1500-1799 | Slavery

Bristol celebrates the defeat of Britain’s first anti-slavery bill

A small plaque on a warehouse wall, which might easily go unnoticed, reminds passers by of a forgotten aspect of Bristol’s history –
Neil Owen – CC BY-SA 2.0 – via Geograph

19 April 1791

Today in 1791, the House of Commons, many of its members having investments in the slaving business and the West Indies plantations, overwhelmingly rejected a bill proposed by William Wilberforce, to outlaw the slave trade. The margin of the defeat was substantial at 163 to 88, almost two to one.1 Within hours, Bristol was celebrating an important political victory for the city’s slave traders. According to one newspaper, ‘the Bristol people, upon receiving intelligence that Mr. Wilberforce’s motion had been rejected, rang their bells, discharged cannon and fireworks and hung Mr. Wilberforce in effigy.’2  Another paper failed to mention the effigy, but reported that ‘the bells were set a ringing, the workmen and sailors got half a day holiday, a number of cannon were discharged from Brandon Hill, and a bonfire and fireworks were given in the evening.’3

Historians estimate that approximately half a million Africans were sold into slavery by Bristol registered ships, representing a little under one fifth of the total number transported by British slave traders.4  Many of the city’s finest houses, monuments and even Bristol’s Old Vic, the second oldest theatre in Britain, were built on the profits generated either from the sale of slaves or their exploitation on British owned sugar plantations.5  When slavery in the West Indies was finally abolished in 1834, Bristol merchants who had invested in the plantation business, received £500,000 in compensation, which would be worth at least £57 million at today’s prices with some estimates placing the figure far higher.6


  1. Stephen Farrell, ‘Driving Change Through Parliament’, BBC British History accessed online on 23 January 2019 at url http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/parliament_article_01.shtml
  2. The Leeds Intelligencer, 3 May 1791, p. 3.
  3. Reading Mercury, 2 May 1791, p. 3.
  4. ‘Immigration and Emigration – The Legacy of the Slave Trade – The Port of Bristol,’ BBC Legacies – accessed online from url http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/immig_emig/england/bristol/article_1.shtml
  5. Pamela Parkes, ‘Edward Colston: The Slave Trader Dividing Bristol,’ BBC News 18 February 2018 accessed online on 23 January 2018 at url https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-42404825 and Antonia Odunlami, Seven places in Bristol you didn’t know were linked to slavery, Rife Magazine, accessed online at url https://www.rifemagazine.co.uk/2015/10/seven-places-in-bristol-you-didnt-know-were-linked-to-slavery/
  6. ‘Bristol and the transatlantic slave trade,’ at url https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/stories/bristol-transatlantic-slave-trade-myths-truths/

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