Marking The End Of The Slave Trade - Abolition 200 Events In Bristol

By Rose Shillito | 02 March 2007
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painting of a busy 18th century quayside

Broad Quay, Bristol, in the 18th century at the height of the slave trade. Courtesy BECM

Bristol is to host a year-long programme of commemorative events to mark the bicentenary of the Act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, with the highlight being the opening of a major exhibition.

Bristol was a major trading port for the transatlantic slave trade throughout the 18th century and during its height, between 1700 and 1807, more than 2,000 slaving ships were fitted out in the city. Bristol's ships carried an estimated half a million people from West Africa to a life of slavery in the Caribbean islands and the Americas.

In 1807, the British slave trade was abolished by the UK parliament, and it is only fitting that the city should commemorate this historical event with the programme headed Abolition 200.

A groundbreaking exhibition, Breaking the Chains, opening at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum on April 23 2007, will form the centrepiece of the city’s commemorations and will run for two years.

The exhibition will occupy the entire third floor of the museum and has been developed in partnership with Bristol City Council's Museums, Galleries and Archives Service. It is supported by a grant of £770,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a further £1 million of Lottery money.

illustration of the hold of a slave ship with people packed on bunks like cargo

Rod Brown, Sheol - an interpretation of the treatment of enslaved Africans being transported on the Middle Passage. Courtesy BECM

Vivid displays will tell the shocking and brutal story of Britain's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It will pay tribute both to the courage and resilience of those who were enslaved, and the tireless campaigning that brought legally sanctioned slavery to an end. The exhibition will also focus on how forms of slavery continue in the present day.

A gallery within the exhibition will explore diverse contemporary responses to both the slave trade and local, national and international efforts to acknowledge this year’s bicentenary.

The organisers expect the exhibition will make a significant contribution to the understanding of slavery and its legacy.

“The exhibition aims to provide the necessary knowledge and understanding to enable everyone, whatever their background, to come to terms with a traumatic shared history, to deal with the consequences of that history and to inspire people to confront the horrors of contemporary global slavery,” said Feisal Khalif, Head of Public Affairs at the Museum.

photo of four women tugging parts of a sheet

Abolition 200 events in Bristol are bolstered by an education programme. Courtesy BECM

To supplement the exhibition, the Museum is running a comprehensive education programme. Secondary schools will be able to borrow a series of handling boxes filled with artefacts such as shackles and documents that pupils can handle and discuss during lessons on the slave trade.

Education projects in support of the exhibition have been funded with more than £100,000 donated by organisations including the Linbury Trust, Ernest Cook Trust, Heritage Lottery Fund and Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers.

To mark the historical event that brought about the end of the British slave trade, a people’s service will take place at Bristol Cathedral on March 25 – the date that King George III signed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

There are many community and educational projects taking place throughout the year at various locations around the city. These include theatre productions, musical events, workshops with community organisations and schools, commemorative services, talks, debates and walks. There will also be a new book on Bristol’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and screenings of African films.

frontispiece of an 18th or 19th century book entitled the Iniquities of the Slave trade with an illustration of an African being whipped on board a ship's deck

Exhibitions and lectures will tell the story of the abolition campaigners. Courtesy BECM

Bristol City Council is also organising a range of events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

“Abolition 200 presents Bristol with an opportunity to recognise its past and give focus to an agenda for change to further improve the lives of its citizens, particularly those of African and African Caribbean heritage,” said council leader Cllr Barbara Janke.

“We can learn from past mistakes caused by evil and prejudice and acknowledge the important contributions that black and minority ethnic people make to our social, cultural, economic and political well-being.”

Highlights coming up include Black Atlas, a touring performance that will be at the Kuumba Arts Centre on March 3. It tells the true story of two enslaved Africans. One is given the benefit of an English education, learning to read and write; the other becomes the first famous black prizefighter in Britain.

18th century illustration of Africans in neck shackles being driven across bushland

Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcibly taken via English ports to the Caribbean. Courtesy BECM

On March 10 2007, the public are invited to Twelve Men in a Printing Shop, a free lecture to be held at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum. Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains, presents an illustrated talk on the remarkable story of the British anti-slavery campaign and how it became the prototype for human rights movements around the world.

The Bristol Old Vic will be putting on the world premiere of a new play, Rough Crossings, by renowned black writer Caryl Philips, from September 7-22. This is based on Simon Schama’s best-selling history about the aftermath of American War of Independence and its impact on the transatlantic slave trade.

Also in the autumun, there will be a two to three week residency in a Bristol school for a dance/music group Dkakka from Bristol’s twin city, Beira in Mozambique. This will be a specifically created piece showing the history of slavery under the Portuguese.

Plans are also in the pipeline for an opera to tour the country, due to arrive in Bristol in November – although details have yet to be confirmed. This will be based on the true rags to riches story of a slave boy who triumphed over his traumatic past to became a successful and acclaimed violinist.

To find out more about Bristol’s abolition bicentenary commemorations, contact the Abolition 200 team on 0117 922 2667, email, or log on to

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