Thursday, 14 November 2013

Bristol - To Bear an Unbearable Burden

Here's a challenge. How do you find the right tone to discuss a city of lively waterfronts, picturesque woods, stunning rock faces...and a foundation of half a million foreigners tortured to death and the heart of humanity split asunder?

In Bristol, the principal city of southwest England, the hopes of present and future generations were doomed by their ancestors to play out forevermore in the shadow of the hellish horrors those ancestors loosed on the world, in the form of the triangular Atlantic slave trade. The Bristol industrialists made a choice, to profit from the ruin of humanity; and made it so that their city would in the first instance be defined, then and now and forever, by a burden no-one should wish on the heritage of any society.

The result bears some comparison to Japan's Sapporo, a very different city with a nonetheless similar burden at the depths of its conscience. How do you do justice, to the agonized and humiliated ghosts of nightmares that should never have been made real, in a city which once grew by feeding on their cries – but without dragging down those who live there now, hundreds of years on, who had no hand in those atrocities?

How do you celebrate and support the good things that present generations strive to build, while not permitting the suffering of those broken, so that Bristol could rise, to fade from memory? How do we keep those memories alive, that they may stand down the ignorance, the pride, the xenophobic nationalistic supremacism which twists the prospects of Britain today, and which still swaggers, blustering that no lessons were ever there to be learnt?

It is a tightrope, a trial of balance: one that must test even a city as Bristol of hill slopes, cliffs and gorges.

And that burden is still quite recent. Human habitation in the area is believed to go back at least 60,000 years, and a walk in the woods on the west side of the River Avon brings you in contact with enormous, unmistakeable earthworks, the ramparts of ancient Celtic forts. Everywhere the land whispers of the old ways and forgotten indigenous spiritualities, from a time before the likes of the Romans or Christianity transformed Britain's destiny.

1) Bristol's Emergence: The Water Its Blood
Throughout its life, Bristol's fate has been bound to the waters beneath it: the Avon river, snaking out of its gorge into the Severn Estuary and the broad Bristol Channel, then out to the world. Under the Romans and the Saxons, Bristol was a place of ports and fords; the name itself is suggested to have come from Old English brycgstow, or “place by a bridge”. The Normans built a castle there in the 11th century, and in the following ages Bristol developed into a bustling port, intricately plugged into Europe through sophisticated trade networks.

In this capacity it made its place in the opening stages of Europe's exploration of the wider world. Its pre-eminent household figure is a certain Zuan Chabotto, better known in the United Kingdom as John Cabot: the Venetian navigator, whose fleets set out from Bristol on three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage to the Indies. After the abortive first voyage, it is believed that the second in 1497 made landfall at what is now Newfoundland, Canada, making Cabot and his expedition the first Europeans to set foot on North America since the Vikings. Embarking from Bristol again the next year on a third expedition, he disappeared and never returned.

A monument to Cabot on Bristol Harbour. In the background, another crew selection takes place: by coincidence this was the day when hundreds of people descended upon the Arnolfini arts centre to audition for lead roles in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII film.
A replica of the Matthew, the caravel in which Cabot reached North America.
Thus did Bristol grow to become a major setting in the English story, and to host prominent episodes – and experience devastating hardships – in the centuries to come. The 1348-9 Black Death decimated a third of its population; Henry VIII's crushing of the monasteries converted its abbey into Bristol Cathedral; and the city was heavily damaged by fighting in the English Civil War, in which the old Norman castle was demolished under Cromwell's orders.

Bristol Cathedral.

2) Bristol's Insanity: Blood in the Water
It was only around three to four hundred years ago, then, that an unseen abyss tore open in the depths of Bristol, and set loose madnesses that would poison the global record of humanity forever. Since 1660 the London-based Royal Africa Company had already been establishing an English presence on the West African coast: building forts, negotiating trade, and joining a nasty and complicated collision of rivalries both between European kingdoms and African ones. However, a movement with Bristol merchants at the forefront put an end to the Royal Africa Company's monopoly on slave shipments in 1689, and in the following hundred years, over two thousand slave ships sailed down the Avon out of Bristol, bound for the ports of West Africa.

These ships carried English-manufactured guns and cheap metal goods, which they exchanged, in lands such as those we now know of as Ghana, Benin or Nigeria, for slaves. These people were “processed” in the African ports, then packed in execrable conditions onto ships to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean, a passage on which disease, torture and suicide killed about half of them. Those who survived were forced into work on the Caribbean sugar plantations, many of these owned by powerful Bristol tycoons. A further mass of these survivors went on to be murdered by further torture in the “Seasoning Camps”, which sought to break them into new lives of submission.

