Bristol and Liverpool: The demise and rise of rival ports in the eighteenth century slave trade.
In the early eighteenth century, Bristol’s dominant position as a slave trading port remained virtually unchallenged. Yet, by the end of the century, Liverpool firmly established its status as Britain’s leading slave trading port, surpassing Bristol completely. Despite some similarities between the rival ports, a number of factors, decisions and circumstances serve to explain Liverpool’s magnificent rise and Bristol’s consequent demise. The ports differing geographical locations, markets, trade goods, vessels, voyages and war impacts all played a role in Liverpool’s subversion of Bristol. The decision-making and business capabilities of the merchants also proved influential in the developments of the ports. This essay argues that most importantly, the Bristolian merchants’ poor economic and market decisions, compared with the exceptional business acumen of Liverpudlian merchants, sealed the fate of both ports. Bristol’s geographical location and new parliamentary legislation acted favourably to propel the town into the slave trade. The location of the River Severn and Bristol Channel encouraged early involvement in trade over the waterways, stimulating the development of the port city. Contributions to Atlantic trade also initiated Bristol’s role in the sugar trade, following the capture of Jamaica in 1655. However, increased competition in the trade of sugar thrust Bristol merchants into the trade of slaves. An Act passed in 1698 further encouraged Bristol’s participation in slave trading, stating that any subject of Great Britain could trade to any part of Africa “between Cape Blanco and the Cape of Good Hope”, successfully ending the London Company’s monopoly. Bristol’s geography served to hinder the port’s trading ability, mainly due to difficulties in navigating the meandering River Avon, its wide tidal range, and industrial waste in the river. Geographical location and legislation also contributed to Liverpool’s commencement in the slave trade. Located on the coast in northwest England, Liverpool benefited from close proximity to many industrial and textile producing centres such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. A network of rivers, including the River Mersey, made the port easily accessible to the many incoming and outgoing vessels. The Isle of Man provided a useful off shore base, allowing for trade with Ireland and entry into the contraband trade with Spain. The Grenville Treaty of 1747 soon ended this arrangement, forcing Liverpudlian merchants to consider new options for trade. Utilizing the knowledge and wealth gained from contraband trade, the merchants developed vessels and goods specially suited to the African market, putting them towards gaining entrance to the slave trade. Small vessels and on board slave revolts lessened the slave carrying capacity and efficiency of Bristol merchants ships. The smaller size of Bristol vessels perhaps resulted from the winding nature of the River Avon, with navigation difficult for larger ships. The period 1727 to 1769 provides an example of seventy Bristol vessels, one at fifty tons, thirteen at fifty-one to seventy-one tons, and thirty-eight at seventy-six to one hundred tons. Even before Liverpool’s rise, London outshone Bristol in tonnage, 5,925 tons to 4,250 tons at a value of 137,000 to 98,820 pounds Stirling. The origins of slaves purchased by Bristolians, coupled with lengthy on shore waiting times for slave deliveries, both reduced carrying capacity and efficiency of vessels. A concentration of suicide prone Ibo slaves and rebellious Ibibio slaves caused many problems. Consequently, merchants received instruction to shackle and bolt slaves from the popular Bight of Biafra region, to reduce the loss of slaves on board vessels. Liverpool merchants similarly witnessed slave revolts, but they experienced superior...
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