In the time of the transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century, Bath was a Georgian spa town, dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. It was very popular, attracting rich and fashionable society like absentee plantation owners from Jamaica and Barbados, who indulged their profits in the city.
The medicinal qualities of the waters became well known and as affluent visitors flocked to the city, the expectations of entertainment
and a grand social life were met. There were dances, concerts, assemblies, games, cards and all manner of amusing activities but Bath also hosted lectures and sermons and had a wide variety of shops. It became the ultimate meeting place, against the backdrop of stunning buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and the newly built streets and squares made of Bath stone.
Only miles away from Bath, was the busy trading port of Bristol, one of the main ports of the transatlantic slave trade which ran between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Goods were taken to Africa in exchange for black slaves, who were then transported to the Americas and more goods were brought back into Britain. For over a century, until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, more than 2,100 ships set sail for Africa from Bristol onto the Americas including the Caribbean Islands, transporting about 500,000 Africans into slavery.
In the eighteenth century, it would not have been an uncommon sight to see black people in Bath considering the close proximity of both Bristol and London, where 10,000-20,000 black people lived. It was neither unheard of to have a black servant or freed slave working in Bath, in a place where the appetite for domestic servants was voracious. Families often had a black servant in attendance. Plantation owners from the Americas and the Caribbean came to Bath to retire on their profits or to attend the spa, and brought with them their retinues, typically freed slaves.
The first record of a black person in Bath dates back to 1681 through the church records of Francis Hooper, ‘a blackemore’. Church records are the main source for finding out about black people in Bath through the recordings of a person’s skin colour, ‘Coffee’, place of residence, ‘Bath’, or occupation, ‘Butler’.
Like the physical marks left on a slave, the landscape of Bath also bears witness to the slave trade, greatly through the architecture of the city, such as Beckford’s Tower. William Beckford was a novelist, art critic, politician, absentee plantation owner and at one time the richest commoner in England. Beckford only made it as far as Portugal in his travels to Jamaica, and cared little for it or for those who worked there. One thing he spent more time over was plundering the profits he had. In debt, in 1822, he moved to Bath, making a home in Lansdown Crescent, where he commissioned an architect to build Lansdown Tower in which his treasured possessions and collections could be kept. It is commonly now known as Beckford’s Tower, keeping watch over Bath and the many buildings that were built during the eighteenth century as the city rose up the popularity scale.
Beckford’s ignorance of slavery and indulgence in its profits was a shared trait across society, where the increase of money was immediately felt in status and improvement of life and the conditions of the slave trade could not be seen. On some level, everyone in Bath society involved themselves in the slave trade, from the ale house patron drinking rum to ladies sweetening their tea with sugar. Ordinary people like the Morgan family of Bath held shares in plantations and owned slaves on the island of St Vincent at the turning of the eighteenth century.
Beckford is just one of the faces of slavery in Bath. There are many which highlight the multiplicities of the trade that could be found in the city. There were those in society who took an active role like the Morgan family, and those who encouraged it without thought like Bath resident Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who once asked for a ‘little black boy’, a fashion accessory of the time. Like the ‘little black boy’, there were those people who were freed slaves working as servants and those who through small measures, like the anti-saccharites who refused to use sugar, showed their disgust towards slavery. There were those who were campaigning to put an end to the trade like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and campaigner who visited Bath in 1793 where he continued to turn the public against slavery.
The tide was beginning to turn against slavery towards the end of the eighteenth century in Bath, particularly in the 1780s and in 1792, when anti-slavery campaigns reached a new peak as a petition against slavery was presented to Parliament. It would be over a decade later however, in 1807, that the slave trade would be abolished.
One of the most illustrious streets in Bath, Great Pulteney Street, was commissioned from the wealth of plantation owner Sir William Pulteney, the Earl of Bath. The Pulteney name is a famous one; Pulteney Bridge was built to unite the centre of Bath with the Bathwick Estate where William lived. It is renowned now for its rarity and uniqueness at having shops built into it, one of only four in the world to do so like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
It was in Great Pulteney Street that two interesting figures to Bath lived: religious writer, philanthropist and slavery opponent Hannah More briefly lived at Number 76 and English politician and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce, stayed at Number 36.
At the head of Great Pulteney Street is the Holburne Museum: a striking Palladian style building situated to survey Great Pulteney Street and Pulteney Bridge. In the late eighteenth century, it was a social meeting place called Sydney Hotel, built in the grounds of Sydney Pleasure Gardens, close to Sydney Place. The Pulteney family owned large American plantations; their legacy can be seen in the American settlements of Bath and Pulteney in New York. Sydney Place and Pulteney Place accommodated the numbers of visitors to the city from plantations in Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica and their assembled corteges which will have included slaves.
Two astounding pieces of Bath’s famous architecture are the Circus and the Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son, John Wood the Younger. Their creations are now seen as the finest remaining pieces of Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom. They became another notch on Bath’s rising status as a fashionable city. The Woods’ first patron was The Duke of Chandos, a man heavily involved in the Royal Africa Company which ferried slaves to the Caribbean. The Woods’ developments were also funded by those well known to Bath, including Richard Marchant and John Jeffreys, through money made from slavery. This money also helped Woods’ other buildings including Queen Square, the new Assembly Rooms and numerous new streets. The Woods contributed to the building revolution of Bath in the eighteenth century that was partly responsible for the city’s stylish status and the creation of a landscape that is still very much admired.
Walking away from the Royal Crescent, into the heart of town via Gay Street and the bustling Milsom Street, through the whirl of shopping and fashion, eventually Bath Abbey will rise up in the steam of the Roman Baths and the Pump Room. The Abbey has a surprising association to its name; it features more funerary monuments for slave traders, planters and West India merchants than in any other final resting place in Great Britain. The Caribbean countries most likely to be found etched into the stone and into the history of Bath’s association with slavery includes Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, Bermuda and Grenada.
One of these monuments is for James Holder Alleyne, of the powerful Alleyne family who were the largest owners of sugar estates in Barbados. He owned the Reid’s Bay estate and additionally bought two more estates, Swan’s and Gregg Farm and The Spa plantation. He is known to have resided at Clifton, near Bristol and his memorial can be found in the north transept of Bath Abbey.
Just like the deaths of plantation owners, the transatlantic slave trade would also meet its end on British soil in 1807, in the form of The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This measure would halt money coming into Bath made on the back of slavery, but the evidence of its prior circulation was, and still is, evident from its roots in all aspects of Bath life. In the history of the city, the revered architecture, implements used for daily life, and the sugar added to tea that was infused with the bitter taste of its origins.