Bristol, in turn, gorged itself on their sweat and blood. The Bristol merchants lined their pockets on the sugar cane, while brass and copper manufacturing in the Avon Valley swelled to produce the cheap metal for export to Africa, powered first by water, later by steam. The agonies that flowed from the debasement of humankind across the South Atlantic, in other words, were fed directly into the furnaces of England's Industrial Revolution.

We should not make the mistake of over-simplifying this story. The triangular slave trade did not invent slavery, either in Europe or in Africa, and was a complex system which drew in many characters with a shambles of agendas and perspectives. The English merchants; the African chiefdoms; the plantocracies of South America and the Caribbean; and the ships that connected all of them together; there were in each setting courageous heroes, pernicious villains, and people stuck in positions no person should ever have to experience.

It was, nevertheless, a consummation of the corruption of our kind. Where slavery had always been an abhorrent phenomenon, if in varying degrees, the scale and nature of this exercise did away with those variations. Here, within the established social order, enslaved humans were nigh-uniformly lashed and beaten, with amused contempt, down to a status of inferiority to all extant forms of life or matter – systematically, industrially, and with no hesitation. It did unto life what no life should expect to bear in a thousand eras. It established humanity as a race of civilizational cannibals, and made this corruption normal: such that when the anti-slavery campaigners rose up to demand its abolition – many, to Bristol's credit, also based in that city – they faced a smug and wealthy establishment relaxing on their comfortable incumbency, bristling with high disdain at the thought that something so normal might ever end.

This, in other words, was the pinnacle of “Development” as we would come to know it a couple of centuries later: the destruction of others for one's own gain. A process which, in England as across Europe, also immersed its soul in a most dreadful vat of poison – a poison which no-one can safely drink and is in all circumstances folly to play with. A poison which enabled it to colonize its way across the continents of Earth, brought Europe to ruins in world war and genocide, and dogs Britain and Europe alike to this day, from neo-colonial trade arrangements to wars of aggression, from football hooliganism to hatred of immigrants. A poison called racism.

Pero's Bridge on Bristol's Floating Harbour, named after Pero Jones, an African slave who worked for one of Bristol's sugar barons.

Is Bristol today awake to its worst-kept secret? Certainly Britain as a whole has yet to face up to it: the slave trade, along with colonialism and other misdeeds, are inadequately taught in schools and markedly absent from public discourse. Indeed, in a speech in September 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron had the audacity to laud Britain as 'an island that helped to abolish slavery', without regard for its role in turning its worst excesses into an international norm in the first place.

This is a pride as reckless as it is insulting, for at least two reasons. First, because the legacies of the triangular slave trade still saddle the societies it infected or rearranged: the descendants of its European entrepreneurs, or of its complicit African elites, or of the Caribbean communities it birthed of anger and pain, of which coastal Guyana is a prime example. Second, because we just cannot be convinced that the world has learned the lessons of it, Britain least of all. Can those who have suffered under the callousness of austerity Britain, for example, seriously doubt that if its current Conservative Party administrators were to have stood in the shoes of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Bristol slavers, they might have done exactly the same thing? A toxic amalgam of exploitation, greed, xenophobia and contempt for the weak has yet to be excised from the United Kingdom's national blood, and until it is, we must fear that something which never should have happened, anywhere in the universe, might yet happen again.

Hence, the tightrope. One can fall off one side by falling to one's knees, and becoming so mired in miserable self-flagellation, for something that was not one's own fault, that it becomes impossible to do anything with one's life. Or one can fall off the other with the inexcusable attitude that says “it's the past, just move on” – because so long as you are the citizen of a nation, you share in its national heritage, and have no right to take pride in that heritage if you do not also take shame from and learn from its crimes. Britain currently seems to tilt more to that latter, and would do well to improve its awareness of and contrition for those crimes.

3) Bristol's Recession: Reshaping the Tides
After the slave trade was finally abolished in 1807, Bristol slowed down, unable to keep up with the burgeoning manufacturing centres of the North. Compounding this was the notorious navigational unfriendliness of the Avon river, which on its approach to the city was narrow, muddy, and hazardous to large ships with its highly variable tide. And so it was decided to excavate a 1km “cut”, diverting water so as to turn the river's course through the city into a “Floating Harbour” immune to tides and silt. Though this did not suffice to stave off Bristol's industrial decline, it did involve some especially creative engineering, of the type for which perhaps the most famous personage associated with the city, and one of the project's design contributors, is best known.

