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Bristol City Docks The History

A Memory of Bristol

Bristol's great heritage started from humble beginnings. An Anglo-Saxon settlement by the name of Brigstowe steadily grew into a thriving port. After the Norman invasion of 1066, a castle was built in what is now known as Castle Park. The port continued to flourish and Bristol became one of England's principal ports. John Cabot sailed from Bristol aboard the 'Matthew' in 1497, a voyage that led to him discovering Newfoundland.

Bristol's involvement in the slave trade actually dates back to the 15th century when England bought sugar from Portuguese plantations on the island of Madeira. In 1497 John Cabot set sail from Bristol to North America to explore colonization.

In 1607 the settlement of Jamestown was founded in Virginia. In 1623 England established a colony on the island of St Kitts, and in 1625 staked its first settlement on Barbados. During the 1660s the demand for sugar increased the need for slave labor on the islands. In 1672 the London-based Royal African Company was established with a monopoly on African slave trading. By 1679 slave revolts had occured on St Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti.

In 1688 the Bristol vessel 'Society', carrying slaves and ivory from Guinea, was seized off the coast of Virginia in violation of the Royal Company's exclusivity on slave trading. Debate ensued and in 1698 the monopoly was ended after local merchants in Bristol successfully lobbied the British government to be allowed to practice in the slave trade. Soon after the first legal slave ship was launched from Bristol.

In 1737 Bristol overtook London as England's leading slave port. A decade later Liverpool became the major slave trading port of the British Empire. In 1750 a major slave revolt occured on the Bristol vessel 'King David'. After a series of crucial events (Lord Mansfield's ruling in 1772 that a slave residing in England can not be forced back to his plantation by his master, the American Revolution of 1776 and the infamous Zong incident in 1783, in which slave cargo was sent overboard for insurance purposes) the attitude towards slavery in England began to change.

In 1788 Bristol abolitionists held their first town meeting. In 1807 the trade was abolished.

It's easy to imagine tall ships, sails whipping in the wind and cries from one sailor to another when walking through Bristol's docks, so it is not hard to believe that Bristol had a strong role during the golden age of piracy. The port of Bristol was a central part of the slavery and tobacco trade making the area around the harbour and the shipping routes to Bristol very attractive to pirates.

Piracy was illegal, but privateering was legal. Privateers were meant to have a 'letter of Marque' from their government allowing them to attack merchant ships of the country stated in the letter. They could take a cut of the loot they took from the ships.

Bristol's most famous pirate, Blackbeard, was allegedly born in the city. Also known as Edward Teach, the infamous sailor had a reign of terror over the Caribbean Sea.

Another pirate with Bristolian links was Bartholomew Roberts who roamed the seas in the 18th century. He sailed from Bristol on merchant ships and was forced to join a band of pirates after his own ship was captured.

He soon became captain of the ship and succeeded to be the most successful pirate in history capturing 456 vessels in four years. He was killed in a battle against HMS Swallow, which had been sent to capture pirates. He was granted his dying wish to be buried at sea so his body would never be captured.

Bristol also played a great role in the demise of piracy. Governor Woodes Rogers, a famous privateer, was born in Bristol in 1679. He circumnavigated the globe between 1708-1711, when his navigator picked up the castaway Alexander Selkirk from Juan Fernandez Island, after having been marooned there for five years. Woodes Rogers was later made General and Governor in Chief over the Bahama Islands where he took steps to suppress piracy, successfully ousting Blackbeard as Magistrate of the 'Privateers Republic'. A plaque to Woodes Rogers can be seen in Queen Square.

Fictional pirates have also been inspired in Bristol. After Alexander Selkirk was rescued by Roger's crew and taken back to Bristol he allegedly met author Daniel Defoe in the local pub the Llandoger Trow. Selkirk later became inspiration for the character Robinson Crusoe. The character Benn Gunn in Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' was also based on Selkirk. Stevenson is also said to have visited the Hole in the Wall pub just off Queen Square in Bristol, which bares resemblance to the Spyglass tavern in Treasure Island.

Many of the buildings in Bristol are closely linked to both pirating and privateering. Queen Square, situated near the harbour was, as it is today a very busy business area. The Customs House is situated in the square; this is where the taxes and duties were collected from the ships that came into the Bristol harbours. Much of the wealth and prosperity brought into this area came from pirating and many of the buildings around the harbour are said to have been funded by this maritime crime.

Bristol continued to expand over the following centuries and much of the city's most celebrated architecture sprang up during the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time when cane sugar, tobacco, rum and cocoa poured into the city, swelling its economy. Isambard Kingdom Brunel is synonymous with Bristol; the great engineer is responsible for some of the city's most famous features, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the great iron ship the SS Great Britain and Temple Meads Station, terminus for the Great Western Railway.

The port of Bristol had, by the 1970s, fallen into decline, yet with great vision and determination, the waterfront area today is a beautifully revived part of the historic city.

A memory shared by Paul Townsend , on Dec 5th, 2009.

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