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Bristol’s other slave trades


Bristol may be synonymous with the Transatlantic slave trade but prior to this dark period in its history it was also involved in three other types of slavery....

The Saxon and Viking slave trade

The city of Bristol may have originated in Anglo Saxon times although there is argument the site may have been occupied as early as the Roman era. Its name is derived from the Saxon words ‘Brycg Stowe’ meaning the settlement by the bridge. Much of Anglo-Saxon Bristol is located in what is now the financial and business districts of the city and Castle park.

Bristol does not appear in the Byghal Hidage (Anglo Saxon list of burhs) of 919 AD although the original plan of the town follows the exact grid pattern of many other Saxon settlements with fortifications to withstand attacks from Vikings. There is little archaeological evidence as yet for Vikings raids on Bristol but we do know that a lot of the white slaves that were taken by the Vikings were either spoils of war or kidnap victims. Certainly, they could not have operated the slave market out of Bristol without the compliance of the local Saxon population, who were not averse to slavery themselves but saw it as an integral part of society which had existed for hundreds of years.

The Viking’s dominance of Britain and Ireland was between the 8th and 11th centuries but they left no written records of their own. What we do have is from Saxon eyewitness accounts and archaeological evidence and we do know that their modus operandi was mainly to ‘raid and trade’ whether it was cattle, goods or slaves, so we can safely assume that the slave markets operated all throughout the land. Vikings treated their slaves savagely murdering on a whim and raping female slaves to fetch a higher price if they became pregnant. They were mostly shipped the largest slave market at the time in Dublin, which was easily accessible by boat from Bristol.

It wasn’t until 1000.A.D that more accurate records show how Bristol was organised and how it traded and more specifically, with and whom it traded. By the turn of the millennium the city had its own mint which shows that it was an important trading centre in the Kingdom. It was around this time that we see the emergence of one of the first abolitionists in Britain - Wulfstan II, Bishop of Worcester.

Wulfstan was born around 1008 AD in Warwickshire and ordained in 1038 before joining a monastery in Worcester. Wulfstan made it his mission to end the practice of selling Christian slaves and spent months preaching to the people of Bristol against the practice. At first they were hesitant but he eventually won them around. There are even reports that the townspeople attacked any slaver they came across. Eventually the example made by the people of Bristol was held up by King William and the practice of selling slaves was banned throughout the land by 1102. However, the practice of slavery continued underground for a time by the Norse traders who would entice people on board their ships and then kidnap them by sailing away to Dublin where they would be sold.

Serfdom and slavery

Economic records for the city show that after the 12th century onwards, Bristol’s main export to Ireland, France and Iberia was wine, cloth and metals. Although the Saxon/Viking slave trade had officially ended, a form of slavery still existed called serfdom which was prevalent until the black death of 1347-1351.

Serfs were different to the previous definition of slaves as they were not classed as property and were entitled to some protection and justice. However, all had a debt-bondage to their Lord and were legally tied to the land. They were forbidden to move without consent and in return for shelter they were required to pay tribute in the form of cash or labour and required to take up arms for the lord if required.

Records such as the Doomsday Book record the manors near Bristol and not the city itself. This is due to the books primary purpose being an economic survey of the land – that is land that produces wealth for taxation. It was a feudal society at the time and power and wealth came from land ownings. Craftsmen, merchants, women, children and serfs outside of and not working on landholdings were generally not included in this survey.

In Bristol, there are a number of entries for manors in the area (classed as being under Gloucestershire). The households of the manors were the peasantry also known as serfs. They were the lowest social order in society and extremely poor. Although some might have leased land it was usually a very small plot that could only sustain their own families. There is a lot of debate amongst historians but generally the term of villager in the book meant a member of the peasant class but who had the most land. A smallholder was a middle-class peasant who usually had less land than a villager but more than a Cottar. Freedmen (including Cottars and Bordars) were former slaves but only just above them in terms of status.

The manors around Bristol were listed as follows:

Barton Regis: 22 villagers. 29 smallholders. 9 slaves. 18 freedmen.
Bedminster: 25 villagers. 22 smallholders. 3 slaves. 1 priest.
Bishopsworth: 2 smallholders. 3 slaves.
Long Ashton: 23 villagers. 18 smallholders. 11 slaves.
Clifton: 6 villagers. 6 smallholders. 3 slaves.
Stoke Bishop: 51 villagers. 40 smallholders. 35 slaves. 3 female slaves. 20 freedmen.
Horfield: 262 villagers. 147 smallholders. 136 slaves. 15 female slaves. 58 other.
Mangotsfield: 22 villagers. 29 smallholders. 9 slaves. 18 freedmen.
Pucklechurch: 23 villagers. 8 smallholders. 10 slaves. 11 other. 1 burgess
Stoke Gifford: 8 villagers. 3 smallholders. 4 slaves. 1 priest.
Kings Weston: 262 villagers. 147 smallholders. 136 slaves. 15 female slaves. 58 other.
Henbury: 51 villagers. 40 smallholders. 35 slaves. 3 female slaves. 20 freedmen.
Harry Stoke: 2 villagers. 1 smallholder. 6 slaves.

The Doomsday Book showed that the majority of the population tied to lands were made up of 12% freemen/freeholders, 35% villeins, 30% cottars and 9% were slaves so we could justifiably assume that Bristol showed similar divisions in numbers at the time of the Norman conquest, with the remaining 9% morphing into cottars as the traditional form of slavery was eventually phased out.

The Transatlantic Indentured servants

It wasn’t until the discovery of the ‘New World’ and colonisation, did Bristol again enter the murky world of slavery. However, Bristol first supplied slaves to the America’s not from Africa but from Britain itself in the form of indentured servants. It was mainly the poor of Bristol and West Country that were forced into indentured servitude which meant they signed a contract of seven years service in the colonies America or the Caribbean in return for passage and a possible payment or plot of land at the end of it. Prisoners could also swap life in an English prison for life as an indentured servant. There are even reports from the 17th century of adults and minors either being kidnapped or tricked from the streets of Bristol and taken to plantations for life as an indentured servant.

The conditions that these ‘servants’ suffered was as every bit hard and sometimes horrific as other slave victims. They had little to no rights and had every chance of dying from disease, malnutrition or violence in the first few years of life on the plantations. It is estimated that up to 40% of the indentured servants died in their first year and up to 75% of those who lived beyond that died before completing their term of servitude. By the end of the 17th Century and with the end of the monopoly by the Royal Africa Company, the slave trade would transition from white English, Irish, Welsh and Scots men, women and children to those from Africa.

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