top of page

Pre-17th Century Slavery

Bristol has been a city of merchants and traders for centuries. In the long history of Bristol as a trading port, the Transatlantic Slave Trade lasted a relatively short time but it was of crucial economic and social importance to the city. However, Bristol's connection with slavery can be traced back to a time well before the transatlantic trade began.

The first settlers of Brig-Stow (later changed to Bristol) built their houses and shops around a bridge near the confluence of the River Avon and River Frome.

It was a good, easily defended site that also gave Bristolians a way of earning a living. The River Avon formed a natural harbour near the bridge. Ships sailed from Bristol to trade with the people of South Wales and Ireland.

But not all trade was "normal". By the the 12th century some Bristol traders were routinely selling English children to Ireland (especially young girls).

It is actually claimed that Bristolians were not above kidnapping any 'unfortunates' they could lay their hands on as part of this 'trade'.

In the years between 1200 and 1600, great fortunes were made by some Bristolians who controlled the cloth and wine trades. From the 15th century, these rich men joined together and formed "The Society of Merchant Venturers". This Society soon controlled all the foreign trade of the city. Bristol grew steadily and became the second largest city, next to London, in the country.


Official involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade began in 1698 when the monopoly of the London-based Royal African Company was ended. However there is evidence to suggest that Bristol had been illegally trading to Africa for slaves as early as 1670 and a few Bristol ships had been licensed to engage in slave trading, in what is now West Africa, from 1690.

» Why were slaves needed and where did they come from?

bottom of page