Group Publishing 2015
‘Marshall’ Bristol and the Abolition of Slavery by P. Marshall. Bristol Historical Association 1975
Also: The Bristol Slave Traders; A Collective Portrait by David Richardson. Bristol Historical Association 1985
1 Jones Pages 25 & 26
2 McGrath Page 59
3 McGrath Pages 131 to 133
4 Jones Page 48
4 McGrath Page 138
5 Latimer Page 185
6 Bohm Page 158
7 Marshall Pages 1 to 28
8 McGrath Page 317