Breaking The Chains - Bristol And The Slave Trade

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 23 April 2007
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

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in Bristol has opened its major exhibition on slavery, Breaking the Chains, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

Opened on April 23 2007 by HRH The Princess Royal, the £1m Heritage Lottery funded show is spread across six galleries on the top floor of the Museum and will run for two years.

Bristol played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and was Britain’s most important port involved in the trade. The transportation and sale of slaves made the city rich. In 1807, slave ships made up 60 per cent of its trade, meaning Bristol has much to reflect on.

painting of a busy 18th century quayside

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

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

The BECM exhibition forms the centrepiece of a programme of events in Bristol commemorating the abolition of the slave trade by Parliament in 1807, and looks at the legacy of slavery in the 21st century.

Breaking the Chains opens by putting slavery in its historical context, showing how human bondage has existed throughout history, and still does. The unique aspects of the transatlantic slave trade, which reached its height in the 18th century, are explored.

Africa’s rich culture is another focus, and the exhibition looks at what effect the slave trade had on both European culture and Europe’s relationship with Africa. A wealth of African artefacts demonstrate the diversity of culture on the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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

The exhibition explains how resistance and tireless campaigning brought about abolition. Courtesy BECM

Visitors will also find out about the abolition movement in Britain, and how enslaved Africans fought for their freedom through resistance and uprisings. The final gallery, In Slavery’s Footsteps, shows visitors about life in the Caribbean after the abolition.

A multimedia gallery presents creative responses to the legacy of the slave trade, including specially commissioned short films on topics such as racism, people trafficking, wealth and poverty. Interactive sound stations bring to life personal testimonies, historical memoirs and the thoughts of modern day descendants of enslaved Africans.

Visitors are encouraged to record their responses to Breaking the Chains in the ‘Vox Box’, and families can involve younger visitors with trails and activity sheets.

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