Merchant's account book sheds new light on Bristol's slave trade and domesticity in a Georgian Bristol home

Issue date: 06 February 2014


UWE Bristol academic, Dr Madge Dresser, has been looking into a 270-year old book of accounts, once owned by Cranfield Becher, a prominent Merchant Venturer who lived at 12 College Green, Bristol. The book was recently acquired for Bristol City Council's historic collections and is now revealing new insights into Bristol's slave trading past.

Bristol Record Office, with funding from the Friends of Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives and the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, acquired the calfskin-bound book at auction last year.

Early investigations and academic research into the book reveal extraordinary details relating to the accounts of a slaving voyage aboard the JasonGally between 1743 and 1746, including precise handwritten instructions to the ship's commander, John Bartlett, on purchasing slaves in Angola for sale in the Americas. Also amongst the pages are the names of other Bristol merchants and businessmen investing in the Jason's slaving voyage.

Dr Madge Dresser, Associate Professor in History at the Regional History Centre at UWE Bristol says: 'The Becher volume affords a unique and rare insight into the workings of the Atlantic slave economy in the eighteenth century, on racial attitudes and on the occupational structure of Bristol itself.

"It details, for example, the transactions between Bristol merchants and their Carolina agents who speak of 'Negroes' as trading commodities for whom a good price must be obtained in precisely the same tone as they discuss the rice and deerskins they also trafficked.

“A list of ship's provisioners unexpectedly reveals that women were among the smiths and gunsmiths who supplied goods and services for the voyage to Angola, which among other things suggests that gender divisions in work were not always as rigidly observed as sometimes thought. It also records the networks of prominent Bristolian men who governed the city and also came together to do business in the triangular and transatlantic trades.”

The accounts provide details of the exact costs of fitting out the ship, the provisions taken on board for the first leg of the journey, the type and value of the cargo from Bristol to Africa (including cotton goods, brandy and guns), the return leg to Bristol loaded up with rice, sugar and other goods, and the profits made by the merchants.

Allie Dillon, senior archivist at Bristol Record Office says: “There is no doubting the historical significance of this book and its legacy. It records what was once considered a legitimate, commercial business – with an eye for the huge potential end profit. It is important that this book is part of our archive and that it is available for people to study. The book is in a fragile condition but we have already digitised its contents so that it can be read by visitors to the Record Office.

“Thanks to generous support from the Friends of Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives and the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund we have been able to return this unique book to its city of origin and for the first time, we can make it available for research.”

Councillor Simon Cook, assistant mayor, with responsibility for culture, comments: “This book is a deeply moving account of a particular time in Bristol's history. Trading in human life to make money in any era makes for chilling reading and it is through access to these original sources that we are better able comprehend the city's past.

“And while we readily acknowledge and take comfort from the fact that many Bristolians were amongst the most vocal and active abolitionists, we should never forget that some of the city's forefathers were at the heart of the slave trade.”

The accounts book also holds an insight into domestic life at 12 College Green. Some forty years later, Becher's wife, Bridget, used the back pages for her household accounts from March 1790 to January 1818. Servants' names and their quarterly wages and expenditure ranging from sugar loaves, coffee and ribbons to coal, laundry and taxes are carefully accounted.

Dr Dresser, adds: "These pages offer researchers a glimpse of how a genteel household was managed at that time, revealing along the way how much servants were paid and how much 'ladies of leisure' actually needed to do to keep the home fires burning."

Two key extracts from Cranfield Becher's accounts:

· The Jason left Bristol in 1743 with a cargo of cotton goods, brass and pewter goods, guns and other weapons and brandy. …. “We have put a cargo of goods on board…amounting to the sum of two thousand seven hundred forty two pounds one shilling & sixpence, which you are to dispose of for as many likely negros as our ship can conveniently carry, taking care not to purchase any that are old or decrepit nor young children, and from the largeness of our cargo, we hope that you will be able to bring off a good quantity of elephants teeth besides.”

· Regarding the sale of slaves in the Americas…. “There has been for some time past such a large duty on negros at Carolina that the importation of them into that colony has been thereby prohibited, but the duty ceases on the fifth day of July next, and as it may happen that by long passages or being detain'd at Angola you may be in time to reap the benefit of that market.”

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