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The Legacy Of British Slavery Stretches Beyond Bristol Into The Rural South West

Recently we have witnessed a movement towards the ‘decolonisation’ of public spaces. This has included university campaigns to remove ‘pale, stale and male’ thinkers from the curriculum, and campaigns to remove statues or rename buildings which act as memorials to those who profited from the slave trade. In Bristol, the Countering Colston campaign fought for the renaming of concert venue Colston Hall, named after the slave trader Edward Colston, ‘almost like a cult figure’ according to campaign leader Katie Finnegan-Clarke. The campaign has been successful – Colston Hall will be renamed when it reopens in 2020.

The renaming of Colston Hall is ‘probably the first significant change in the UK,’ Nicholas Draper, director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (LBS) at UCL told Emine Saner in the Guardian. Draper believes there will be other changes as part of wider global process. ‘Anywhere there is the significant imprint of slavery, and maybe the wider imprint of colonialism,’ he says, ‘this will happen more and more.’ Saner says, ‘a number of cities are starting to face up to their histories.’ As the imprint of slavery stretches beyond cities into our countryside, perhaps rural areas should begin facing up to their histories, too.

British involvement in slavery began in Devon: John Hawkins of Plymouth is widely acknowledged as the first English man to have shipped Africans as slaves. Records show that local families were involved at all levels. Many were involved in owning, part-owning, selling and leasing plantations in the Caribbean. Others provided finance for slaving voyages. Rope-makers provided rope for slave ships built by local ship-builders; ironmongers made shackles and chains; farmers and fishermen produced the food enslaved Africans would have eaten on ships and plantations; and local cloth and wool was exported to West Africa. According to researcher Lucy MacKeith, ‘Probably most families in Devon benefitted from what became known as “The trade”.’ It’s highly likely this applies to the entire region. So why is this important part of British history so little known?

It’s only recently that Britain’s slavery connections have really begun to be explored by the media, for example in the BBC’s Black and British: A Forgotten History aired last autumn. The LBS project, which unearthed reams of information on British men – and women – who were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’ when the slave trade ended, was highlighted in BBC2’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. Huge sums were involved – the government provided a £20 million compensation fund, the largest bailout in Britain until the bailout of the banks.