Why is Bristol so key to the Black Lives Matter movement?

Black Lives Matter campaigners in Bristol joined people across the world on Sunday 7 June in protesting the police killing of African American George Floyd.

During the protest, a group pulled down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the city centre and rolled it into the harbour. It was a symbolic echo of how African people were enslaved, murdered and inhumanely transported to work in the Americas in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

The city of Bristol was at the heart of the slave trade - and has since played a key role in Black history.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

Bristol was built on the River Avon, which flows into the Severn Estuary and then the Bristol Channel, linking it to ports across the world. It was the second most important port in England, exporting woollen textiles, mainly, and importing wine and grain.

The sailing of the Mayflower for New England paved the way for colonisation - and with it the slave trade. Credit: ITV West Country

400 years ago, in 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to the New World, paving the way for the colonisation of North America and the establishment of trade routes including the Caribbean. The role of slaves became key to that expansion and in 1698, merchants in Bristol won the right to participate in the slave trade. The city became the leading slaving port in 1730, in the so-called triangular trade.

Plans for an 18th Century slave ship show the horrifying conditions and overcrowding on board. Credit: ITV Anglia

Ships from Bristol would take goods to North West Africa which were traded for captured African people, who were transported to the West Indies to be sold as slaves. In effect, they were exchanged for sugar, rum, and other commodities which were in turn shipped back to Britain.

The slave ships were overcrowded to maximise profits and the horrendous conditions on board meant many of those on board never survived the journey from Africa to the Colonies across the Atlantic. Those that did were condemned to spending their lives in slavery in the harsh environment of the plantations and often with brutal masters who saw them as a commodity rather than people.

The statue of Edward Colston before it was toppled by anti-slavery campaigners. Credit: ITV West Country

Millions of people were trafficked and rich merchants in the city of Bristol benefited, making themselves even richer on the lives of African men and women.

The Society of Merchant Venturers had control of Bristol harbour until 1809, when the floating harbour was built. Many of its members were directly involved in the slave trade. One of them was Edward Colston, who - as a member of the Royal African Company - was already a slave trader before the Society won the right to transport slaves in 1698.

Colston was seen as a philanthropist who used his wealth to support schools, almshouses and churches in Bristol. Many local landmarks and streets commemorate his name. There has been a long campaign in Bristol to remove that name because of the association with the inhumanity of the slave trade.

The Colston Hall is undergoing a major revamp and should re-open in 2021 with a new name. Credit: ITV West Country

In 2017, the Colston Hall, a major arts venue in the city, announced that it would be closing for refurbishment in 2018 and then re-open under a new name to cease its association with the slave trader.

Colston's Primary School was renamed Cotham Gardens Primary School in September 2018 after a consultation with pupils, parents and former students. St Mary Redcliffe and Temple secondary school has renamed one of its houses, Colston House, Johnson House in honour of Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Colston's Girls School in Bristol Credit: ITV West Country

In contrast, in 2017, the head of Colston's Girls School, founded by Colston, said he refused to 'obscure history' by changing its name.

The statue of Edward Colston is toppled from its plinth in the centre of Bristol. Credit: ITV West Country

In 1895, a bronze statue of Colston was put up in the city centre to commemorate his philanthropy. In the 1990s, as his involvement in the slave trade became more clear, campaigners called for its removal. On 7 June 2020, the statue was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protesters.

The statue of Colston was rolled into the water at Pero's Bridge - named after a slave who lived in Bristol. Credit: PA

Colston's statue was rolled to Pero's Bridge - significant because the bridge, which was opened in 1999, was named after Pero Jones, a slave from the Caribbean who lived in Bristol in the 18th Century. It was then rolled into the harbour - symbolic of the way that Africans who died on slave ships would be unceremoniously dumped in the ocean.

The Colston bun was named after the slave trader and philanthropist. Credit: ITV West Country

Great British Bake Off's Briony Williams, who's from Bristol, is the latest to petition Bristol City Council to get Colston's name removed from streets in the city.

And thousands of people have signed a petition to get the statue replaced with one of civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson from Bristol.

The Windrush Generation

HMT Empire Windrush was one of a number of ships that brought West Indians to the UK after the war believing they were British. Credit: PA

The slave trade was banned in the British Empire in 1807 and, in 1833, slavery itself was abolished. Although slaves were never brought to Bristol in large numbers, there have been Black people living in the city for more than 400 years.

