Issue date: 20 November 2001

Slavery Obscured is the latest book by Madge Dresser, head of the Regional History Research Centre at the University of the West of England. Published by Continuum, Slavery Obscured will be launched at Waterstone’s, College Green on Wednesday 21 November.

Slavery Obscured is a new departure in the growing history of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade. It assesses how the slave trade affected the social life and cultural outlook of the citizens of a major English city, and contends that its impact has been more profound than has previously been acknowledged.

For much of the eighteenth century, Bristol was Britain's second city and, between 1730 and 1745, its premier slaving port. Based on original research in archives in Britain and America, Slavery Obscured builds on recent scholarship in the economic history of the slave trade to ask new questions about the way slave-derived wealth underpinned the city's urban development and its growing gentility.

The book looks at questions such as: How much did Bristol's Georgian renaissance owe to slave-derived wealth? Who were the major players and beneficiaries of the African and West Indian trades? How, in an ever-changing historical environment, were enslaved Africans represented in the city's press, theatre and political discourse? What do previously unexplored religious, legal and private records tell us about the Black presence in Bristol or about the attitudes of white seamen, colonists and merchants toward slavery and race? What role did white women and artisans play in Bristol's anti-slavery movement?

The author Madge Dresser says, “Although there’s already been excellent work on the economic history of the slave trade in Bristol and plenty written on the anti-slavery movement, there has also been unease about discussing Bristol’s role in the trade. “That unease intrigued me, what was the subtext of the slave trade in Bristol? To what extent did slavery inform the development of racial attitudes in the city? I wanted to know more about the extent of the black presence in Bristol and the relations between slavers and the Africans they encountered. I wanted to investigate the impact of the slave economy on the city’s urban development and to examine the political culture around the anti-slavery movement. I’ve tried to write a lively accessible book based on solid research and a wide range of primary sources. Only a stone could be unmoved by the cruelties of slavery, but I’ve tried to be fair-minded rather than politically correct in my assessments. Whether I’ve achieved my goals is for the reader to judge.”

Combining a historical and anthropological approach, Slavery Obscured sheds new light on the contradictory and complex history of an English slaving port and, by so doing, prompts new ways of looking at British national identity, race and history.


Editor's notes

The book launch is at Waterstone’s College Green, Bristol on Wednesday 21 November at 6.00 – 7.00pm. Numbers are limited so if you would like to attend you can e-mail or ring Waterstones, 0117 9250511.

Bookjacket visual available upon request from

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