The Fairburn Crane, the last surviving steam-powered crane in the world. It still runs for tourists on holidays and special occasions.
That contributor was Isambard Kingdom Brunel: an admittedly brilliant civil engineer whose works earned him the status of second-greatest Briton to ever have lived (after Churchill), as voted for in a BBC poll in 2002. Some of his most celebrated productions are in Bristol, indeed have become integral parts of it – and all of course are bound to the city's relationship with the water. They include the sluices on the Floating Harbour, redesigned in the 1830s to address siltation; the SS Great Britain, a massive steamship designed to ferry people to New York, but which proved financially unviable, and after a series of misadventures ended up back in Bristol's Floating Harbour as the face of those docks and an international tourist attraction; and in pride of place, the Clifton Suspension Bridge with its Egyptian-influenced towers, which opened to traffic in 1864.

The bridge crosses the Avon Gorge, and Bristol's turbulent topography gives people access to many different perspectives on it, including from above and below.
Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The SS Great Britain, now a museum in Bristol Harbour.

4) Bristol's Tomorrow: What the River Reflects
Though Bristol's industrial prospects had dimmed (with a few notable exceptions such as tobacco, chocolate, and aircraft manufacturing), it entered the twentieth century looking forwards and with a growing population. It continued to build its identity in other ways: through charitable works, inheriting the compassion and righteous anger of the anti-slavery movement; through the founding of its two Championship football clubs; and through education, especially the opening of the University of Bristol in 1909.

The Wills Memorial Building, part of the University of Bristol.
Yet it was still a significant port and manufacturing centre, and this made it a target for the Luftwaffe in World War II. The Bristol Blitz bombed out much of the city centre, with over 1000 lives lost and up to 90,000 buildings damaged.

Bristol's last half-century has been in some ways a typically British experience: urban regeneration, road expansion and brutalist architecture; some nasty race riots and ethnic alienations; and ultimately, a revival as a financial services centre and distribution hub for England's southwest, as well as a centre of contemporary culture. The aviation industry did recover, and went on to produce numerous innovations there, including Concorde. But the Floating Harbour and its surroundings, unfulfilled as commercial docks, have instead been transformed into a lively cultural and artistic quarter, and retain an upbeat atmosphere despite the UK's present ethical degeneration. Bristol's considerable music and film industries further enhance its reputation as a cultural hub, as do figures like the activist and graffiti artist Banksy, who was born there and developed his style in the context of the rise of Bristol's underground art scene. Meanwhile the remnants of old dockyards and factories sleep silently away to the south, upon the cut that diverts the tidal Avon away; and though hardly menacing or despondent, perhaps they await their own regeneration, most hopefully as a witness to the city's heritage both for good and for ill.

Banksy artwork on a wall in Park Street.

Not a simple city at all, then. Bristol has reached the present day with its own distinct image and identity. It most definitely has a future in front of it, but it cannot and must not seek to escape its past. Nobody presently alive in Bristol bears responsibility for the crimes of its slave-trading industrialists and sugar barons, least of all its artistic and cultural pioneers of today; nobody chooses their heritage; but no-one should think to live in Bristol today without recognition that the worst things a person can inflict on another person were the bedrock on which their modern city was built. The two were fused together, the intertwining strands of Bristol's double helix; and any future Bristol builds, and must build, must on account of this owe a debt it cannot repay. The ghosts may one day forgive, but they will never forget, and neither should any of us.

That is why it would be good, in my opinion, to see more signs of contrition in the city's public spaces. My visit to Bristol happened to coincide with Remembrance Day in November 2013, when the city centre was closed to traffic for a commemorative parade for the victims of World War I. Clearly there is no question of simply moving on from the past: remembering and dwelling on it remains an active concern of the present. But then it does not do to recall selectively. It seems to me that memorials or observances to those who were wronged in the slave trade, of at least the same magnitude as these Remembrance events or even of Germany's self-reflections on the horrors of the Nazi era, should be foremost in the cultural practices of Bristol and the UK today. Establishing them so would help to preserve the lessons of the past for the minds and hearts of future generations; and offer a sign – to itself, and to the outside world – that Bristol is ready to come to terms with its past. Only by mastering the past, can a future better than it be built.

The river, as ever, holds the final word. On a bright, clear day – that once-in-a-millennium rarity in England – the waters of the Avon reflect the city above with stunning resolution. The river that shaped and was shaped by Bristol is also its mirror: and perched on those slopes and cliffs, the city's geophysical lot is to ever be faced with its own reflection.

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