A number of African-Caribbeans who fought for Britain in the First and Second World Wars also settled in Bristol.

After World War II, the government encouraged mass immigration from the British Empire and Commonwealth to fill gaps in the labour market caused by the heavy casualties. The new arrivals were promised citizenship and the right of settlement in the UK.

The troopship, Empire Windrush brought the first large group of West Indians to London in 1948 - and gave its name to the generation of African-Caribbeans that followed - creating modern multicultural Britain. People also arrived from India and Pakistan, and West Africa

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who grew up in Bristol, at a service marking the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Credit: PA

In 2018 it came to light that a number of African-Caribbean people, who had been born as British subjects, had been wrongly detained, denied their legal rights and threatened with deportation because they didn't have the paperwork to prove their status.

Some lost their jobs, their homes, their benefits and were even wrongly denied medical care. Some of them were from Bristol.

It became known as the Windrush scandal, and apologies and resignations followed, not least that of Home Secretary Amber Rudd who was succeeded by Sajid Javid, who grew up in Easton in Bristol.

The Government has set up a Windrush Compensation Scheme for anyone who has suffered. It is open until 2 April 2023.

St Paul's Carnival

The St Paul's carnival procession in 2018 - the festival's 50th anniversary. Credit: ITV West Country

Bristol now has the 10th largest African-Caribbean community outside London, with most people living in and around St Paul's.

In 1968, members of the community organised a festival to improve relations between the various groups of residents in the area - with European, African, Caribbean and Asian people all coming together. It became known as the St Paul's Carnival. The day now welcomes 70,000 people to the city with its blend of traditional carnival procession, steel bands, DJ sets and wealth of West Indian food stalls. Local schools spend weeks preparing colourful costumes to take part.

The Bristol Bus Boycott

Campaigners protesting against Bristol Bus Company's ban on BAME workers in 1963.. Credit: ITV West Country

When African-Caribbeans came to Britain after the war, they were invited. They were promised jobs and citizenship. They faced racism, prejudice and discrimination. In 1963, some member's of Bristol's Black community formed the Commonwealth Co-ordinated Committee to highlight the problem. It came to the fore that year when the group took a stand against Bristol Bus Company's refusal to employ people from ethnic minorities.

Paul Stephenson was one of the organisers of the Bristol Bus Boycott. It lasted 60 days and ended with the company overturning the 'colour bar'. Dr Stephenson's actions were later instrumental in the creation of the 1965 Race Relations Act.

Paul Stephenson makes a speech at the MShed on the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 2019 Credit: ITV West Country

One of the most influential members of the Black community in Bristol is Barbara Dettering, who has campaigned for racial equality since she moved to the city from Guyana in the 1960s.

Barbara Dettering as a young woman in the 1960s. Credit: Family

The Bristol Bus Boycott was one of Barbara's first campaigns. She was also one of the founders of St Paul's Carnival. She worked as a social worker in the city and spent most of her life influencing young children to overcome prejudices and strive to achieve their dreams.

Seven Saints Murals

Artist Michele Curtis works on her sketches of the 'Seven Saints' - Barbara's portrait is on the left next to that of Roy Hackett. Credit: ITV West Country

In 2018, Barbara was one of seven elders who were immortalised in murals honouring their work striving for racial equality and who founded St Paul's Carnival. The Seven Saints of St Paul's project was the brainchild of artist Michele Curtis and the original charcoal portraits have been turned into murals.

St Paul's Riots

Police with riot shields confront residents in St Paul's in Bristol in April 1980. Credit: ITV West Country

In the 1970s, tensions grew between the Black community of Bristol and the police. On 2 April 1980, a police raid on the Black and White Cafe in St Paul's led to what became known as St Paul's Riots.

Young people in Ashley Road, St Paul's during the riots on 2 April 1980. Credit: PA

The riots were said to be an uprising against police brutality to Black people although it's understood that other social injustices were highlighted and the city's Irish community were also involved.

Police officers outside the burned out Lloyds Bank in St Paul's following the rioting. Credit: PA

Black Lives Matter protests

Barbara Dettering, one of the 'Seven Saints' of Bristol in 2020. Credit: ITV West Country

Barbara Dettering has witnessed racial tensions and racism throughout her years in Bristol. With Black Lives Matter, a new generation is continuing the fight. She feels the protest in which the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled was the most pivotal moment for black communities across the city.

  • Watch Sangita Lal's interview with Barbara Dettering